Tag Archives: physics

PBS’s Comprehensive and Illuminating Examination of THE BOMB

THE BOMB

on PBS


(5/5)

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering


Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary


From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American Experience, The Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.


While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.


Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.


 

The documentary at the PBS website.

“…now I am become death…the destroyer of worlds:” HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

on Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Accessible, captivating,  and informative, with a wealth of astounding archival footage

Cons:  Actual interviews not included

Made for the Discovery Channel networks and first broadcast in mid 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity Test, How We Built the Bomb takes the form of a dramatized documentary that tells the story of the American atomic program from start to finish. The program (two hours with commercials) begins with the now-famous letter written by Albert Einstein warning American president Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany may in fact be working on a “superbomb” that would be powered not by conventional explosives, but by splitting the atom. As America enters World War II in the coming years, a priority is placed on unlocking the secrets of nuclear fission and developing a uranium or plutonium based explosive device (referred to by scientists as “the gadget”) before the Germans did. This involved a large and incredibly secretive operation across several states, with the main research and development facility located in a remote section of the New Mexican desert.

scanned: May 2001 by Image Delivery Systems LLCSome of the many personnel involved in the Manhattan Project whose viewpoints are told in the documentary through re-imagined interviews.

Lacking a traditional narration, How We Built the Bomb (written by David Broodell) is told from the perspective of the people who worked on the so-called “Manhattan Project,” but instead of using actual archival interviews, the production is based around an extended series of recreated interviews with actors portraying the various scientists, military and support personnel, and others who found themselves involved in some way with this tremendous undertaking. At first, this approach seems awkward and maybe even reprehensible since the ongoing dialogue is fictionalized to an arguably large extent. As the program wore on however, I grew more and more absorbed in the unfolding story being told and found the format of the documentary to be less detrimental than I would have originally thought.

A billboard at the Oak Ridge FacilityDespite the government’s best efforts, security among project personnel was compromised on several occasions.

Along with these dramatized interviews, the program also presents a rather large amount of home movies and film footage taken by residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico (for all intents and purposes, the center of the R&D division of the Manhattan Project) during this era. When combined with the speakers, this footage goes a long way in not only telling a detailed history of the nuclear program, but also explaining what life was like for the scientists, spouses, military personnel and support staff who found themselves working on an underground project in a top secret location. Much of the program (rightfully) focuses on efforts to come to grips with the physics behind fission and put such theories into practice, but How We Built the Bomb also includes some rather humorous observations about the ways in which project personnel unwound after long hours in the lab. I found myself chuckling at explanations of what went into the highly alcoholic “tech area punch” that scientists consumed during their off hours and was similarly amused by one military man’s frustration at the fact that some eighty babies were born at the facility in 1944, indicating another method of stress relief practiced by the town’s residents.

nextgov-mediumSite of the Trinity Test, viewed after the first detonation in July, 1945.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary starts to ratchet up the tension level down the stretch when scientific theory doesn’t quite match up with actual experimental results and it becomes apparent that a new method of detonation must be sought. By this point in 1944, though the war in Europe is nearing its conclusion, a long, drawn-out and very costly invasion of Japan is imminent unless the bomb can be used to precipitate a quick end to the conflict. Accompanied by almost psychedelic music cues, the segment dealing with the initial Trinity Test, the world’s first detonation of an atomic weapon, is very deliberate in its construction which maximizes the impact of the event on a viewer. I should also state that while the program does chronicle the period up to and including the unconditional surrender of the Japanese following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these events are only briefly touched on; the documentary is clearly more focused on the actual development of the atom bomb, not its deployment.

One of the strongest aspects of the documentary is the way in which it breaks down complicated physics in a way that can be understood by viewers who in all likelihood don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the processes involved. Even if the interview subjects do on occasion go into lengthy and extremely complicated explanations of the mathematics involved in solving the problems of nuclear fission, they subsequently reveal what they were trying to accomplish in “layman’s terms.” An offscreen “interviewer” character (who a viewer is never truly introduced to) acts as the voice of the viewer at times, prompting the speakers to answer questions in a more straight-forward manner. Visuals and graphics that accompany these segments also aid in a viewer’s understanding of the concepts being discussed: I got a kick out of the now almost humorous vintage educational film footage utilized during certain segments, and nifty special effects attempt to visualize what actually happens when fission starts to take place in a nuclear device.

atomic_bomb_end_of_worldIt’s kind of scary that none of the scientists working on the project quite knew what would happen when an atomic detonation occurred – some feared that the blast would actually ignite the atmosphere.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the nuclear program was the fact that the scientists involved in making the atom bomb faced serious moral dilemmas. Truly, at the time it was only these scientists who fully comprehended what effect these weapons would have should they be used against enemy forces – or civilians – and many were vehemently opposed to the military deployment of “the gadget.” How We Built the Bomb deals with this issue about as well as one would expect or hope for in a program of this nature, prompting the viewer to question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were genuinely necessary. It’s worth noting that it was Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency of the United States after the death of FDR and only found out about the Manhattan Project after he had been sworn in, that actually authorized these attacks. One has to wonder if he was aware of what the consequences of this action would be, and in a modern society that’s gotten all-too-used to the idea of nuclear threat, it’s worth remembering that the United States is still the only nation that has ever used an atomic device against other human beings.

3241909-einstein-after-an-atom-bomb-test

When viewing this program, one is left with a sense of awe – not only with the power of the atomic bomb itself, a power which is hammered home time and again throughout the film, but with the fact that such a seemingly impossible scientific undertaking as to make such a device was accomplished in a short time under rather adverse conditions. No matter what one’s feelings are about nuclear weapons, it’s pretty amazing that scientists were able not only to understand how the fission process worked but also how it can be harnessed and (at least partially) controlled. Edited in a very capable manner with a quietly effective music score provided by Brendan Anderegg, How We Built the Bomb ultimately celebrates the tremendous scientific achievement that the bomb was the end result of. Although to an extent it makes the scientists involved out to be heroic figures, to its credit the program doesn’t necessarily present the bombing of Japan as a moment of triumph or jubilation, ending instead on a somber and even ominous note, with various blurbs from political speeches and news broadcasts reminding the viewer how fundamentally the world was changed with the advent of the bomb. I think that’s about as appropriate an end statement that could be made, and would whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to any interested viewer.

 

from on .