NUCLEAR FEAR: A History of Images by Spencer R. Weart

NUCLEAR FEAR: A History of Images

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Weart (American Institute of Physics), author of a penetrating study of French atomic scientists, here provides a history of the iconography of nuclear energy. Recounting that history as a study in the ""old, autonomous features"" of our society, culture, and psychology, he argues that this archaic iconography distracts us from the real problems posed by ""suspect technology."" Nuclear energy, in Weart's analysis, has become the ""modern arcanum,"" the ""full symbolic representation of the entire bundle of themes involving personal, social and cosmic destruction and rebirth."" Weart exhaustively traces the recurring imagery of this arcanum, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of radiation to the war-tear revival of the early 80's. Drawing on prodigious source material and employing a protean methodology, the author uncovers a veritable taxonomy of imagery. He reads the historical development of this iconography as the projection of hidden thoughts. During the ""Years of Fantasy"" (1903-38) the ""magical transmutation of society and the individual"" came to be prefigured in the widespread imagery of the White City, the destroyed planet, transforming rays, and monstrous creatures. During the years of ""Confronting Reality"" (1939-59) and ""New Hopes and Horrors"" (1953-63), this ""bipolar structure of hopeful and fearful images"" acquired immediacy as idle speculation turned into vivid expectations. With the advent of ""Suspect Technology"" (1956-86), this symmetry was broken, as an ""entire technology and indeed an entire part of physical reality"" came to be regarded with irremediable distrust. Concluding that this history has run its course, Weart maintains that ""our secret thoughts have come into the open at last, taking form in metal so that we can deny them no longer."" An intrepid work of scholarship that significantly advances the state-of-the-art of the nuclear question.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press