NukeMap is an interactive data-visualization website that allows visitors to detonate virtual nuclear bombs on global targets of their choice.1 It is the creation of Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and technology who launched the site in early 2012. In NukeMap, the visitor selects a type of nuclear device, defining its size, or chooses from a menu of predefined options that model the effects that an actual historical bomb would have on a present-day target. Interactive-display options allow visitors to explore map layers and datasets such as blast radius, fallout pattern, and number of casualties. Hyperlinks connect to additional historical resources. He or she may, for example, see how much damage “Little Boy,” the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, would do if dropped on modern Mumbai, or “Gadget,” the bomb detonated over the New Mexican desert in the Trinity test, would do if dropped on Manhattan today (figs. 1, 2).
In the following conversation, we discuss Wellerstein’s production of Nuke-Map in the context of his background as both a historian and digital-media creator. The discussion focuses on how the project connects to both his own and others’ scholarly and pedagogical endeavors.2
The original NukeMap (shown in fig. 1) is two-dimensional. What motivated you, more recently, to make a 3-D version? [End Page 204]
In early 2013, I was asked if I could figure out from a photo of Hiroshima how tall the cloud was at a given moment. And I found I didn’t have any sense for what a thirty-thousand-foot cloud was. And so I modeled in Google Earth just a very simple cylinder that went up to twenty-thousand feet or so. Just nothing fancy. I just imported a cylinder and I was struck by, my God, twenty-thousand feet is high, right? That’s a big, big cloud for what we think of as a small bomb. That was the beginning.
Do you think of it as a historical project?
Definitely. I’d say that it’s very much a product of a historical mindset, even though in the end, it’s not an explicitly historical output. But since we’re talking about science that was developed in this really specific historical context [WWII and cold war nuclear physics]—and that’s where all the technical literature that you can find today comes from, and it’s necessary both to understand the science, and to be able to navigate through and interpret the historical materials—it is very much a synthesis of those things.
For example, picking a good model for displaying radioactive fallout was nontrivial. When I finally found one that looked like it would be adaptable to the code requirements, the copy of the report I had was [End Page 205] so bad you couldn’t read the equations. And so I had to go down to the National Library of Medicine and actually get an original copy of the report—it was the only place in the country that even had one—and make my own photocopies of it and really work with it, which is really … that’s what a historian does, right?
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Can you say more about working with the historical materials?