Nuclear war, or how I learned to stop worrying as I was vaporized
Well in the history of humankind, it’s been a hot second since we didn’t have the impending threat of nuclear war. While I would like to believe that the possibility of a nuclear attack is so remote we shouldn’t even worry about it, the truth is I would rather be prepared than not. So let’s talk a little bit about the history of nuclear warfare and how it’s shaped our world even today. Things like, have you ever wondered why shampoo and conditioner were sold separately? Hint, it involves nuclear warfare.
For those who didn’t grow up in the cold war, myself included frankly, this may feel like unfamiliar territory. The military trains us for nuclear warfare, but the fact of the matter is, what they told us wasn’t so much helpful as it was eye opening. There’s a reason it’s called mutually assured destruction (MAD, which is apt if you ask me). While we’ve had open nuclear testing in recent history, it hasn’t happened since 1962 (more). That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been tests since, just that they were moved to underground and for good reason.
Fallout can, and does, have lasting effects from birth defects to higher risk of cancers. Because of our fascination of nuclear warfare and “the bomb” we know very well the long term risks and some of the stories about how we figured that our are sadder than I would like to admit. Moreover, nuclear testing was so prevalent that it’s made it possible to carbon date human tissue TO THIS DAY! Don’t worry, if we don’t go to war or take steps backwards, the effect should only last for a few more decades (more here).
Nuclear war, like it or not, has had a lasting impact on humanity. From Dr. Strangelove (which I semi- referenced in the title because it seemed appropriate) to shampoo. Yes, that’s right I said it, the threat of nuclear war changed the way we buy our shampoo.
Back when I was in high school a teacher made an offhand comment that stuck with me. He said that shampoo and conditioner used to be sold in the same bottle and there was no reason for them to be seperate except for companies to make more money. I thought this was odd since by volume they aren’t really making more money and if anything the added costs to manufacture two bottles instead of a single bottle, would (in my opinion) offset any profit, so I looked into it. Turns out this switch happened at the (previous) height of nuclear tensions when everyone was afraid and the best defense was building your own personal bomb shelter.
The reason is conditioner. Looking into it, conditioner can (in theory) trap nuclear fallout in the hair follicle. So companies started selling them separately in the case of fallout. The issue stems from how your hair is made and what happens naturally. Your hair looks almost like scales and those scales can come apart somewhat so you end up with something that under a microscope looks like a pinecone. Conditioner “conditions” by binding these to the main hair, think closing the pine cone. When this occurs the radioactive fallout can get trapped inside with it, which needless to say, is not a good thing (more).
The threat of nuclear war has shaped our society in a lot of ways we don’t even realize, certainly I would’ve never thought conditioner. But with great power, comes great responsibility… right? You would probably imagine that nuclear weapons, being the greatest and most fearsome invention mankind has ever created (talk about innoventive ways to kill each other…), that we would guard them with so many redundancies that there would be little to no chance of having an accident. Well you would be half right, there are some redundancies in nuclear weapons, but, and this is with regard to the US in particular, our handling of nuclear weapons has been, well lax is an understatement.
We don’t call accidents with nuclear weapons accidents though, that would be too easy. No, we call them broken arrows. Since the 1950 there have been 32 “broken arrows” to date. From the website I’m linking a little further down, a broken arrow is an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of the weapon (all broken arrows here). Notice, loss… there are currently six (six!) nuclear weapons floating around that we lost, we have no idea where they are or if they are even where we lost them. Mostly that’s from submarines sinking or things of that nature, typically involving the ocean, which joy (more on the six).
These are the ones we know about, I would venture to guess there are at least a few dozen, if not more, that are “classified” so we don’t get to know about them. This wouldn’t be the first time the government has withheld information from the people, I mean look at MKUltra, but that’s another post all on its own, which now that I bring it up, I kind of want to do.
Anyway, one of my favorite (or rather incredibly terrifying) broken arrow incidents involves an accident in 1961, where a B-52 transporting a live nuclear weapon CAME APART MID AIR over north carolina. Seriously, the amount of money the government spends on its military and this shit happens. The official story goes like this, which is probably in reality far worse, not one, but TWO nuclear weapons dropped. One hit a tobacco farm and lodged itself so deep that parts of it were never found.
The second parachuted down (like it’s supposed to so it can detonate mid air, causing the most damage when the blast shoots downward). This didn’t detonate thankfully, instead it landed and stuck out of the ground like something out of a doomsday horror movie. The bomb, which was 260 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was protected by four redundant safeties, because no one apparently cares about nuclear weapons, THREE of the four safeties had failed. Only a simple electrical switch prevented its detonation (more). That article by the way, suggest THOUSANDS more compared to the 32 we know about. As the article concludes, the engineers of the bombs clearly did good work since we’ve never had one detonate that we didn’t intend to. However, a lot of that was just dumb luck, which is certainly a phrase I like hearing when we talk about nuclear weapons.
Now for the sad fact. Should you or someone you love see the blast of a nuclear weapon, it’s probably too late. As I was told in the military, say your goodbyes, because if you’re that close you’re not in for a fun trip. Warning this link is graphic, disturbing, and you’ll probably sleep better never knowing that something like this had happened (you’ve been warned). That link talks about exactly how we know what happens when you suffer from radiation poisoning. It’s not pretty and I don’t recommend anyone reading it, seriously I’m not saying that to drum up hype or get you to click the link. It was something I learned about in the military and wish I could forget it. Just trust me on this, it’s not a good way to die. I won’t even go into details in case you don’t want to know and I certainly don’t blame you.
If you are far enough away, keep in mind a few things. Conditioner is obviously a no-no, but also your thyroid likes to absorb radiation. Thankfully, we know that iodine helps prevent build up of radiation. Keep that in mind if you wake up in a nuclear hellscape (more). If you’re like me and worry about these sorts of things, you should also know that fallout shelters are basically everywhere thanks to the decades of nuclear fear (more here). There are signs generally speaking, but keep in mind that fallout shelters are not the same as nuclear blast shelters, one offers some protection from fallout, the other provides protection if you’re close to a bomb being dropped. The later are far more rare and you’re better off just hoping you’re not in the area of a nuclear weapon going off.
In short, it’s a scary time we find ourselves in. I find comfort in the fact that we’ve survived a similar time, but that’s a small comfort when we find ourselves right in the same situation again. Personally nuclear weapons were a horrible invention and while I understand the urge to build and have them, I also don’t understand unleashing that kind of destructive power on people. So far the US has been the only country to do it, which is not something I’m proud to say, but I’m not very proud of the US anyway. Especially since the bombs dropped were possibly just for show of force. Not that we’ll ever know for certain one way or the other.
Oh a few more not so fun facts in case you didn’t want to sleep. I’m a Dr. Strangelove fan, but if you’re not here’s a good article that talks about how most of the stuff in the movie is/was true (here). Since most of the things I’ve talked about were 50+ years ago, here’s something somewhat more recent. In 1983 a computer glitch in moscow warned that we (the US) had launched five nuclear weapons that were headed directly for Russia. The person in charge picked up the phone and said it was a false alarm, thankfully, or we probably wouldn’t be talking about this today (more).
In short, it’s a bleak time and I hate that we have to talk about this as any sort of current event, but again I’m hopeful that we’re just worrying for nothing. Still, better safe than sorry and sometimes safe just means understanding how we got here.
Hopefully this helps instead of stressing you out.