Friday, June 26, 2009

Ground Zero Theatre

Yes, that's actually what they call the small screening room (in a simulated bomb shelter) at the Atom Testing Museum in beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada. (Just blocks from the Strip on one side and the Clark County Library on the other. The library has a vast ongoing book sale that makes it one of the best used bookstores in Las Vegas.)

The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, is dedicated to the history of testing nuclear devices, from the days of the Manhattan Project up to the present. I thought the science was explained pretty well (Alan, the physicist, says it was adequate for lay people). I certainly will never forget the excerpt of Disney's Our Friend the Atom film. The excerpt skipped old Walt himself, but included a German scientist, hundreds of mousetraps armed with ping-pong balls, Atomic Energy as a Tom of Finland-style genie whom we can finally control, and a non-turning globe firmly focused on the Western hemisphere. Radioactivity was portrayed as a jitterbugging atom-headed creature in tie and tails, animated in every sense, leaping from one element to another. And there are rows of Geiger counters, inactive bomb cases, and vast drillheads to delight the techies.

The museum provides plenty of social context -- the Einstein letter, some newsreels, and a lot of snippets from television. The earlier ones I found utterly fascinating, because by God that was the world I was born into. There is a 1940s/1950s era office complete with--"Look, Alan, a *real* telephone!" And a non-electric typewriter, and various other objects that have faded into prehistory. The display of pop-culture atomic allusions was mostly amusing, but the cover of the old Life or Look magazine on the children of the atomic scientists was utterly chilling. Headline trumpeting that these kids have been through a score of nuclear tests. Mushroom cloud rising in the background; in the foreground, a dozen kids prone in their unnaturally clean play clothes. It didn't look like a test. It looked like a tidy massacre.

Nuclear testing is more than blowing up Bikini Atoll or the kind of underground nuclear testing that seems so routine today. They tested the relative effectiveness of aerial versus surface detonation. They tested the effects of radioactivity on various house materials. The museum even features a facsimile bomb shelter that was used in testing shelters, complete with its blond, blue-eyed mannequins: brave Dad on his feet looking about him in curiosity, seated Mom in a dark-blue wrap dress with her face turned toward Junior in his overalls. They didn't show that in fifteen years or so Junior would be a long-haired antiwar protester, Dad would be an alcoholic, and Mom would be coming out as a lesbian textile artist (after her time in the psychiatric hospital).

In addition to the testing itself, the museum gave a nod to the test sites: geology, history, and meaning to the indigenous peoples who found the arid land a sacred place of plenty. Looking at the tools they shaped, I had to ponder that they used the land with more love and more productivity than we did, and left it living for the next generation. Well, until we started exploding thermonuclear devices over, under, and on it. On the other hand, the Nevada Test Site is still used as a training ground for first responders from all over the US to learn to deal with radiation emergencies and hazardous waste.

We checked out the museum shop, looking for Ellen Klages' superb books on the kids at Los Alamos: The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace. No dice. So I stopped at the cash register to mention them. Although the cashier seemed indifferent, the bookstore manager overheard and came out to get details. She'd been looking for books that would help kids understand it all. With the help of the iPhone, Alan was even able to provide the ISBN numbers.

Then out again into the 109-degree heat and heavy traffic of Flamingo Road. On the next block we saw two women -- one in a bikini -- trying to cross against the light. Nobody stopped for them. Nobody even paused to look.

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