My favourite episode of David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks: The Return is the innocuously titled “Gotta Light?” A lot of strange and terrifying things happen in that episode, but by far the strangest, the most terrifying, and oddly the most beautiful event is a dramatization of the first successful atomic bomb test in 1945 New Mexico.
Lynch brings the viewer deep into the blast, into the very heart of the evil that permeates the universe of Twin Peaks while Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” screeches ominously. Through abstract imagery, Lynch vividly evokes the feeling of confronting something too horrifying to process logically. This is how nuclear weapons should make us feel: wide-eyed and completely terrified, not just because they could be used against “us” but because these incomprehensibly destructive tools exist at all.
This is how I felt watching a sampling of around 250 newly released videos of US atomic bomb tests uploaded to YouTube this week by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Livermore is a national defence lab that focuses on the US’s nuclear stockpile, and part of its work is digitizing and analyzing footage from past tests. The US conducted 210 domestic bomb tests between 1945 and 1962. In the intervening decades, thousands of films from these tests were left to collect dust and decompose in vaults around the country.
Now, Livermore is working to rescue these films and digitize them for preservation and analysis before they’ve deteriorated. Livermore has already declassified and uploaded hundreds of bomb test videos to the internet, which this week's dump added to significantly. The digitized videos allow the library to push stockpile science forward—the first analyses of these videos were done manually, whereas now scientists use computers—and to educate the public.
“We hope that we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again,” LLNL weapons physicist Greg Spriggs said in a press release for a batch of declassified bomb test videos last year. “I think that if we capture the history of this and show what the force of these weapons are and how much devastation they can wreak, then maybe people will be reluctant to use them.”
Here are a couple videos that rival even Lynch’s portrayal of the weapon that changed everything:
Operation Hardtack II was a last-minute sprint to conduct weapons tests with new designs before a brief moratorium on nuclear tests in 1958. Thirty-seven blasts were carried out in total, with four occurring on the last day before the moratorium.
Operation Dominic consisted of 31 nuclear tests in 1962, responding to the resumption of bomb tests by the Soviet Union.
Operation Teapot consisted of 14 bomb blasts in Nevada in 1955.
Operation Hardtack I took place in 1958, and included more nuclear detonations (35) than had ever been unleashed in the Pacific Ocean before.
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