AIP | Matters
-- -- March 12, 2012

Alex Wellerstein Director's Matters

Guest column by Alex Wellerstein, associate historian, Center for History of Physics

Physics history gone viral

Since 1945, nuclear weapons have remained "relevant," and, for better or worse, will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future. As a citizen of the world, that's arguably a depressing thought. But for an historian of nuclear weapons, this provides ample opportunities for looking at how our understanding of the past can materially change how we make sense of the present.

I joined AIP in August as the new associate historian postdoctoral fellow. I work in the Center for History of Physics as an on-call historian of science, and when I don't have specific duties for AIP, I am encouraged to work on my own research into the history of nuclear technology. Toward this end, I started a blog last November devoted to the history of nuclear secrecy, the topic of my forthcoming book. Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog has been a way to publicize my work, find a like-minded audience, and introduce myself to the many DC-based nuclear wonks.

nukemap On February 3, I introduced a new feature on the site which I dubbed "NUKEMAP." This was a Google Maps "mashup" which attempted to give a rough approximation of the main effects of the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Specifically, NUKEMAP allows a user to input an arbitrary location and an arbitrary explosive yield. By default, it targets wherever the user is accessing the site from, and gives a list of historical weapons yields to choose from.

When the user clicks "Detonate," colored circles are drawn upon the map corresponding to the size of the nuclear fireball, the ranges of 20 psi and 4.6 psi overpressures (the former would destroy most buildings, the latter mostly residential buildings), acute radiation exposure at a 500 rem dose (which has between 50% and 90% mortality rates), and thermal radiation of sufficient energy to impart third-degree burns and start small fires (~10 calories/cm2). Qualitative descriptions accompany the visual image.

From a physics perspective, NUKEMAP is a simplistic model. It assumes an optimum burst height (not likely in any nuclear terrorism scenarios) and completely ignores topography, weather, wind, building types, and at the present, does not attempt to display fallout. It does not take into account numerous other effects associated with nuclear weapons, such as atmospheric focusing or anything related to specialized designs (e.g., enhanced radiation warheads, or even changed fission/fusion ratios). From an educational standpoint, though, NUKEMAP allows even someone without any prior physics education to get an instant, qualitative view of the effects of idealized nuclear weapons charted over distances that are intimately familiar to them.

NUKEMAP is not the first online nuclear effects mapper, but it combines an easy and familiar interface with a wider range of qualitative effects. I expected it to be of some interest to the general public, but I didn't build it to coincide with any particular political agenda or even to capitalize on the latest nuclear news.

So I was caught off guard when it went viral on February 15. It was first picked up by two prominent UK tabloids, and from there diffused to Facebook, Twitter, and smaller blogs. From these multiple "small" traffic sources, it would then again get picked up by a large, centralized traffic source, which would then drive it to more "small" sources, and so on in an alternating fashion.

Over the course of the next three weeks, this viral surge brought over 600,000 unique visitors who would use the NUKEMAP application, detonating over 3 million "bombs." My logs show that most people were setting off weapons primarily in their own hometowns, and that they were primarily experimenting to see the effects of the very smallest and the very largest historical nuclear weapons.

As an educator, what I've taken away from this is that people are still as interested as ever in nuclear weapons (especially historical ones), that pedagogical tools that give users simple flexibility to engage and try new things probably have much more popular appeal than those where the options are more fixed and limited. I've also found that nobody tires of making bad puns about nuclear sites "exploding" onto the web scene.
Physics Resources Matters

CiSE exhibits at APS March meeting

At the March meeting of the American Physical Society in Boston, AIP's magazine marketing director Jeff Bebee staffed the Computing in Science and Engineering (CiSE) booth. Over the course of the meeting, at least 115 attendees signed up for new subscriptions. More than 600 APS members subscribe to CiSE, making APS the second-largest source of CiSE readers (second only to the IEEE Computer Society, which publishes CiSE jointly with AIP).
Publishing Matters

Birthday bash and anniversary reception for AIP journals

Attendees of the AIP Advances birthday bash help to celebrate the journal's first anniversary. Two AIP journals celebrated big anniversaries recently at the APS March Meeting, annually one of the largest gatherings of physicists in the world. Applied Physics Letters memorialized its golden 50th on Sunday night of the conference with an off-site reception that was attended by 65 people. On Wednesday night, AIP Advances celebrated the "Big One" with a party recognizing its first birthday. The festivities, held at a local Boston restaurant, attracted many graduate students despite a snowstorm. In addition to the birthday bash, Advances also sponsored wine and cheese receptions in the meeting's Exhibit Hall on both Monday and Tuesday of the conference. Participants say that, overall, the celebrations were lively and exciting events.
Prize Announcements
The APS March meeting afforded the opportunity to recognize several distinguished scientists for their contributions to science and to the community. Three of these awards were related to AIP. We proudly draw your attention to:
Fred Dylla (left) and APS President Bob Byer (right) present the Heineman award to Giovanni Jona-Lasinio.

  • Giovanni Jona-Lasinio, PhD, 2012 recipient of the Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics. Awarded on behalf of AIP and APS and sponsored by the Dannie Heineman Foundation, this Heineman Prize is given annually to recognize outstanding work in the field. Jona-Lasinio was honored "for contributions to the interaction between statistical mechanics, field theory, and the theory of elementary particles, including spontaneous symmetry breaking, critical phenomena, and a general theory of dissipative systems."For more information, see the press release.
  • Eric Fullerton, PhD, winner of the 2012 AIP Prize for Industrial Applications of Physics (IAP Prize). Fred Dylla presents the IAP Prize to Eric Fullerton. Sponsored by General Motors, the prize recognizes scientists who have developed proven industrial technologies. Fullerton's work on exchange-coupled magnetic recording media helped enable the last ten years' worth of growth in the storage densities of disk drives. Magnetic storage plays a key role in audio, video, and computer technology. The exponential growth of digital information contributes to continual demand for greater hard drive capacity. For more information, see the press release. APS will award the 2013 IAP Prize to recognize research that has excellent potential for future success.
  • Plyler Prize award winner Andrei Tokmakoff Andrei Tokmakoff, PhD, recipient of the APS 2012 Earle K. Plyler Prize for Molecular Spectroscopy. This prize recognizes and encourages notable contributions to the field of molecular spectroscopy and dynamics. Tokmakoff was honored "for pioneering work in the development and application of two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy." He will be contributing a perspective article to the AIP Journal of Chemical Physics, sponsor of the award. In the meantime, check out Tokmakoff's podcast on the JCP website.
Off the Press
CiSE cover March–April 2012 issue (vol. 14, no. 2)

Guest editor Jeffrey Carver, University of Alabama, describes the key issues and ongoing concerns in the field of software engineering for computational science and engineering, and discusses how the articles in this special issue explore necessary solutions.
Coming Up

*All AIP Events listed below are in College Park, MD

Wednesday, March 21

  • Audit Committee meeting
  • AIP Executive Committee meeting

Thursday, March 22

  • Assembly of Society Officers

Friday, March 23

  • AIP Governing Board meeting

March 31–April 3

  • APS April Meeting, "100 Years of Cosmic Ray Physics" (Atlanta, GA)