Book Review: A Nuclear Winter’s Tale

By Pranav V

Title: A Nuclear Winter’s Tale – Science and Politics in the 1980s
Author: Lawrence Badash
Publisher: MIT Press (2009)

The contention between scientific conjecturing, and its radical impact on a politically pre-moulded public opinion, stretches to the scientific revolution itself. The near instinctual opposition fashioned by the State against politically destabilising postulations, is understandable as it undermines the State’s narrative of legitimacy and reason. However, when a scientific conjecture begins to cast doubt on humanity’s very existence, it gains a frenzied political momentum of its own.

Lawrence Badash in his book, “A Nuclear Winter’s Tale,” sheds light on one such instance during 1983-85, where Carl Sagan, with several other renowned contemporary scientists, concluded that a terrible winter of immeasurable proportions would engulf the post-nuclear-war ridden planet. The scale of the Winter, caused in part by the rising sunlight-deflecting soot from smouldering cities, would extinguish most if not all lifeforms in the planet – including humans. Such studies, Badash notes, were based on several one-dimensional simulations of tropospheric and stratospheric volatility alongside oceanographic analysis, which reinforced each other’s findings to a point of largely irrefutable evidence. Furthermore, Badash’s careful and detailed analysis of the debate clearly illustrates its novelty – an externally driven scientifically founded wedge into nuclear weapons and security policy.

The political consequences for the Regan administration, as Badash keenly notes in the second half of the book, were tremendous during the time-period. Frenzied by the notion of torturous death by incineration or starvation and the parallels the nuclear winter drew to super-volcanic eruptions and asteroid collisions, popular imagination peaked to a near feverish level. The fact that non-aligned and non-participatory nations would face equal, if not greater devastation post a ‘limited war’ of even 100Megatons, seemed to challenge existing policies. Hostility towards scientists, however, also grew, as people questioned their neutrality – given Carl Sagan’s narrative dominance in popular-media. With the backdrop of generalised public and government suspicion, given the community’s historically low profile, the sudden and drastic public move orchestrated by Sagan deeply perturbed many in the masses.

Yet, as Badash noted, overall public uproar was fleeting – lasting a mere three years with vehement opposition from the State. A suggested reason was the notion that a Nuclear Winter, already based on simplified one-dimensional simulations, only reinforced the undesirability of a nuclear war, and in itself failed to really solve the problems of escalation and mutual deterrence. Thus, although it provided good raw material for further strategic evaluation – like that of managing food security, it was largely neglected in Washington – that considered its findings as incidental. Furthermore, as suggested by Badash, it is possible that the gradual end of the Cold War dampened the hype of the Nuclear Winter. It has rarely ever re-surfaced in political debates since. The nuclear winter theory, moderated by a nuclear autumn theory, soon passed out of public imagination forever.

Badash, studying first as a physicist, and later pursuing the newly opened field of history of physics, has a distinctively objective perspective over nuclear physics and its associated politics. A one-time chair of the American Physical Society’s history of physics forum, he has authored many influential and varied works that pre-dominantly pivot around nuclear studies.  His familiarity with the verbiage of scientific research, alongside its causal relations and mathematical consequences, give his narrative style its characteristic flair – as opposed to a traditional historian.

A professor of the history of physical sciences at UCSB, Badash had a unique approach towards integrating natural sciences with human sciences; his course “The Atomic Age” integrated the political, economical, societal and scientific dimensions of the nuclear era as it introduced students to the political implications of the doomsday clock.

Driven by a strong sense of social justice, only further ignited by his intensive research on nuclear weapons, Badash is profoundly influenced by Ernest Rutherford – the pioneer of radioactivity. His initial research interest in the life of Rutherford is palpable, as the same echoes through many of his writings – from “Radioactivity in America” to his editing of “Rutherford and Boltwood: Letters on Radioactivity”. A champion and forerunner in the field of physical science history, Badash has certainly left his mark in Academia.

Meticulous and analytical, in many ways ‘A Nuclear Winter’s tale’ is both a cumulation and a culmination of several of Badash’s research works and is ideal to understand the nexus between nuclear science and foreign policy. Having documented several trends in sequential fashion and thematically analysing the same, the book packs several data-points of scientific papers, enquiries and the subsequent protocols pursued by the government and the independent scientific community, that buttress the book’s conclusions. Its analysis of the public role of scientists – particularly when they let loose their cataclysmic and apocalyptic theories to the masses – is novel, given its depth and academic rigour.

At its core, however, the book analyses the dynamics between the scientific elite, a concerned public and a democratic state at an important juncture in history. Those inclined towards policy analysis, international relations or topics pertaining to national security would find this book particularly insightful.

Pranav is a graduate of Takshashila’s Strategic Studies Programme. Views expressed on the blog are the author’s own and do not constitute Takshashila’s policy recommendations.