The Improbable Historian
How the scholar who created the viral hit NUKEMAP plans to reinvent Civil Defense.
When Alex Wellerstein first posted NUKEMAP to the internet in 2012, he didn’t think much would happen. Now a historian of nuclear weapons at Stevens Institute of Technology, Wellerstein had invented the tool—which lets users tinker with dropping more than two dozen kinds of nuclear bombs on any location, including their own neighborhood—back in his college days, as a way to help him visualize the scale and impact of nuclear detonations. “I’m terrible with numbers, just really, awfully bad,” says Wellerstein, 36. “I can’t visualize them at all. A bomb destroying two square miles? I have no innate ability to picture what that means.”
But he knew code. So he threw together a program using MapQuest and slapped on a crude interface. The tool was clunky, but useful—an updated version of the “circles of death” diagrams that were used to visualize nuclear weapons effects in the Cold War. But it wasn’t until years later, when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the American Institute of Physics, that he thought about making it public. “I’d been looking at Cold War maps of where the US thought the Soviet Union might attack, and I thought it would be a neat thing to digitize,” he says. So he dusted off his old code and put it on Google Maps. Then he wrote NUKEMAP in all caps and tossed it out to the internet.
NUKEMAP got 10,000 hits within a week. Wellerstein thought that was great. He blogged about it. Inexplicably, his blog post got picked up by a UK tabloid. “They wrote about how NUKEMAP was this amazing viral hit, which was totally false,” Wellerstein explains. “But from there, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Wellerstein scurried to add more features to the site to make it worthy of such demand: a casualty estimator, a mushroom-cloud dimensions calculator, and a fallout model showing how far radioactive contamination might go. Since then, NUKEMAP users have set off 149.8 million detonations on the site, which gets 15,000 views on a slow day.
“The reality is that the NUKEMAP’s creation is one of these uninteresting stories where you remember a piece of old code on a Thursday for no reason and rewrite it over the weekend and it takes off a week later in a way you never would have expected,” summarizes Wellerstein. “It’s an utterly unlikely outcome.”
In some ways, Wellerstein’s whole career has been unlikely. Growing up in Stockton, California, in the late 80s and early 90s, he had no particular job trajectory in mind. “I knew I wanted to do interesting things, but what does that mean?” says Wellerstein. Then he went to Berkeley, and two things happened. First, he took an American history course that proved transformative. His high schooler’s view of history as a list of dates and political moments to memorize was replaced with a feeling that the stories we tell about the past deeply shape our understanding of the present and the possible future.
Second, he started nosing around Berkeley’s archives. Drawn to the study of the history of science and technology, Wellerstein began working closely with historian of physics Cathryn Carson on the early history of the nuclear age. Then he stumbled on something surprising: evidence of deep connections between the left-leaning university and the development of nuclear weapons. “Berkeley was still at that time the primary contractor for the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs,” says Wellerstein. “It was all sort of hidden in plain sight.” He went on to write two undergraduate theses: one on history of compulsory sterilization in California, and a second on the University of California and the management of nuclear weapons. He became hooked on the work of historical research, taking the detective work of the archive and piecing it into a new story about the past.
“I never in a million years would have guessed that this is what I would do with my life,” reflects Wellerstein, who went from Berkeley to Harvard for a PhD. “It’s improbable that anyone would be a historian of science, frankly. There are not that many jobs. Nobody even knows what it is.” Also improbable: that Wellerstein would become one of a dozen or so historians of science in the world who focus primarily on nuclear weapons, and, within that, the only one focused on nuclear secrecy—an area he says is less understood than most aspects of the bomb. “It’s this whole history that most people weren’t really thinking about after the Cold War ended, and yet was incredibly interesting and incredibly rich and still relevant,” says Wellerstein, who compulsively collects declassified FBI files on weapons designers, and has a computer dedicated to scraping the CIA’s websites for declassified PDFs and turning them into a searchable database. “You can just keep digging and there is always more to find. I still haven’t gotten close to exhausting it.”
“IT’S IMPROBABLE THAT ANYONE WOULD BE A HISTORIAN OF SCIENCE. THERE ARE NOT THAT MANY JOBS. NOBODY EVEN KNOWS WHAT IT IS.”
More improbability followed. There was NUKEMAP and the UK tabloid, of course. Then there was Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, which he also launched as a postdoc. In academia, writing for popular audiences is a highly uncommon practice capable of obliterating your tenure and job chances. Against all advice, Wellerstein blogged anyway. “I wanted an academic job, but I was more interested in being somebody whose expertise in the field is seen as useful for a broader conversation,” explains Wellerstein, who also sells nuclear-themed t-shirts and mugs through the blog. “I started it as a way to raise a flag and say, ‘Hey everybody, I work on this topic and I’ve found all sorts of neat things. Here is my stuff.’ I had the idea that if I got really good at that, there might be an institution willing to support this work.”
There was. Restricted Data drew attention—and lecture invitations. One came from Stevens Institute of Technology, an institution that tends to welcome scholars who do nontraditional work and, against all odds, also had a job opening. (About 10 tenure-track jobs in the history of science come available in the US each year, often with more than 100 applicants for each job.) Wellerstein, who hadn’t applied anywhere else, got the position. Then, as he describes it, “the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage kicked in, and everything snowballed.” One interesting opportunity led to another, from working as a historical advisor to the nuclear-themed television show Manhattan to being invited to write for The New Yorker’s science blog. “I get to spend all of my time doing things that I find interesting at my own direction while being able to pay the rent,” he says. “The whole thing feels kind of ridiculous sometimes.”
Now, Wellerstein has set out to create on purpose what he created years ago with NUKEMAP by accident—modern tools for communicating nuclear risk that gain wide cultural resonance. For years, Wellerstein has nurtured an interest in Cold War-era Civil Defense, the almost hokey public programs rolled out in the 1950s and 1960s to help prepare everyday Americans for nuclear attack. In academia, Wellerstein says, Civil Defense is mostly just mocked. “Films like Duck and Cover are easy to make fun of, and some of the pamphlets about how to be in your fallout shelter make it look like this is just something you do on a Sunday afternoon, reading a magazine while nuclear war is happening outside.”
But the more he studied Civil Defense, the less smug he felt. “’Duck and cover’ is pretty sound advice for the threat situation of 1952, if you’re imagining not very many bombs, only of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki range, and you’re living a bit out from ground zero,” he says. After talking to people who had crouched under plenty of desks during that era, he started to think that Civil Defense had a strong upside. “Essentially everyone I’ve met who did those drills says that they made the threat feel real—and that’s exactly the feeling that is missing today,” says Wellerstein. “One of our problems with nuclear policy in this country is that most people feel totally disconnected from it, and that makes it very hard to make it a political issue or to get support for a law or for reform. If you had more people feeling like their futures and lives and livelihoods were directly invested in those questions, you could potentially translate that into political action.”
In 2017, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—two of N Square’s founding funders—put out an RFP for “projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.” Wellerstein submitted a proposal for what he dubbed Reinventing Civil Defense, a two-year multidisciplinary effort to explore how to bring the threats posed by nuclear weapons back into popular consciousness through a reimagined public education strategy. Wellerstein—along with two of his colleagues at Stevens, Kristyn Karl, a political psychologist who does experiments in risk perception, and Julie Pullen, an oceanographer who has predicted how weapons fallout might disburse in coastal cities—won one of 11 grants awarded. The project also has a set of outside advisors, several of whom, like Wellerstein, are members of the N Square Innovators Network.
Wellerstein doesn’t see the prospect of rekindling Civil Defense as remotely farfetched, especially given the sharp rise of public and government interest in nuclear disaster response in the wake of North Korea’s missile testing. If anything, he thinks that ditching the Cold War-era Civil Defense is what led to the present-day predicament of nuclear threat feeling more remote than real. But one thing is certain: the new iteration he’s aiming for will not look quite like the old one. Rather than pamphlets and films, Wellerstein and his colleagues are exploring the development of virtual reality games, apps, graphic novels, and other digital products and tools geared toward a modern audience. “The big question,” says Wellerstein, “is what would nonpartisan, non-delusional Civil Defense look like for the 21st century?”
NUKEMAP may offer some clues. Ample research suggests that the kind of active learning that NUKEMAP offers—where learners interact with information and come to their own insights—creates deeper engagement and understanding. Approaches to Civil Defense that enable individuals to “discover” something on their own might work similarly well. Some educators have started using NUKEMAP to tell a story about what happens when a bomb goes off, creating a kind of emotional resonance that a circle on a map might not otherwise—and drawing focus to the magnitude of the lived effects of nuclear bombs. And a NUKEMAP-based presentation Wellerstein likes to give to help students grasp the difference in scale between the Hiroshima bomb and the first hydrogen bomb has similar impact. “Everyone gasps,” says Wellerstein. “If you can get a 19-year-old to audibly gasp at something in a lecture, then you’ve done something powerful.”
“THE BIG QUESTION IS WHAT WOULD NONPARTISAN, NON-DELUSIONAL CIVIL DEFENSE LOOK LIKE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY?”
Turning what to many seems like a remote and theoretical threat—that a nuclear weapon would be deployed in our lifetime—into a felt reality worth preparing for won’t be easy, of course. But history offers hope. “The history of public health is full of examples of how a bunch of academic-type people hacked the culture on a major scale,” Wellerstein says. That older people sneeze into their hands while younger ones sneeze into their elbow, he explains, is entirely learned behavior. “Public health essentially rebuilt the infrastructure and the way in which people thought. It did this by teaching children in particular new, embodied practices—like how to sneeze and how to drink water—that made them act as if they live in a world in which there are germs and viruses, even if they can’t be seen. This was the translation of theoretical knowledge into really practical knowledge. I take a lot of inspiration from that sort of thing.”
That nuclear threats have become near-daily headline news these days makes Reinventing Civil Defense particularly timely. “I try not to get worried about things, but I feel like the chances of something really awful occurring are higher than most people are willing to admit—certainly higher than they have been in my conscious lifetime.” It’s not total annihilation that worries him, though. “It’s the United States putting aside this legacy of norms that have built up—never easily, never uncontestably—over decades, things like non-nuclear use, a stockpile that goes down but doesn’t go up, the cessation of nuclear testing,” Wellerstein explains. “If those things change, then it becomes very hard to know what the future might be, and most of the possibilities are not positive.”
Wellerstein says that many people are skeptical when they hear about his hopes for Reinventing Civil Defense. But once he explains the concept, they think it sounds interesting, maybe even promising. That’s good, he says. “But it’s also a little disturbing to me that, for many people, it’s starting to seem like a great idea. That’s maybe as much of a sign of where we are as a world as anything else. ”