At first glance, Michael Lightís 100 Suns seemed to be just another glossy coffee table book. A second look and I thought it was one of those artsy-fartsy psychological tomes where colorful inkblots masquerade as swollen wombs or dead butterflies. Then I realized itís a collection of photographs depicting nuclear explosions. I thumbed through the pages intrigued by the horrific beauty of flame and shock wave and mushroom cloud.
To a child of the Cold War, such images called up memories of bomb shelters, missile silos and Russian warheads in Cuba. Living in an all-out arms race had its own special stress. The end of the world seemed to be only a day or two away. With the implosion of the Soviet Union, I felt relief -- at least the madness was over, I thought. I relaxed too soon it seems. In the past, there were only two world powers with the ability to destroy the planet. Now, other countries have joined the club -- and any numbers of terrorist organizations are rooting through old stockpiles looking to build "dirty bombs."
Devised during a time of national crisis, the atomic bomb was built in great secrecy by a special team of scientists. Ultimately, the United States used nuclear weapons against people twice -- at Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. It is widely believed that by ending World War II, the use of these bombs saved millions of lives. However, when people saw the devastation caused by a single device and the long-term impact of radiation, these weapons of mass destruction became objects of terror and political bargaining chips.
This book is a collection of one hundred photographs depicting tests conducted by the United States between 1945 and 1962. Light obtained these prints at the U.S. National Archives or from the records at Los Alamos National Laboratory. At the time, the government released pictures that didnít reveal too much about the program in order to reassure domestic audiences and scare everyone else. It was a time of triumph -- we had the bomb. We had harnessed the atom. Our scientists were better than their scientists.
In retrospect, knowing the effects of radiation on some of the observers shown in these tableaux, it seems like false pride. Of course, it didnít take long to understand the significance of the power soon to be unleashed on the world. After the first bomb was detonated in the New Mexican desert, J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One... I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." This book's title, 100 Suns, is a reference to that quotation.
Since scientists only conducted these tests in Nevada or the Pacific, Light organized the photographs into two sections -- desert or ocean. He labeled each picture with the name, date, location and number of kilotons or megatons. No other information intrudes on the readerís experience of the image. However, at the end of the book, Light provides a short essay entitled "A Note on the Photographs, 100 SunsĒ describing the overall program. Then he tells the story depicted in each photo -- what happened, when, where.
100 Suns is a profound look at history. Itís a study of scientific brilliance and political desperation. Itís about a world where fear of violence breeds violence -- where our best intentions go awry and weapons meant to protect sometimes threaten. Maybe thatís what itís about; itís a picture book, after all. As I looked at each image, I realized that baby boomers like me would see these photos differently than those who lived through World War II. I wonder how Gen-Xís or Yís will see them.