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The dawn of nuclear weapons goes viral

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It was near midnight when John Coster-Mullen, the author of “Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man,” was scrutinizing one image among hundreds newly released by Los Alamos, the birthplace of the bomb.

First, he glanced at the scientists assembling what they called “the gadget,” a spherical test device five feet in diameter. Then, atop a wooden crate nearby, he noticed a small, blocky object, nondescript except for the role he suddenly realized it played: It was a uranium slug that held the bomb’s fuel. In July 1945, its detonation lit up the New Mexican desert and sent out shock waves that begot a new era.

“I let out a scream,” Coster-Mullen said. “My son thought I woke up the whole neighborhood. Before, they had never shown that slug. And here it was on top of the crate in all its glory. I just about had a coronary.”

It was 2009. He quickly assessed the slug as 5 inches wide and 8.75 inches long, and soon after incorporated the photograph into a revised edition of his book.

Waves of declassified photographs and movies from the nation’s push to make Little Boy and Fat Man — the world’s first atom bombs — are exciting not only to Coster-Mullen but a generation less familiar with the nation’s atomic past.

“They hit geek culture and go viral,” said Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ.

Early this year, Dr Wellerstein posted on his blog and on Reddit, a social news site, an annotated silent movie a little more than 11 minutes long that showed scientists and soldiers preparing Fat Man and loading the weapon onto a B-29 aircraft that would soon take off for Nagasaki, Japan; the bombing instantly killed an estimated 40,000 people there.

The movie was viewed more than 100,000 times in just one day on Reddit, and received 700 comments. Among the posted questions: Did the men know what they were doing? Probably so, Dr Wellerstein replied on his blog, “because they knew what had happened at Hiroshima.”

A few years ago, the Los Alamos National Laboratory started posting historical pictures on Flickr, a photo-sharing site. The lab’s history section now has 515 images like early bombs and scientists and rapidly expanding fireballs and rising mushroom clouds. The set includes the gadget photograph from 1945 that left Coster-Mullen agog.

A recent wave of Internet photographs has featured Little Boy and Fat Man preparations; one shows a man signing the nose of the Nagasaki bomb, and another is a tail fin close-up of scrawled names and home states, including Wisconsin and New York.

Holly Reed, a photo expert at the National Archives, the source of those images, said they went public in 1997 but received much attention recently when they were widely described online as newly released.

“There’s a kind of barrier between what’s out there and what’s known,” Dr Wellerstein said. With the rise of global networks, he added, “there’s a real opportunity for these to go viral.”

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