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Why this online simulator lets you nuke your backyard

Why this online simulator lets you nuke your backyard


The goal is to make nuclear war feel personal

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Graphical representation of what would happen if a nuclear bomb were dropped on San Francisco. Concentric circles of the fireball, shockwave, radiation, and catastrophic heat spread from the blast site.
What would happen if a bomb went off here?

If a nuclear bomb went off on San Francisco, almost the entire tip of the peninsula would disappear under the fireball, shockwave, radiation, and catastrophic heat spreading from the blast. More than 100,000 people would die, and nearly 230,000 people would be injured. That’s according to a new online interactive simulator that lets you drop a virtual nuke anywhere in the world.

Created by a Wisconsin-based educational nonprofit called the Outrider Foundation, the blast simulator is an effort to teach the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons. It’s surprisingly beautiful for an educational tool about destruction — “almost too beautiful for its own good,” writes Matt Novak at Gizmodo. But the Outrider simulator is more than just a pretty interface; it’s an effective reminder that these weapons could wipe entire cities filled with people off the face of the Earth.

“There’s a degree to which they’re luring you in with these really pretty graphics,” says nuclear anthropologist Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico. “Then you click on it and you realize, ‘Holy fuck, that’s 50,000 people [gone] in a heartbeat.’”

“Holy fuck, that’s 50,000 people.”

That tally is key for preventing what Pfeiffer calls “aesthetic nuke porn,” imagery that showcases the raw power of bombs bursting in the air without showing any of the consequences. Nukes are designed to kill people — and they have. That’s why Tara Drozdenko, the Outrider Foundation’s managing director of nuclear policy and non-proliferation, tried to avoid overusing images of mushroom clouds. “They’ve been used in the past to stir up nationalist sentiment and to give you a sense of pride in the accomplishment of having nuclear weapons,” she says.

Pfeiffer agrees: striking footage of nuclear tests can make these weapons and nuclear policy feel abstract and inaccessible. “The sublime, the majesty, the almost religious awe and terror of nuclear weapons — that places it for many of us outside the idea that we can do anything about it,” he says.

If people are reminded how their lives could be affected by nuclear weapons, they might be more likely to push for nuclear disarmament. During the Cold War, for example, the public’s protests against nuclear proliferation had a profound influence on President Ronald Reagan’s nuclear policy, Drozdenko says. Her goal is for the bomb blast interactive to inspire people to educate themselves about nuclear weapons and get involved in arms control advocacy.

“I don’t see it as beautiful.”

The Outrider tool drew its inspiration and code from NukeMap, a blast simulator created in 2012 by Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Where NukeMap gives experts multiple ways to dial in different versions of a virtual apocalypse, the Outrider interactive is aimed at personalizing nuclear detonations for a lay audience. “Making these things personal helps make people take them seriously. It makes them feel more real,” Wellerstein says. “And they are real.”

Drozdenko was surprised to hear that people — myself included — think the bomb-blast interactive is disturbingly pretty. “I don’t see it as beautiful,” she says. “When I see it, I see how huge this radius is where everybody in this radius is going to have third-degree burns.” She hopes that people who visit the page can look past the rosette of nuclear annihilation and see the link underneath it: “Learn what you can do about nukes.”