Steve Reich and Nuclear Testing


I don’t know what came first: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos showing up on Hulu and Netflix, or A Glorious Dawn. One of the prevalent ideas that Sagan presents in Cosmos is that the human race may destroy itself before it could ever realize its full potential.

Makes me think of Steve Reich’s Three Tales video-opera that takes a look at three events from the 20th century:

Each of these reflects on the growth and implications of technology during the 20th century from early air transport to the current ethical debate on the future of our species. This debate, about the physical, ethical and religious nature of the expanding technological environment has continued and grown pervasive since 1945.

The events include:

  1. The Hindenburg disaster
  2. Atomic weapons testing at Bikini
  3. The cloning of Dolly

But wait, you may think. What’s going on with number 2 there?

The second, Bikini, is based on footage, photographs, and text from the Atom bomb tests at Bikini atoll in 1946-1954. It also tells of the dislocation and relocation of the Bikini people, living totally outside the Western world which determined their fate.

When you read about nuclear weapons you often come across the Manhattan Project, President Truman’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nuclear arms buildup of the Cold War (and maybe Louis Slotin, a physicist who accidentally triggered a fission reaction and died of radiation poisoning).

You don’t hear much at all about the tests that the United States conducted on Pacific islands.

Between 1946 and 1958, twenty-three nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, beginning with the Operation Crossroads series in the summer of 1946. The March 1st, 1954 detonation codenamed Castle Bravo, was the first test of a practical hydrogen bomb. The largest nuclear explosion ever set off by the United States, it was much more powerful than predicted, and created widespread radioactive contamination.

The fallout affected the people of Bikini and basically made the island uninhabitable.

I’ve listened to Three Tales at least twice a year since 2003 and wondered why, out of all the things that happened in the 20th century, Reich chose to tell the story of Bikini Atoll.

I suppose what all three of these stories have in common is that they’re demonstrations of incredible technological progress that we may end up regretting.

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