THE BLOG
03/21/2013 04:29 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Jon Stewart's Restricted Data

You may not know Alex Wellerstein's work, but Jon Stewart does.

In a recent Daily Show bit, "World War III Update," Jon Stewart showed a news clip describing what a hypothetical North Korean nuclear blast would do. The clips noted that a 15 kiloton blast -- equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT -- would destroy Lower Manhattan.

Stewart asked, "When did lower Manhattan become the standard unit of destruction measurement?"

The answer: "Since we used Alex's app to help ABC World News size a nuclear explosion."

Some quick backstory is in order.

While doing an interview with ABC News on North Korea's latest nuclear test, they asked me to illustrate the power of the bomb. Like a good expert, I told them I would figure it out and get back to them. Then, I quickly turned to our senior analyst, Ben Loehrke, and asked him how to do it. He pulled up Alex Wellerstein's "Nukemap." Alex is an author and historian at the Center for the History of Physics. He has a blog, Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. In his spare time, he created Nukemap -- a nuclear blast effects calculator showing what varying sizes of nuclear explosions would do, graphed over Google Maps.

We wanted to find a good ground zero on Nukemap. Hitting the National Mall looked pretty devastating, but mostly to the Smithsonian and D.C.'s kickball leagues. It would take a much larger nuke to really knock down the Chicago skyline. But New York City had everything you need -- recognition, importance, population density -- to communicate the unthinkable destruction of even a smaller nuclear blast.

So we plunked a nuke in Lower Manhattan and showed the map to ABC News.

ABC News used the data on World News with Diane Sawyer that night. Jon Stewart picked up the clip. And that, in short, is how the country benefited from Alex Wellerstein's work and laughed at the absurdity of nuclear weapons.

Neither Ben nor I have ever met or talked to Alex. We don't have to. We just have to know his blog, where he has done some pretty cool work, explaining things like:

  • How the immense secrecy of the Manhattan Project complicated getting draft deferrals for nuclear scientists.
  • How the detonation height of the Hiroshima bomb was intended to maximize fire.
  • How the U.S. tried and failed to keep secret its first thermonuclear test.
  • What a nuclear explosion actually sounds like.
  • How Cold War advertisements urged the nation's top scientists to enter the nuclear weapons field.
  • How editorial cartoons from August 1945 treated the bomb.
  • What beer tastes like after it survives a nuclear blast.

In short, he provides stuff you didn't even know you cared about and makes it interesting and accessible. He is a young guy (I'm assuming he's young) who has found imaginative ways to inject newly discovered primary sources into the historical discussion on the bomb and the ways people tried to control knowledge of it.

That's what makes his blog different. He doesn't use his platform to comment on today's nuclear moment (well, sometimes). He uses his research to dig deeper into how the U.S. behaved during its earliest nuclear moments and during the trials and tensions of the Cold War, with lessons for today.

There's a lot to learn from his diligent study -- including what a nuclear bomb would do to your hometown.

Thank you, Alex.