OUT OF CONTROL. REPORTS ON THE ATOMIC BOMB
Music composed for the film by Klaus Nielsen.
EXHIBITIONS AND SCREENINGS
BBVA Foundation. June 2 to December 30, 2023.
Paseo de Recoletos 10, Madrid
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, January 2024
In August 1939, Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt in which he shared his suspicions that Adolf Hitler might be working on a new and devastating weapon: the atomic bomb. The fear roused by the combination of a totalitarian regime of expansionist and genocidal inclinations with a weapon of mass destruction led him to urgently recommend launching a nuclear weapons development program that could face up to Nazi Germany. Roosevelt understood the gravity of the threat and authorized the launch of the gigantic Manhattan Project: advanced science and technology at the service of military objectives.
To that end, a large number of brilliant scientists and technology experts – many of them recent arrivals in the United States after fleeing from Nazism – gathered in Los Alamos (New Mexico) under the scientific leadership of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the military leadership of General Leslie R. Groves. This led to the first successful atomic detonation taking place on July 16, 1945 in the New Mexico desert. The Trinity Atomic Test involved a 20-kiloton explosion that demonstrated hitherto unseen destructive power while also, and perhaps more crucially, evidencing the power of physics.
The scientists were astonished at witnessing the colossal destructive potential of this new weapon on which they had been working feverishly, day and night, under the heroic premise of dealing with a latent threat, and with the added excitement of raising our knowledge of matter to a higher level. By that time, however, Germany had already been defeated on the battlefield. In this changed context, a small group of scientists in Los Alamos now felt uncertainty and anxiety over the use of the atomic bomb. They had become convinced that not only the cognitive aspects of science should be taken into consideration but also the human interests and values at stake. Instead of wondering what could be done with nuclear weapons, the question of what should be done became foremost in their minds, and they tried to dissuade political and military leaders from using them as weapons of mass destruction against Japan.
Nonetheless, there was a difference of opinion among the scientists. When asked whether the bomb should be dropped or not, the majority, including Robert Oppenheimer himself, replied that being a scientist gave them no special qualifications to answer explicit questions about the universe of values and the objectives of knowledge, about the “should.” They accepted the existing “division of labor” – scientific and military – and preferred to remain silent on matters related to decisions not strictly within their field of expertise.
The Little Boy bomb hit Hiroshima 21 days after the successful Trinity Atomic Test and, three days later, Fat Manlanded on Nagasaki. The world would never be the same again. 200,000 people died in just two instants, two moments of terrifying destruction, but those numbers would continue to rise significantly over the following weeks and months due to burns, radiation, cancer, lack of medicines and malnutrition.
Since those harrowing events, more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been carried out by countries with varying political structures: the United States, the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea; in oceans, tundra, deserts, mountains; atmospheric detonations, terrestrial detonations, underground detonations, underwater detonations. These explosions grew in yield and kilotons became megatons, surpassing 3,100 times the power of the bomb that fell on Hiroshima. Limitless, compassionless destructive capability in an unstoppable arms race that did not flinch at conducting refined nuclear tests, evicting the inhabitants of idyllic islands to do so and destroying their coral reefs, or exposing hundreds of animals and, in some cases, even guinea-pig troops to radiation. Detonations that destroyed and polluted the environment, natural resources and wildlife with their radioactive fallout, posing an existential threat to life on planet Earth.
Governments systematically and methodically filmed these nuclear tests, accumulating thousands of audiovisual records that have come to light with the passage of time, enabling us to watch them with a mixture of astonishment, horror and perhaps a certain fascination at their power and awesome destructive beauty. They were filmed in order to scientifically study each step of the detonation process, with the feeding these visual data back into an ongoing project to control this destructive power.
Accompanying and complementing these films, hundreds of reports, memoranda, essays and documents were written, all classified. Using the powerful tools of scientific analysis, these documents dissected every aspect of nuclear operation: meteorological variables, infrastructures, radiation levels, expansive wave, yield, exposure level, thermal radiation, effects on various types of living beings, etc. Nothing was left unmeasured or undocumented in a series of reports in which human beings, animals and life itself were merely objects for analysis and intervention. For the most part, everything related to the field of ethics, respect for the principle of dignity and the preservation of life was omitted from the scope of consideration of those thousands of pages.
Today we are well aware that the applied power of knowledge can produce effective and much-needed solutions to pressing problems. In some areas, however, that same power can lead to danger. The precision and control of nuclear tests, captured in objectified images and reports and that provide the subject matter for Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb, resulted in vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the consequence of an unstoppable arms race that was genuinely out of control. Science is a transformative and fundamentally liberating force. However, the continuity and improvement of life on Earth also depend on dialogue with other cultural constructs, from the humanities to the arts, and on participation by plural social forces in those decisions that involve existential risks on a global scale.