We’re in the early stages of a new nuclear arms race. It has not gotten much popular attention yet, and we at Scientific American hope that our special report will help people think through the dangers and implications of a $1.5-trillion (with a T) plan to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan involves refurbishing the land-based missile system. Upgraded nuclear missiles will be planted in hundreds of silos across five states, where they will be potentially vulnerable to attack. As our editorial points out, it’s basically a “kick me” sign on the middle of the country.
The next decade is going to be a “boom time” for nuclear weapons, as a nonproliferation scholar tells journalist Abe Streep. Streep takes us to nuclear weapons sites across the U.S. to understand how the previous arms race shaped history and what future the new arms race might bring.
Plutonium is a weird and scary substance. Writer Sarah Scoles is one of the few people without a high-security clearance to tour the tightly guarded Los Alamos National Laboratory facility in New Mexico where plutonium is being shaped into new pits to trigger fission and then fusion reactions that, as she says, make nuclear weapons nuclear.
Nuclear weapons on alert in silos across the western U.S. have a perverse strategic purpose: to serve as a “great sponge” to soak up enemy missiles. Seriously. Scientific American published articles in 1976 and 1988 showing the potential fallout from an attack on these weapons fields. Now nuclear weapons expert Sébastien Philippe has used advanced modeling to create maps that illustrate how such contamination could cause millions of deaths.
As part of this package on our website, we have a 20-minute documentary called Fallout by filmmakers Duy Linh Tu, Sebastian Tuinder and Nina Berman (Berman’s photos accompany the print stories) that traces the legacy of nuclear weapons in the American West. In a five-part podcast series, Missiles on the Rez, host Ella Weber, who is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, takes listeners on a personal journey as she discovers more about her community and its long relationship with nuclear weapons.
Up to 20 percent of people in the U.S. have dyslexia, a condition that makes it difficult to learn to read. Many young people who are struggling with it don’t get a proper diagnosis or receive the academic help they need, often because of an outdated testing method that has been recognized as flawed for years but is still used in many school systems. The “discrepancy model” compares a student’s reading skills with their IQ (itself a flawed test) and diagnoses dyslexia only if there is a mismatch. Journalist Sarah Carr shows how this and similar models have failed too many children, and she offers hope that many more children can be taught to read.
Dark energy is one of the strangest discoveries in the history of science. Twenty-five years ago two teams of researchers independently found that the universe is expanding, not contracting—and not just that, but the expansion is accelerating. Dark energy, whatever that is, is causing the expansion, and we have learned a lot about it (but nowhere near enough) since it was named. Author Richard Panek shares the ingenious ways that physicists have been trying to understand dark energy and the fate of our universe.
Contributors to Scientific American’s December 2023 Issue
Writers, artists, photographers and researchers share the stories behind the stories
The New Nuclear Age
A New York-based multimedia journalist, Nina Berman (above) has often covered environmental contamination by the U.S. military. But until recently, “like most Americans, I was pretty much unaware that we’re going to recapitalize our entire nuclear arsenal,” she says. “It really slipped underneath the radar.” Her initial work on the subject evolved into part of this issue’s special report on the new nuclear age, which explores the consequences of a massive—yet quiet—reinvestment in mutually assured destruction. “It’s kind of like, well, we’ve always had [nuclear missiles], so why not keep having them? What’s the big deal?” Berman says. “The choices we’ve been offered are so limited.”
As a photographer and researcher for “Boom Times,” she traveled across the U.S. to visit the communities directly impacted by nuclear weapons. In Nebraska and North Dakota, she was struck by the unsettling eeriness of the missile silos: “You know that there’s something lethal in the ground. But you also see strange, banal things like porta-potties out in front.” Berman loves movies and will often have a film in her mind while shooting an assignment. For this project, she says, “the whole thing is Dr. Strangelove.”
Living in New Mexico, you “cannot avoid Los Alamos,” says journalist Abe Streep. Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, sits perched above the Rio Grande valley. It is still cleaning up from the Manhattan Project—even as it ramps up production of new plutonium cores to replace the U.S.’s arsenal of nuclear warheads.
For this issue’s report, Streep road-tripped through the American West to follow the ripple effects of plutonium “from cradle to grave.” As part of the journey, which included waste-disposal sites in the sands of the Permian Basin and underground missile storage next to farms in Wyoming, he went to the site of the former Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. It manufactured plutonium pits until it was closed for safety violations in the late 1980s. Today a wildlife refuge stands on the contaminated ground, abutting gleaming new housing developments. The story of these communities’ nuclear past, present and future is a layered one, full of economic and cultural tensions. “The job of the story,” Streep says, “was to try to think about that in a complicated way.”
By his mid-20s Sébastien Philippe was an engineer responsible for analyzing the safety of French sea-launched nuclear ballistic missiles, poring over thousands of pages of data and documents to spot inconsistencies and potentially dangerous problems. He soon decided to pivot to nuclear weapons policy research and applied for a Ph.D. program at Princeton University. In a grim coincidence, his interview was on March 11, 2011—the day a massive tsunami blacked out Fukushima’s nuclear power facility. The subsequent explosion broadened how Philippe thought about nuclear weapons safety and risks, which he now studies as a research scientist at Princeton.
For this issue’s report, Philippe modeled the fallout from potential explosions of the nuclear weapons stored in the heartland of the U.S. The results were sickening, particularly the map of the worst-case scenario. “You have good days, and you have bad days. And that day was really bad,” he says. Especially shocking was the impact beyond the U.S. on swaths of Canada and Mexico. Even after decades in the field, “I had never seen [maps like] that before.”
When she was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade, Melinda Beck decided she would choose a career where she didn’t have to read or write. “I told myself I could be a ballerina, or I could be an artist. And I’m not that flexible, so I think I’m going to be an artist.” Beck’s career as an award-winning illustrator still involves plenty of e-mails, but technological features such as spell-check help her navigate a professional world not built to accommodate her brain.
For this issue’s feature on dyslexia, Beck depicts the pain and frustration she experiences when reading words on a page. If she doesn’t place a bookmark under each line, it feels like the lines come apart. “They all get tangled up,” she says. Distilling her own feelings into a piece of art was a unique challenge. “Usually as an illustrator, we tell other people’s stories.” But the personal nature of the project allowed Beck to come at the story with the richness of “a lifetime of unintended research.”