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Nuclear Secrecy Revealed: The History of Alex Wellerstein's NUKEMAP

With nuclear weapons at the forefront of the public’s mind ever since the Russo-Ukrainian War kicked off, people have turned to the nuclear war simulator NUKEMAP in droves. Created by Alex Wellerstein, this software is used by roughly 10,000 people daily to map out the casualty possibilities of varying sizes of nuclear bombs, dropped anywhere on the planet.

But all of this web traffic raises the question: just who is the man behind the simulator? What makes him the expert? And where did he get his inspiration for NUKEMAP? We’ll answer these questions and more below.

Let's dig in.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    The Manhattan Project’s Offspring

  • 02

    Nuclear Secrecy: Restricted Data

  • 03

    NUKEMAP: The Alex Wellerstein Brainchild

  • 04

    Civil Defense with Alex Wellerstein

  • 05

    Preparing for Nuclear War

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions

The Manhattan Project’s Offspring

Significant events don’t just create history; they also give rise to people who study them. In the case of The Manhattan Project, this occurred with the nuclear war historian known as Alex Wellerstein.

After graduating with his BA in 2002, Wellerstein studied at Harvard, earning his History of Science PhD in the fall of 2010. His dissertation was called “Knowledge and the Bomb: Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, 1939-2008.

Harvard University

Harvard University.

By that point, he had already nurtured a long-held interest in the history of nuclear weapons. Having created a nuclear bomb simulator that utilized MapQuest all the way back in 2004, he toyed with the available technology, such as it was. He wasn't happy with the result, however, so he let it die.

But there was a problem. When the economy crashed in 2009, one's chances of acquiring any job within the field of history were slim to none.

Advertised job openings and new history PhDs awarded

Wellerstein explains that this graph (which he calls the “Graph of Doom”) shows how the historian’s job market has progressed over the past several decades. Note that he started his PhD in 2004, when plenty of jobs were available, and finished in 2010, when there were none. (Source: AHA Jobs Report 2021)

Ask most anyone with a doctorate, and they’ll tell you that it stands for “poor, helpless, and desperate.” By 2010, this was particularly true of history PhDs.

Things brightened to some degree when Wellerstein landed a short-term teaching position at Harvard, but he was keenly aware that temporary gigs only pay the bills for so long. He needed something stable, or he (and his dreams) would be history—as it were.

a nuclear submarine

A NOTE OF INTEREST

As evidenced by his routine citations from both German and Russian sources, Alex Wellerstein apparently speaks the two languages at a high enough level to read and understand scientific jargon.

Nuclear Secrecy: Restricted Data

With the Harvard gig having come to a close, Alex Wellerstein made a considerable jump. Leaving behind Cambridge and his friends, he embarked on a new chapter, heading for Washington, DC.

His ultimate destination? The American Institute of Physics (AIP), where he had received (another) short-term stint, this time within AIP’s History of Physics department as a fellow.

Approximately a twenty minute drive from the American Institute of Physics.

Wellerstein knew that he only had a few years at the American Institute of Physics before he would once again find himself adrift in an unstable job market. This meant that he had to find a way to put his name on the map in a very short amount of time. Otherwise, his chances of landing a full-time job within his field would rapidly dwindle.

Granted, he’d been working on a book since 2002, and had even gotten a journal article published. But books and articles take timeand he needed results fast.

His solution? Start a blog.

While concerned that this may not be the best medium for him to get his message across, he knew that he needed to “stake a flag” in his field to prove himself as a competent researcher. Thus, he began writing three posts a week: demonstrating his savvy and building a following as he went.

The end result was Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.

But his "Nuclear Secrecy" blog didn't stay a secret for long.

A NOTE OF INTEREST

Alex Wellerstein’s favorite nuke movie is The Sum of All Fears, due to its realism. (Check out his breakdown of the new Christopher Nolan flick, Oppenheimer, below.)

His favorite nuclear history book? That honor belongs to Spencer Weart’s Nuclear Fear: A History of Images.

Because blogging is a neverending endeavor, however, this led to his constantly being on the lookout for fresh content.

Then, one fateful weekend in 2012, Wellerstein realized that there was now technology advanced enough to perfect his original 2004 nuclear bomb simulator. This meant that what had once been a somewhat choppy production could now be something that worked great and looked even better.

And so, sitting at his keyboard over the course of a weekend, he put together a new nuclear bomb simulator, calling it Alex’s Amazing Nuclear Weapons Simulator.

If you find that the name doesn't quite roll off the tongue, thank Wellerstein's friends for their intervention.

After showing several of them what he had created, they (correctly) told him that he had to rename his new creation. Their suggestion? NUKEMAP.

Dropping a 100 Mt nuke shows you how just one bomb can impact a nation. This one was "dropped" on Austin, Texas.

NUKEMAP by Alex Wellerstein (https://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/). Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA, Imagery © Mapbox.

NUKEMAP: The Alex Wellerstein Brainchild

Though NUKEMAP saw some initial success, British tabloidsof all placescaused it to go viral.

After a few of them picked up on the tool and wrote about it, NUKEMAP took off. And because of its newfound fame, Wellerstein figured he'd better put more than two days’ worth of work into the site.

A NOTE OF INTEREST

Here are some of the early reviews of NUKEMAP.

The Toronto Sun (2012)

Huffington Post (2013)

Time (2013)

In the wake of this glowing feedback, Wellerstein plopped himself down in front of the keyboard once more and added several impressive updates, including casualty counts, fallout models, and more.

He even created a 3D version of NUKEMAP that utilized Google Earth so that the end user could see the outlines of buildings and the skyline to better understand what different-sized nukes would look like at various places across the globe. (Unfortunately, a later change to the Google Earth code rendered NUKEMAP 3D inoperable.)

Since its creation, NUKEMAP has tallied approximately over 40,000,000 visitors, with 10,000 visitors daily. Unsurprisingly, traffic to the site skyrockets anytime the news is filled with doom and gloom. On February 2022, for examplethe month that Russia invaded Ukraine—the site saw such high traffic (150,000 visitors per day) that the NUKEMAP server crashed multiple times.

Interestingly, Wellerstein has provided a number of fascinating insights into how users wield the simulater. The most oft-detonated nuke, for instance, is none other than the Russian Tsar Bomba, and the most detonated country is Japan (due to history buffs reenacting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wellerstein explains).

The Tsar Bomba test.

Alex Wellerstein admits that the users aren’t entirely anonymous when using NUKEMAP. Because of this, he can extrapolate a bit of the data to draw some conclusions.

He states that, on the whole, people fall into one of two camps when they use NUKEMAP. They either nuke themselves to see how their own nation fares, or they nuke their traditional enemies. Notably, Americans tend to fall in the former category.

At this point, you may be curious to know how Wellerstein fared in the years following his wild success.

First and foremost, the popularity of NUKEMAP soon established Wellerstein as a nuclear war expert. As such, he began to be invited to speak at several different venues, including the renowed Stevens Institute of Technology.

After the address was over, the faculty informed him of an open position at the school that they believed he would be well-suited for. Upon applying, he received the job, finally completing his search for a long-term position in academia.

In time, Wellerstein acquired tenure, and he finished writing his book, Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States. (Note that Wellerstein's blog is called "Nuclear Secrecy," a phrase he also used in the title of his dissertation.)

The Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. (Image courtesy of Kidfly182 at Wikimedia Commons)

Civil Defense with Alex Wellerstein

Given what NUKEMAP and MISSILEMAP (a plug-in of sorts for the former) have done to educate the public, it may not surprise you to learn that Wellerstein’s second largest project focused on "nuclear literacy."

 

US Civil Defense photograph, circa 1953.

It all began when Wellerstein served as one of the principal investigators for a program called “Reinventing Civil Defense.” An initiative run through the College of Arts and Letters at the Steven Institute of Technology from 2017-2021and funded by a hefy $500,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporationthe goal of this effort was to discover how best to boost inform the American public, particularly millennials and younger, about nuclear weapons, their historical context, and related policy matters.

1911 board meeting of The Carnegie Corporation

1911 board meeting of The Carnegie Corporation. Andrew Carnegie (the dashing fellow with the white beard) is seated in the middle of the photograph.

Wellerstein states this demographic of youngsters “is extremely interested in political issues but has low nuclear salience.” This is in notable contrast to Gen X and Baby Boomers, who lived through the Cold War. As Wellerstein has repeatedly emphasized, however, the threat of a nuclear strike didn’t disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, the threat has only escalated.

Because of this lack of knowledge, coupled with the millennial crowd’s interest in world events, Wellerstein believes that “Reinventing Civil Defense” has the potential to make America better protected from nuclear war. To achieve this, however, unconvential methods are needed.

Rather than utilizing TV, radio spots, and newspaper articles – the traditional media outlets of older Americans–Wellerstein employed mediums such as graphic novels, smartphones, podcasts, plays, video games, and even virtual reality in order to spread his message.

Bert the Turtle has become archaic despite his abundance of good information.

Using micro “prototype studies,” Wellerstein gauged the success of each of these mediums. He asked himself: Did a podcast leave a more significant impression than that of a graphic novel? Or was virtual reality the best way to teach most people how to survive a nuclear blast?

Through “Reinventing Civil Defense,” he sought to answer them.

Some of these prototype studies included:

    • “Drawing Doomsday: Using Comics for Civil Defense”An effort to expand upon the civil defense comic books that were distributed throughout the 1950s to see if these were still an effective medium today.

    • “Investigating the Effects of Nuclear Knowledge on Citizen Attitudes Toward the Use of Nuclear Weapons” -- This study sought answers as to whether one’s thoughts towards nukes could be “moderated” through “citizen education.”

    • “Nuclear Worriers: Stories from a Nuclear World” – A micro study that examined the extent to which a podcast could reach youth with tales of nuclear war.

    • “The Nuclear Plays” A play that had a “before the bomb” phase that asked a number of pertinent questions, culminating in one of two alternate endings: an “After A” ending in which nuclear war had been averted, or an “After B” ending set in a nuclear apocalypse.

    • NUKEMAP-VR – A virtual reality version of NUKEMAP that was supposed to allow a user to see what a nuclear detonation would look like from the perspective of somebody who was close to the site of the blast. This author couldn’t find any information as to whether or not NUKEMAP-VR was ever fully completed or not, but you can get a taste of the end result by checking out this link here, or by watching a similar VR experience per the video below.

  • “Mark 17’s User Manual” - A graphic novel version of the user manual for Mark 17, a massive hydrogen bomb built decades ago by the US. Because it’s difficult to find any information on this project, there is a chance that it went uncompleted.

The Mark 17 thermonuclear bomb file

The Mark 17 thermonuclear bomb file.

Alex Wellerstein and the Future

A go-getter through and through, Alex Wellerstein is one of those people who is constantly working on something new. After the timeframe for “Reinventing Civil Defense” was completed, for instance, he commenced working on the “New Nuclear History for Policy Outreach,” a program that was granted $200,000 by the Carnegie Corporation (the same corporation that helped to fund “Reinventing Civil Defense”).

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information about this organization available at the moment.

A NOTE OF INTEREST

Aside from being very active on Reddit, Wellerstein also has a (locked) Twitter account that you can find here.

Preparing for Nuclear War

The chief reason that people use NUKEMAP is that they want to know what they can do to prepare for the likelihood of a nuclear blast. After all, as Wellerstein has repeatedly pointed out, we are closer to outright nuclear war today than ever before.

And it's not just the threat of one nation willfully initiating a strike in response to an attack. Indeed, the odds are excellent that whoever is the first to “push the red button” could do so simply because they’ve made a mistake.

As Wellerstein has pointed out, there have been some American nuclear accidents—wherein radars acted buggy, communications went down, or planes went missingthat could have turned out badly. And that's as one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet.

B-52 bomber

There also was a case in which a B-52 bomber, like the one pictured above, crashed with two nukes in North Carolina.

In light of this, consider the amount of malfunctions that occur in a nuclear-armed country with less reliable tech, like North Korea. How many false alarms are there?

Consider, too, the possibility of confirmation bias occurring. What happens, in other words, when somebody is so trained to look for an incoming missile that they prove the old adage that “you find what you’re looking for,” even when it’s not there?

Could this be how nuclear war starts? A bang started by a whoopsy?

And after the bomb, what then?

A NOTE OF INTEREST

“The one thing about nuclear weapons–they’re always relevant.” – Alex Wellerstein

As Wellerstein points out, radiophobiathe fear of radioactive contamination, even when nonsensicalcan make people do things “that might adversely impact their health more than the radiation is likely to.”

So, what can one do to stave off any worries of a nuclear event, leading one to (perhaps) act rashly?

In the first place, NUKEMAP can help concerned citizens arm themselves with knowledge. This, after all, can provide a rough estimate of what is to be expected should a nuclear blast go off nearby.

With that said, the surest form of preparation is a dosimeter/Geiger counter, as this can detect radiation in the event of a nuclear blast or meltdown.

And if a nuclear event occurs, you'll want the best Geiger counter available. In this regard, we recommend the MIRA Safety Geiger-2 Personal Dosimeter/Geiger Counter.

Slightly larger than a ballpoint pen, the device is easy to stow on your person, making it extremely convenient. That means that, should there be some type of nuclear strike or radiation emergency (such as when your nation’s premier nuclear research facility suddenly suffers from a “fire involving uranium”), you’ll be able to avoid both radiophobia and actual radiation.

The MIRA Safety Geiger-2

The MIRA Safety Geiger-2.

Note that the Geiger-2 uses the same SBM20-01 Geiger tube that military-grade dosimeters use, meaning that you can rest assured that the reading you get is as accurate as possible. Because we tend to sell out of these tools within a matter of minutes, it is wise to check our site regularly for restocks.

As Alex Wellerstein repeatedly emphasizes, you can survive a nuclear strikebut only with the right information. Let our MIRA Safety Geiger-2 arm you with the knowledge you need to survive.

Now, we're interested in hearing from you: What are your thoughts on all this? Are you a fan of Alex Wellerstein’s blog? Have you read his book? What is your favorite thing about NUKEMAP?

Sound off in the comment section below.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Is launching a nuke a war crime?
How much warning do you have before a nuke goes off?
Does aluminum foil block nuclear radiation?
What cities would be targeted in a nuclear war?
Is NUKEMAP accurate?
What happened to NUKEMAP 3D?
When was NUKEMAP released?
How to work NUKEMAP
How to use NUKEMAP on multiple cities at once
How to work MISSILEMAP
What is the Carnegie Corporation?
What is the NUKEMAP simulator?
Where can I find the NUKEMAP simulator?