MACH STEM – the Nagasaki bombing intensified

In Nagasaki stood Shiroyama middle school, a sturdy building with a splendid view of the city. On the day of the bombing, some children had stayed home, and some were helping in the Mitsubishi plant next door. Their teachers were having meetings and working on bomb sheltering procedures.

The shock wave passed through the building in one-tenth of a second. Afterward, survivors tried to get out and understand what had happened.

The building withstood the blast, but almost everyone died instantly. More died within hours or days, and a very few lived to old age. 138 teachers and students lost their lives there.

One survivor was Hideo Arakawa, the assistant principal, who was in a meeting at the moment of the blast. He was the only survivor in the room, which had windows into the courtyard of the school. In the years that followed, he recorded everything he could about the event, interviewing other survivors and contributing to the historic archive.

After the blast, US military researchers also took careful measurements of the school building, its location and fatalities, comparing the results with the calculations they had made ahead of the drop. In particular they were looking for the results of the Mach Stem – a phenomenon that amplifies the destructive power shock waves that originate from a height.

This NHK documentary explores both the physics of Mach Stem, which accounts for the far greater destructive power of the Nagasaki bomb over its Hiroshima counterpart*, and the human story that resolves to such details as interviews and a great many US declassified documents. It also makes use of investigation by the famed Japanese meteorologist Tetsuya Fujita*, whose documents on the blast surfaced in 2013. The documentarians also commissioned a university project to carry out a blast simulation to tie together the science from Fujita and the Pentagon.

The Mach Stem effect was well known to makers of large bombs, and had been a key subject of the targeting committee. Nagasaki was a triumph, of sorts, of the scientific art of destruction.


  • This edition of the documentary has English narration in place of the original Japanese. There are a few blank spots in the audio where longer Japanese narratives had been.
  • It may seem strange to have school children helping in a wartime factory. Perhaps, it is not so strange. In the US, children helped with recycling drives, victory gardens, and war preparedness. Children on both sides learned writing and literature, mathematics and science, art and music, history and of course, patriotism.
  • I had this in my “Watch Later” queue for quite a long time; it is fascinating both scientifically and historically. But the imagery of learned men coldly calculating destruction is not easy to digest. What is the best height and location for an airburst? Let’s get rooms full of mathematicians working on it. (In those days such mathematicians were known as ‘computers’. Their electronic counterparts had not yet taken over that role.)
  • The computers’ labor bore fruit: the Nagasaki Bomb was 30% more powerful, but leveled ten times the area of reinforced buildings, as the Hiroshima bomb.
  • Can you imagine the Japanese reaction to Americans climbing over wreckage, taking photographs and make tape measurements? Recording the position of corpses and their condition? Mapping trees and how they were broken. It must have seemed ghoulish.
  • We refer to Fujita every time we designate a tornado as an F-3, for example.

Christmas thought experiment on children

Lieberman Jesus In The Tempel
Max Lieberman, “Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel”, 1879

“…But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man
(See Luke 2:41-52 NIV for the whole passage)

Let’s try a little thought experiment. Let’s assume, for a moment, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person. After all, he might have been. There might have been a person at the core of those fantastical stories. probably was, even. Someone who became amazing, who astounded crowds and scholars alike with his thinking. Some of which was centuries ahead of the ethics of the time. Whatever else he was, he was a nonconformist.

How did that happen? Assuming he was born poor, how did he, you know, become what he became?

We get the impression he was a bit of a mamma’s boy. Scripture doesn’t record any interaction with his father. In fact, in this passage, he displaced his father in favor of a mythic one. But his mother was there right to the end. They didn’t always get along, but she “treasured these things in her heart.”

What things?

A TV personality once had a show called “Kids say the darnedest things.” Mostly they were examples of charming naiveté. But if you raised children, you know that every once in a while, they really cut through all the grown-up crap with a serious zinger. The grown-up reaction might be anything from ignoring them, to a condescending smile, or even “Go to your room!” And that’s before they go to school.

What if, instead of that reaction, such moments were encouraged? What if they weren’t hit with a sense of disapproval every time they switched on the conversational lights? What if he were not carefully steered away from the more radical prophets? The Saul Alinskys and Malcom Xs of that day?

As parents, I’m sorry to say, most of us put a lot of energy into making sure our kids will be as unsurprising as possible. We encourage conformity, exerting a lot of pressure on one side of them, with a mold on the other side. We are worried for them; it is natural to do this. It is a source of regret, later in life, to think that we saddle them with hang-ups we might ourselves spend a lifetime trying to shed.

Our kids feel not only the pressure we put on them, but our approval and disapproval of other adults who don’t fit the mold. This is not lost on them. We steer them in tiny course corrections away from nonconformity, to the point where some of them grow up wishing they could be somebody else.

Not Mary, though, apparently. She ‘treasured’ these differences. Young Jesus could see the approval on her face when he asked counter-cultural questions. She probably didn’t have answers, but he could tell it was OK to ask. So he kept asking.

You could make the case that Mary should have thought a little more about how Jesus would get along in society. After all, his story (discounting the parts of it that violate the laws of thermodynamics) comes to a grisly end. I don’t know where to draw the line.

But maybe listening carefully to our kids would help us find it.


  • Einstein attributed his insights to refusing to grow up. “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives,” he said.
  • Carl Sagan often remarked that grade-school children were full of wonderful and insightful questions. By the time they got to high school, they were unfolding little pieces of paper and reading canned questions for the visiting scientist.
  • Edison’s mother home-schooled him, when the school principal said he was “addled”.  Today we still use the first three letters of that word to describe children with restless minds.
  • This post is just what was running through my apostate head last night as I attended a Christmas Eve service. It was a lovely occasion, surrounded by people who actually do believe all that Peace On Earth jazz. Not all Christian denominations want to Make The World Safe For Capitalism Again.  Some of them want to make the world safe for people.
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Some reading about atomic bombs

Trump nuclear tweet
Bold new ideas from the 1950’s

Now that our president-elect has opined that we should be increasing our nuclear arsenal, I thought I’d bring up a couple residents of my bookshelf on the subject. I’ll skip over the books about the technology itself and look at 2 books about what they mean for defense and humanity.

I remember as a kid, being told not to eat snow because it contained radioactive by-products of atmospheric tests. By the early 1960’s, they weren’t showing the “Duck And Cover” turtle cartoon anymore, but we did receive occasional instruction on atomic survival, which was similar to tornado instruction with post-apocalyptic radiation safety thrown in. A few of our neighbors had bomb shelters, fully stocked. There were Civil Defense shelters downtown, but nobody thought it would be possible to reach them if the worst happened.

As horrific as nuclear weapons are, they are science and technology and history all wrapped up in one. Little kid-me read about them incessantly, and later turned into adult-me, who read about them with increasing concern. So as they say in sandwich shops, “Pick two”. In this case, two books.

Book cover looks vintage, but this is a new book on the management of a nuclear arsenal
Book cover looks vintage, but this is a new book on the management of a nuclear arsenal. Click to order, or visit your local library.

Creating nuclear weapons is only the start of making them part of national defense. Such devices need to be designed to prevent accidental detonation, protected from theft, and aligned with a chain of command and control that reflects well-conceived strategy.  There is no room for error.

Command and Control tells that story, woven in with accounts of a great many errors, including an investigative narrative about an accident in a missile silo in Arkansas. The smallest mishap, in this case a technician dropping a tool in the silo, led to escaping rocket fuel and eventually a mammoth explosion with the actual warhead ending up some distance away. One person was killed and twenty-some were injured. And while it is the most detailed mishap in the book, it not the most… nerve-wracking.

John Hersey, Hiroshima
Click to order, or visit your local library.

Then there’s John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Originally published serially in The New Yorker magazine, it is journalism applied to a man-made catastrophe. It will shock you – it should shock you! – and in places it is very unpleasant reading. But if we’re going down that road again, everyone should read it. Again.

The United States is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in war. I’m not going to waste any time arguing whether their use was ‘justifiable’ or not. Such discussions seldom go anywhere. But everyone needs to know what our president-elect apparently does not: that the development and management of such weapons is fraught with peril, and the human cost of their use is almost impossible to imagine.

Please, share.


Spreading hate at the checkout lane This should be removed

Supermarket tabloid spreads hate against Muslims
Tabloid asserts there are MUSLIM SPIES in Obama’s CIA (Click to embiggen)

This piece of hate-mongering trash is in every grocery store in America this week. I wonder if your friendly neighborhood grocery store would carry a KKK publication? What standards do big grocery chains set for publications in their checkout lanes? Would they draw a line? Is a corporate contract more important than a country and its values? Is the manager allowed to see this and say; “No, we’re not going to display that”? Why not?

Think about this magazine a little bit. This is the kind of propaganda that gets people assaulted, gets houses of worship burned down, that causes shameful discrimination. Islam is a religion, not a country. Like every other religion it has some good and bad people. Is your Muslim neighbor whom you have known for years a “spy”? How about your Muslim customers? How about the Muslim doctor at the clinic? Do they have some “Islam Central” that they report back to?

And what about that “list of traitors”? Are they traitors because they are Muslim? I certainly hope Muslims (and other minorities) are represented in the CIA. And in the Department of Justice, the FBI, and your local police department. Because those institutions can’t do their jobs right if they are just white CIS males guessing about “others. And because life for minorities is dangerous enough. Let us build our institutions on our values, not on our fears.

Please Kroger, Schnucks Walmart, Meijer, and other stores, PULL THIS MAGAZINE OFF YOUR SHELVES TODAY. This is wrong. Make The Enquirer pay a cost – zero sales – for spreading fear and hate.