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Nuclear radiation in pop culture: more giant lizards than real science

Anxiety over nuclear radiation isn't new, and purveyors of pop culture have profited handsomely. But even with more serious films on the subject, the public is still largely ignorant of the science.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2011

Just as this photo illustration depicts an inaccurate picture of radiation, the public's understanding of nuclear radiation is more sci-fi than fact.

Photo illustration/FogStock LLC/Newscom/File

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Los Angeles

Fears about radiation escaping from the crippled Japanese nuclear power plant are encircling the globe.

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But while this worry over unseen dangers may complicate life for government and corporate officials outside Japan, it isn’t new. Nuclear anxiety has been around almost since the dawn of the atomic age – and pop culture purveyors have exploited it richly since the advent of mass media.

Films such as the Godzilla franchise that began in 1954 depicted the first radiation-mutated lizard destroying Tokyo in the Japanese version, and the “Incredible Shrinking Man” in 1957 showed a sailor who navigates through a mysterious cloud and soon shrinks to nothing.

Comic books from this era are rife with radiation themes, from the ubiquitous Spider-Man, who is born from the bite of a radiated spider, to the Hulk, who emerges from a lab experiment gone wrong.

Movies and comic books have come up with a visual equivalent of radiation, says Rob Latham, associate professor of English at UC Riverside, who teaches a course in 1950s science fiction.

“Giant ants or Godzilla are a visual symbol of radiation,” he says. “The actual monsters produced by atomic radiation are a spectacular way of visualizing radioactivity since you can’t actually see it. Having Godzilla come from the ocean or giant ants running around Los Angeles from the desert is a way to represent the effects of an invisible force.” [Editor's note: Mr. Latham's quote was slightly revised to better reflect his intended statement.]

Radiation was seen as beneficial

Radioactivity was not always seen as a negative power. In the early days of radium research, it was considered beneficial. Early uses included such popular items as “radium suppositories,” points out Mr. Latham.

But serious science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein and H.G. Wells began writing about the dangers of atomic power gone awry even before the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“After the war,” notes Latham, “the fears about nuclear fallout became palpable.”

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