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.
Fears about radiation escaping from the crippled Japanese nuclear power plant are encircling the globe.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
“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.
“After the war,” notes Latham, “the fears about nuclear fallout became palpable.”