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.
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Pop culture treatment of nuclear fallout fears have gone through several stages since World War II, says Kathy Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, she points out, the depictions were largely fantastical, horror- and B-movie subjects, with whole cities being destroyed and populations dying terrible deaths.Skip to next paragraph
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After the partial nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, the popular culture portrayals “took a serious, dramatic and more realistic turn,” she points out, with films such as “Silkwood” and “China Syndrome.”
Now, she says, we are in an era where popular entertainment combines modern terrorism with the nuclear threat.
While mass entertainment may be treating nuclear power more seriously, that doesn’t necessarily mean more accurately, says Eisner Award-winning comic book cover artist Dave Dorman.
The entertainment industry capitalizes on the general public’s ignorance about radioactivity, he says via email. Most of what the public knows factually typically “is drawn from the atomic bomb and their doctor's X-ray machine.”
Because radiation is still a mystery to the general public and to most writers in the entertainment industry, he says, it’s used as a catch-all for creating things that don’t exist in nature, such as the giant lizard Godzilla, the mutant ants in the movie “Them,” the use of gamma ray radiation to create “The Fantastic Four” and “The Hulk,” and the radioactive spider that bites Peter Parker.
Public lacks knowledge
The truth is, he says, “radiation does mutate things on a cellular level,” but the result is usually death, not giant lizards.
Pop culture plays on this dearth, he points out. “We are in a 24-hour news cycle now, and the media has to fill it with something, and fear helps do that,” he notes, adding that “nothing built by human beings will ever be 100 percent perfect.”
But, he adds, a better understanding of the science involved would help the public understand how to properly balance risks. “We are going to run out of oil someday,” he points out, “and then what?”
Nonetheless, points out filmmaker Jason Hewitt, movies can prime the public understanding in useful ways. “When you see radiation impacting an entire world in a movie,” he says, “the message is that you can’t hide from global problems. That’s not a bad message.”