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.

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

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

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.”

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.

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.

The public lacks general science knowledge, says Mel Schiavelli, president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, near the Three Mile Island power plant.

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.”

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