PHYS 280 :: Physics Illinois :: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Nuclear weapons, their destructive force and diplomatic potential, have transformed the modern imagination. They've given us a heightened sense of our technical genius and technological progress, but also of our foolishness and mortality. Artists have responded to these developments with horror and with humor. We thought you might enjoy exploring their responses to nuclear weapons, as a way to enrich your course experience.


Duck and Cover with "Bert the Turtle" (1951, American, Official Civil Defense Film produced in cooperation with the Civil Defense Administration, in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Education Association)


Cartooning the Bomb (slideshow from 1945-present)


Super Critical Podcast: "explores the portrayal of nuclear weapons in film, television, and other pop culture outlets" (hosted by Timothy Westmyer; see also @NuclearPodcast on Twitter)

Graphic Novels

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Comics, Graphic Novels, and the Nuclear Age" (26 October 2015)


PBS News online exhibit: Hiroshima in Four Poems

Baron Wormser, "March 1984: I Try to Explain to My Children a Newspaper Article Which Says That According to a Computer a Nuclear War is Likely to Occur in the Next Twenty Years" (continued on following page), Poetry



Warning -- May disturb some viewers.

Butoh, the Dance of Darkness, the Dance of Death and Disease, a mode of Japanese avant-garde dance theater that has been described as "the art of a distressed Japan shattered by the Second World War and the nuclear bombing." Butoh literarally translates as stamping on the ground; figuratively, it is, a ritual dance that awakens the spirits of the dead.


David Bowie, Bombers, Hunky Dory, 1971

Kate Bush, Breathing, Never Forever, 1980

Bob Dylan, Masters of War, live performance (written 1963)

Landscape, Einstein A Go Go, From the Tea-Rooms of Mars, 1981

The Postal Service, We Will Become Silouettes, Give Up, 2003

Prince, 1999, 1999, 1982

Queen, Hammer to Fall, The Works, 1984

Radiohead, Four Minute Warning, In Rainbows, 2007

Rush, Manhattan Project, Power Windows, 1985, and Distant Early Warning, Grace Under Pressure, 1984

Sting, "Russians," The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985

Talking Heads, "Listening Wind," Remain in Light, 1980

The The, Armageddon Days are Here Again, Mind Bomb, 1989

Tom Waits, The Earth Died Screaming, Bone Machine, 1992


Atomic Photographers Guild

New Yorker, Michael Koerner, My DNA (9 December 2018)

Other Visual Arts

The Doomsday Clock, artist Martyl Langsdorf (spouse of a Manhattan Project scientist) -- status timeline


There are many post-apocalyptic films that use as their premise the devastation of the earth following nuclear war. Some include the nuclear monster flicks that were popular from the 1950s on (e.g., Godzilla) and classics like A Boy and His Dog (1975), based on the 1969 Harlan Ellison novella. The films below depict nuclear war or the imminent threat of nuclear war -- these are just a selection of those available. (Bolded entries are mentioned in class.)

In This Corner of the World (2016, Japanese) -- an animated, dramatic film that tells the story of a woman before and after the bombing of Hiroshima

Thirteen Days (2000, American) -- focuses on JFK's handling of the Cuban missle crisis

Deterrence (1999, American)

The Peacemaker (1997, American)

Crimson Tide (1995, American)

By Dawn's Early Light (1990, American)

Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes (1990, American)

Fat Man and Little Boy (1989, American) -- dramatizes the Manhattan Project (Paul Newman is General Leslie Groves)

Miracle Mile (1988, American) -- if you can believe it, a romantic comedy

When the Wind Blows (1986, British) -- animated film based on a novel by a children's book author about a middle-aged British couple's slow death from fallout following a nuclear strike

Countdown to Looking Glass (1984, Canadian)

Testament (1983, American) -- similar to The Day After and Threads in its focus on the effects of a nuclear strike on everyday people

Threads (1984, British) -- a version of The Day After, set in England

The Day After (1983, American) -- said to have influenced presidents, widely viewed when aired

Barefoot Gen (1983, Japanese) -- animated film portraying the bombing of Hiroshima from a child's perspective, based on the manga series

Wargames (1983, American) -- shall we play a game? a supercomputer takes simulated war games too far...

Special Bulletin (1983, American)

The Missiles of October (1974, American) -- focuses on the Cuban missile crisis

Fail-Safe (1964, American)

Seven Days in May (1964, American) -- JFK encouraged the director to make the film, warning about military decision-makers attempting to usurp civilian authority over nuclear weapons

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, American and British) -- political satire

The Last War (1961, Japanese)

Atomic Attack (1954, American) -- credited with inspiring later apocalyptic films, this Motorola Hour tv movie shows a suburban housewife living near NYC when it is hit by an H-bomb and taking in refugees

Invasion USA (1952, American)

Television Series

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan (Season 1, Amazon Prime); see George M. Moore's critique of the inaccurate portrayal of the tech (dirty bomb: cesium 137 dispersal device)

Game of Thrones (HBO); Are dragons a proxy for nuclear deterrence in GOT? Read the debate in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


The Man Who Saved the World (2014, Danish) -- documentary about Stanislav Petrov, a former lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces who prevented escalation during a nuclear false alarm incident

Last Best Chance (2005, American) -- docudrama produced by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the MacArthur Foundation (associated website)

The Bomb (2005, American) -- PBS documentary on the history of the development of nuclear weapons

Eight Minutes to Midnight: A Portrait of Dr. Helen Caldicott (1981, American) -- nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, this film portrays Dr. Caldicott's anti-nuclear weapons activism

The War Game (1965, British) -- won an Oscar for Best Documentary, even though it is a fictionalized account of nuclear war (initially banned from television for being too distressing)

Oral Histories & Diaries

Voices of the Manhattan Project, Atomic Heritage Foundation

98-year old UI Physics alumnus William Koch shares his experience working on the Manhattan Project at the University of Denver's Knoebel Institute on Healthy Aging

Issues Journalism and Exhibits

Atomic Animal Testing

3,352 animals were exposed to atom-bomb blasts in Operation Crossroads in 1946. Nearly 1,200 pigs were exposed to biomedical experiments and blast tests in Operation Plumbob in 1957.

Public Intellectual Debate (Popularized Research)

Well-known debate on "The Long Peace" and its implications between Steven Pinker (The Better Angel of Our Natures, 2011 -- see Chapter 4) and his critics, particularly Nassim Taleb (statistical expert with a background in mathematical finance). The main topic under debate is whether the major world powers'  tendency toward war has declined (since the end of WWII) and whether this means we are at less danger of a catastrophic incident such as a nuclear strike (with implications for military spending needs and the national security versus social welfare argument around these). See here for a journalistic article (Vox, 21 May 2015)  about the debate.

For presentation and starter summary of The Better Angels of Our Nature, see Pinker's Gifford Lecture at the University of Edinburgh and the Wikipedia entry on the book.

Taleb's charge: "The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion"

Pinker's response: "Fooled by Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb’s 'The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion'"

Another Pinker critic who has weighed in, John Gray (philosopher) in "Steven Pinker is Wrong about Violence and War" (The Guardian 3, March 2015).

Performance Art

Walking the Bomb, Stephen Whisler, 2016–2017


Please send any new suggestions here.