Going Nuclear: Why I Never Really Never Left Las Vegas

Posted on November 14th, by risser in Joy Brown. No Comments

"van Gogh Never Saw Bikini Atol" by Aja Trier.

“Van Gogh Never Saw Bikini Atol” by Aja Trier.

In 2006, I got married on a broiling hot 104-degree day in Las Vegas, Nevada. A year later, I went back to learn about thermonuclear explosions. The National Atomic Testing Museum (NATM) is crammed with artifacts related to the atomic bomb. Chronologically arranged, it takes visitors through a bunker-style room with a walkway that meanders past items such as old Geiger counters, gas masks, toys and Civil Defense pamphlets. There are also 1950s-era photos of showgirls in mushroom cloud costumes. During that decade (prior to the government taking matters underground) when the U.S. conducted frequent nuclear weapons tests at the formerly named Nevada Test Site, guests staying in the top rooms of hotels could witness atmospheric explosions conducted up to 100 miles away, and everyone in the city could feel the seismic activity the blasts caused, no matter if they were playing blackjack or analyzing tax documents.

The NATM’s claim to fame is also the Ground Zero Theater. Visitors are handed goggles before they sit down on wooden benches placed in front of a large screen. First comes the flash, then the physical rumble and a burst of air in your face. The roar increases as your eyes adjust to the distinctive mushroom cloud growing taller before you during the simulated nuclear explosion.

During a recent class presentation, I chose to highlight the NATM’s website in order to explain what I’ve learned about digital media and to illustrate the meaningful ties that our hyperconnected world present for us. We have yet to scratch the rhetorical surface of these ubiquitous digital influences that affect us all. Even those who don’t think they’re living according to binary code are doing so, whether they like it or not. We can refuse to bank online, but our information is still digitally stored and shared. The President of the United States proposes drastic policy changes via Twitter. My marriage completed its own implosion when incriminating texts were discovered.

Let’s face it – these alterations to our lifestyles and ideologies constitute the largest tectonic shift in how humanity operates since Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press.

Rhetoric professor Jeff Rice, Ph.D., wrote about networked spaces in his book, “Digital Detroit.” In it, he sets aside the either/or grand narratives of the Motor City’s successes and failures and re-places specific places with serendipitous, rhizomous digital connections that aren’t necessarily dependent on ethical considerations, or even a positive future. He references locations such as Eight Mile Road and the Maccabees Building, and pop-culture icons like Eminem and Creem.

Rice’s theories have subsequently informed my experiences and memories of the museum – a place that seeks to present historical information about one of humankind’s greatest technological inventions. I recall what the Ground Zero Theater’s virtual participation felt like. I had conflicted emotions about a gallery that included several nicely-framed photos of mushroom clouds. While there, I also received a crash course in texting – my flip phone was my only means of communication with those who were being affected by the historic 2007 Findlay flood. “Are you staying dry?” friends and family texted me (because calls weren’t going through) while I was in the desert, thereby dragging me into the communicative future.

The museum continues to influence me today; it provided a good heuristic for my graduate class webtext analysis, and subject matter for this post. Thanks to my rhetorical studies, I was able to notice and more fully appreciate the museum’s fractured online ethos that has it veering from entertainment-related to education-based material. I was also able to identify and recognize my own changing memories – and emotions – precipitated by my now very digitized life.

The atomic age and its subsequent digital reincarnation incites questions pertaining to technology, communication and its consequences, especially considering recent atomic blast news from North Korea. What does it mean and how does it affect us to be able to witness a nuclear explosion without having to physically be at the site? If you don’t care, you should.


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