Explosive Learning

by Kristina Brooks

Sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas sprawls one of the largest restricted-access areas in the United States, the Nevada Test Site, a barren area larger than the state of Rhode Island. After obtaining prior security clearance and forfeiting any cameras or cell phones, visitors may embark on a bus tour that covers some 250 miles of nuclear test sites, radioactive waste repositories and a hazmat training center. What could make for a better field trip for students of physics or American history?

That was the thinking of Scott Gould and Adam Landsberg, professors of physics in the Joint Science Department, when they invited students to join them for a Nevada road trip one afternoon in April. Five students-two from Scripps-were game to go.

The Nevada Test Site tour was “a very tightly controlled experience,” says Rachel Kirby ’06. “We were told that if we left the tour area, helicopters would be there in five minutes to find us.”

This was not Las Vegas. In addition to seeing the dramatic effects of atomic testing in the 1950s on buildings and animals, one of the most impressive sights was Sedan crater, part of the Plowshare program meant to explore peaceful uses for nuclear explosives. A 104-kiloton nuclear explosion here displaced about 12 million tons of earth. “When I saw the crater,” recalls Amy Peterson ’08, “the level of destruction was really horrifying.”

Rachel became so intrigued by what she saw at the test site that she wrote her final paper for her environmental history class on the anti-nuclear weapons movement and the environmental impact of atmospheric testing. Rachel acknowledges the complexity of the topic: “You could make the argument that the Soviet Union didn’t blow us up because we had the capacity to blow them up. On the other hand, people around the test site did get leukemia and still suffer from it as a result.”

Sometimes, a road trip to Nevada can lead to more than all-you-can-eat buffets and slot machines. And, as these Scripps students learned, the experience can leave an indelible impression.