The Bikini and the Beast

Nuclear means much more than atomic power. Since World War II it has inspired thoughts of Utopia and destruction, but most of all in trying to link objects with the ideas around the atom, popular culture around the world has produced icons.

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was enough to have Japan surrender before even a 3rd bomb could be dropped. Within a week the Smyth Report was released by the United States government, explaining the basics of the Manhattan project, and 3 days later Japan signed the final documents of its surrender. To those on the opposing side, bombs brought peace.

It was then, in 1945 that ‘nuclear’ entered the common tongue. The idea of nuclear and the post war relief led to an explosion of products and ideas that found ways to link themselves to the nuclear ideal. The most famous of these was probably some Parisian swimwear.I made this, and it's public domain, so feel free to use it.

Small and Devastating

Another marketing ploy, the entire bikini can fit into the matchbox in her left hand.

Micheline in the first Bikini | Hulton Archive

The first nuclear bomb to be dropped after the war was ‘Able’ on 1 July 1946, in the remote Pacific area known as Bikini Atoll. Previously unknown, the tests made the area famous, and 4 days after the first test the Bikini was born.

“like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating” – Louis Réard

5 July, the Bikini was first revealed to the world at Piscine Molitor, Paris. The 2 piece swimwear was so shocking that its designer, Louis Réard couldn’t convince any models to wear it. The only new feature was that it left the bellybutton uncovered, but it was enough that in the end he had to employ a naked dancer to do model it. It was not a mild mannered event.

Louis Réard named it after Bikini atoll with the idea that it would blow away all who saw it, and usher the fashion world into a new era – and it certainly made an impact. Micheline Bernadini, the stripper who modelled it received 50,000 pieces of fan mail, and fashion magazines widely reported on it – helped by Reárd’s provocative claims.

It wasn’t entirely new though, either in design or theme. Only a few months before another French designer had introduced the Atome (Atom) swimsuit, then labelled the ‘World’s Smallest Swimsuit’ – a nod to the size of atoms. The Bikini was slightly smaller, leaving the belly button uncovered and cheekily marketed as ‘smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit’.

Despite the Vatican claiming it as sinful, and being banned from the beaches of many European countries the Bikini eventually became commonplace and outgrew its link with nuclear cheer, though to this day it draws controversy in many countries.

8 years later, in a turn of events Bikini Atoll helped inspire new creations, this time made in fear. Read more

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John Frum and the Cargo Cult

Vanuatu | image by melanema

Vanuatu | image by melanema

No planes or soldiers were remotely near the islands of Vanuatu, yet airstrips were appearing like scars through the pristine landscapes. World War II had ended, both the Americans and Japanese had left. Slowly the airstrips multiplied, some came with bamboo and rope control towers. The strips were not for the planes of war, they were rituals for a new religion. The builders, islanders, were waiting for John Frum. He would bring planes, a new future, and precious cargo.

Before Christ

The 80 islands of Vanuatu can seem like a paradise to some, they are fertile; warm, and occasionally volcanic. Those people who chose the Pacific as their home had lived their for thousands of years, growing their own unique and deep culture. This of course included their beliefs or kastom (special customs) which included things such as ceremonial wrappings, polygamy, and the drinking of kava to induce visions. Life went on amongst the islands until the mid-19th Century and the arrival of Christian missionaries. They came with gifts, smiles, and a new culture to replace the current one. It was a bit too much for the islanders to stomach.

Missionaries swarmed in, step by sacred step, yet the islanders consumed with their work, but they were rebuffed. It was a long and drawn out process, many missionaries became consumed by their work, some fled, and other missionaries were simply consumed. It is from Vanuatu that the stereotype of ‘Cannibalistic Islander’ first emerged.

By the 20th Century missionaries ruled many of the islands, squashing the old culture with their own. One such island was Tanna; ruled jointly by British and French, the islanders found their old kastom outlawed, and material wealth enforced. Worshipping their spirits was banned, as was polyamory and kava. They lived in the new world of schools and money, this was not a good time. Then came John Frum.

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Music, Mathematics and the First Vegetarians: Rise of the Pythagoreans

The Pythagoreans celebrating at sunrise

The Pythagoreans celebrating at sunrise

Pythagoras, mathematician and philosopher, returned from Egypt and Babylon a changed man. At the Greek colony of Croton, he set down roots and brought thinkers to his cause. From its foundation in 530BCE the Pythagorean school was devoted to mysticism, mathematics and music. Their inspiration from Eastern religions set them apart from the world in which they lived, and eventually they set about slowly changing the world. Their beliefs were simple – All is number.

Maths And Soul Beans
Mathematics and religion were intertwined, just like Hinduism and Buddhism. Pythagoreans also brought in a belief in immortal souls and reincarnation. As scientific as searching for numbers may sound, make no mistake, they were a group of mystics. They were also the first vegetarians in Europe.

Pythagorean life was simple, no feasts at their celebrations, just normal meals of fruits and vegetables. Vegetarianism is one of their most lasting legacies. The consumption of souls was taboo because they feared it would cause them harm in the form of a bad reincarnation. To avoid that they not only avoided meat, but beans as well. Beans were so avoided that Pythagoreans were not even allowed to touch beans.

Bean fear was simple, they believed that beans held the souls of the dead, those who had yet to be reincarnated. So they were vegetarians without beans, but of course ‘vegetarian’ was a word that didn’t exist in Europe then. The first time it came into the English language was in1842, with the creation of the British Vegetarian Society. Any time before 1842, people in English-speaking countries were said to be on a ‘Pythagorean Diet.’ The whole diet was another import from Eastern spirituality, the greater legacy is their music.

Pythagoreans were some of the first people to believe the Earth went around the Sun.

Pythagoreans were some of the first people to believe the Earth went around the Sun.

The Sound Of Our Stars
Imagine a length of string held tight. Pluck it and it produces a note. Now, if you cut the string in half and plucked it again, you would get the same note, but an octave higher. Play both at the same time and they sound pleasant, this is called a harmony. Further exploration found thirds and fifths, divine harmonies that the Pythagoreans saw as a sonic expression of mathematics.

Pythagoreans were the first people to investigate the chords and ratios of music. These discoveries and others related to mathematics elevated their status in society. Not only that, but they soon began to see music in the sky.

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On The Origin Of Zero

Nothing hereSomething, to deliberately show nothing – that is the odd irony at the heart of zero – it is almost unbelievably useful. It makes algebra, computing and Pixar films possible, or at least easier than they would otherwise be. Think of the number 2013, that zero tells us where the other numbers are, and therefore that the 2 means 2 thousands, not 2 hundreds or 2 millions. It sounds simple, but it was such an elusive idea that European Mathematics never invented it, zero was imported.

Egyptian and Greek mathematics was all about measurement and calculation of what existed. Volumes of spheres, areas of land, heights of buildings and pointiness of pyramids. Geometry and measurement ruled. With such a tight link between maths and reality, the question of ‘nothing’ never came into it.

Over 1000 years of mathematics extending back from medieval Europe to the Egyptians didn’t uncover it, but zero came. Once introduced, the Christian Church and Governments fought to keep zero and the new numbers in check for over 100 years. Zero came in with the numbers and decimal system we use today, the ‘Arabic’ numerals. They came from India.

The Home Of ‘Nothing’

Heere be Bodhisattva

India soon mastered multiplication.

Mathematics and religion are entwined in India’s religious life. Hinduism, Jainism and other ancient Indian religions treat numbers as a part of religion, and so needed versatile numbers. How many stars in the sky? How many grains of sand on a beach? Astronomy has a long history in India, and it was but one of the reasons for needing large numbers. In response to the need, the decimal system emerged, and large numbers were described in almost excruciating detail.

There are long religious passages in which Buddha describes the numbers up to 10421, a number larger than the total estimated number of atoms in the universe (1080). In fact it is a number so large that it cannot be applied to anything that exists. Jainism, a sister religion to Hinduism, has its own unit called a palya. A palya is the time it takes to empty a cube 10km across, filled with wool, if one strand is removed every century. There was more than just grasping at colossal numbers, nothingness had its own focus as well.

Jainism believes that the ultimate aim of being is to remove any wants, desires, and urges to alter the workings of the Universe.To not affect, to let it be. The aim is to become nothing. Similar ideas of restraint and asceticism define many Indian religions.

The focus on nothing and numbers meant that zero appeared, inevitably. In 628AD the rules for dealing with zero were laid down by the Astronomer Brahmagupta, and we still use them to this day.

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Ivy Mike: How the H-bomb Vaporised an Island

No man is an island. Now there is no island.

In 1952, Ivy Mike created the then largest man-made fireball.

5km across, the fireball erupted from the island of Elugelab and engulfed the sky. The shock wave vaporised everything within 5km, and scraped the neighbouring islands clean, no buildings or plants remained. 2 hours later some helicopters flew over what used to be Elugelab. The island was gone. In its place was a dark blue welt in the ocean, 2km across, and deep enough to hold a 17 story building. The island had been vaporised. It was 1952, and the largest bomb in the world had just been detonated.

The United States made the bomb because it was afraid. In late 1949 the Soviet Union had created and detonated ‘First Lightning’ – a nuclear bomb just like those dropped at the end of World War II. The United States was no longer the only nuclear superpower. Tensions escalated, and they needed something new. They were going to need a bigger bomb.

In January 1950, President Truman announced that the United States would develop a new bomb, superior to the A-bomb. A hydrogen bomb that would push the United States into the Thermonuclear era. Unfortunately nobody knew how to make the H-bomb.

H-bombs are thermonuclear, meaning nuclear fusion. They make heat in the same way the sun, and billions of others stars make their energy. Two small atoms like hydrogen hit each other and combine to make a larger atom, at the same time they release large amounts of energy. The problem is that fusion needs immense heat and pressure. That difficulty is why it was happening easily in the sun, but not so much on Earth.

In 1951 Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller overcame that barrier. With their combined ideas, thermonuclear bombs were possible – in theory. To test the theory, they needed an experiment. Project Ivy was started, and it was the perfect opportunity to test.

The Building Bomb

Project Ivy was aimed at improving U.S. nuclear weapons in two ways. The first was the H-bomb, the other was making a larger, A-bomb. The H-bomb was Ivy Mike, at its construction it was the largest, heaviest and most powerful bomb in existence. I say bomb, it was closer to a factory-sized nuclear fridge.

Mike was not a bomb ready to be dropped from a plane, it was designed purely as an experiment, so it looked like an aircraft hangar or factory. It was assembled in the Pacific proving grounds, on Elugelab, a small island on Enewetak atoll. The main bomb assembly was over 6 metres tall and 2 metres wide. Covered in metal case 30cm thick, it was very large, shiny and cold. They nicknamed it “Sausage.” Sausage weighed a dainty 56 metric tonnes. Read more

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Drapetomania – Freedom the Sickness

In 1851 the prominent American physician Samuel Adolphus Cartwright observed black slaves that fled captivity, and saw an illness. “Drapetomania, or the disease causing Negroes to flee” was the title to his paper explaining that black slaves didn’t want freedom, if they escaped they were ill. The cause was masters who treated slaves as something close to human beings, and slaves who considered themselves to be individuals of worth. Freedom was an illness, and Cartwright had the cure.

If a slave becomes “sulky and dissatisfied without reason,” then they may have drapetomania and be about to flee. Cartwright recommended “whipping the devil out of them” until they became submissive again, the state to which they belonged. An alternative remedy was to make running away impossible by having the big toe from both feet severed. Hence curing the disease.

Looking at it from what is technically “the future” we can easily see that something strange is afoot here. Instead of treating black slaves a people, Cartwright assumed that the place of a slave, was to remain a slave. He used the bible as evidence, taking sections talking about the faithfulness of a servant to master to justify his assertions that slaves should be treated as little more than children. Children to be whipped that is. This viewpoint led him to make some suspect, pseudoscientific contributions to the body of scientific racism. He even believed that lazy saves weren’t upset, they too were ill.

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Line to Nowhere: The Life and Death of a Mojave Phone Booth

Deserted in the desert

Two dusty tracks cross in the sun-blasted Mojave Desert; there, perched on the edge of nowhere are concrete blocks where a famous phone booth used to stand. It was there for miners in the 1960s with its hand-cranked convenience, in the 1970s it was upgraded to the newfangled touch-tone technology and it was there for no-one. The area around was abandoned by all but dust, and the phone booth waited. The phone booth was shot, no-one knows when. After the unfortunate incident it began to live a full life, going from a lone watcher to an obsession and a small icon.

Phone Found

Decades passed it by uneventfully until 1997, a map, and a character known only as ‘Mr N’ decided to meet. The anonymous Los Angeles resident was absently scanning a map of the nearby area when he noticed an anomaly – a blemish, a dot in the Mojave. Printed next to it, the word ‘telephone’.

Taking the discovery as a call to action Mr N set off in a Jeep and in pursuit, wearing a fine pair of wingtip shoes. He navigated to the nearest bit of tarmac, 15 miles away, then turned off into the dust, following the faint track and the mark on a map. Surprisingly enough he found the thing and decided to test it.

‘It works’

Eventually he returned home and wrote about the discovery in a letter to a small underground magazine he subscribed to. He finished by writing ‘it works’ and included the number so that anyone could call the desert. The number was (760) 733-9969. In spite of all chances the phone company had left the thing connected despite the minuscule number of people it could service. Fortunately for the phone company a lot more people started to use it. Some used it more than others.

26th May 1997, Godfrey Daniels read the letter and became fixated upon it. His house slowly gathered notes to remind him. “Did you remember to call the Mojave Desert today?” blared the note stuck to his mirror. He had the equipment he needed to tape ever single call. Recording him repeating the time and date of the call while the phone rang out over an empty desert. He made every visitor to his house call the booth at least once, and he said he was ‘prepared to call for years.’ Years were not necessary, the desert sent some ears.

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Voskhod 2: The Cursed Peak of Soviet Space

Alexei Leonov on his spacewalk.

Voskhod 2 was a deadly mission. It was the final space race victory for Soviet Russia before NASA finally claimed its lead and ultimately won with the lunar endgame of 1969. This peak of the Soviet Federal Space Program nearly killed its two cosmonauts but was ultimately successful – it began on the 18th March 1965 when Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev were launched.

The setting was the gulf of space, the event was a secret. Soviet policy was that no-one outside of the space program and government knew the flight was taking place, so as to spare any shame and guilt after any mistakes. Even the families of those involved didn’t know the mission existed; at least until it was broadcast nationwide on television and radio. Fortunately the mission began well, and so ends the good news.

Voskhod 2 was ambitious, it was the first mission to attempt EVA (Extravehicular activity) in recorded history. EVA means a space walk. 30-year-old first-time cosmonaut Alexei twisted and turned in his stiff, customised space-suit before climbing into the ships first-of-a-kind inflatable airlock. Pavel lowered the airlock pressure and Alexei met the vacuum of space – it was not a pleasant meeting. Back at ground control they judged the mission was going well, so the camera feeds were sent out across Soviet Russia, and Alexei’s family found out that he was floating around outside of his spaceship. His young daughter reacted immediately:

“What is he doing? What is he doing? Please tell Daddy to get back inside.”

The purpose of the mission, other than annoying Americans, was to show that humans could survive independently in space, outside of a craft, given an appropriate suit. This escaped the notice of his father who was far more concerned with Alexei’s safety than scientific progress:

“Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” he shouted in frustration. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody must tell him to get back inside immediately. He must be punished for this.”

Suddenly a new voice was heard through the televisions and radios of Russia. A message of congratulations from President Leonid Brezhnev: “We members of the Politburo are here sitting and watching what you are doing. We are proud of you,” Brezhnev said. “We wish you success. Take care. We await your safe arrival on Earth.” Both cosmonauts, and Alexei Leonov’s father, were cheered by the message. It was the last piece of good news for the entire mission.

10 minutes had passed, 10 minutes of entirely unknown experience; it was time to return. The Earth span beneath them, filling the void between themselves and the sun. Time was of the essence, they needed to flee humanity’s shadow.

Alexei reluctantly retreated from space and wandered to the airlock which was filled with trouble. The emptiness of space means there are few particles to hit surfaces and exert pressure upon them. Alexei’s spacesuit was filled with air, and so the internal pressure had caused the whole thing to expand and become near immovable at the joints. He had 40 minutes of oxygen left and he couldn’t fit into the airlock. The radio and television transmissions were cut by mission control and replaced with Mozart’s Requiem playing on loop. Nobody knew anything.

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