by George Zamora
SOCORRO – When you walk into New Mexico Tech history professor Scott Zeman’s office you immediately get the strange feeling that something is inexplicably amiss. Maybe it has something to do with the giant red ant lurking in the corner.
Since arriving to teach at the research university about five years ago, Zeman’s office has gradually evolved into a makeshift mini-museum devoted to memorabilia associated with his increasingly popular class, “Atomic America: The Cultural History of Nuclear Technology in the United States.”
The giant ant that resides in his office is actually a papier mache creation that was fashioned by one of his students who was inspired by a classroom viewing of Them!, a 1950s nuclear-apocalyptic B-movie in which nuclear testing in New Mexico results in gigantic, mutated ants ravaging the surrounding countryside.
Now, Zeman has taken his personal and professional interest in all things atomic to the next level and has compiled, edited, and published a new book, titled “Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” a labor of love which was co-edited by fellow atomic-enthusiast and Northern Arizona University history professor Michael Amundson.
The book recently was released in both hardbound and paperbound editions by the University Press of Colorado.
“This compilation of essays on atomic history and culture can be traced back to a 2001 conference on that very subject that was sponsored by the Southwest Popular Culture Association,” Zeman says. “There was an overwhelming response to the call for papers for that conference, and many of these essays included in this volume grew out of that.”
It was also at that same conference in Albuquerque that Zeman eventually hooked up with Amundson. The two hit it off right from the start, in large part because of their similar research interests, and began exploring the idea of compiling the research papers being presented at the conference into a single volume or a series of books.
“After presenting a prospectus to the University Press of Colorado, we found that they were very eager to publish it,” Zeman says.
The eight chapters that make up “Atomic Culture” each consider various aspects of cultural expressions—both highbrow and lowbrow—associated with atomic testing, warfare, and energy, from the 1940s up until present day, and, in one case, extending to 10,000 years from now.
University of New Mexico history professor Ferenc M. Szasz, who is known for his seminal history of the Manhattan Project, “The Day the Sun Rose Twice,” for instance, contributes a scholarly essay on “atomic comic books,” which covers everything from the 1949 info-comic “Dagwood Splits the Atom” to Bart Simpson’s favorite atomic hero, “Radioactive Man.”
Other chapters in the book are devoted to 1950s life in Los Alamos, uranium mining, nuclear landscapes, nuclear imagery in the Post-Cold War cinema, and the mushroom cloud as kitsch.
Zeman himself contributes a chapter that delves into the social expressions and reactions to past proposals to develop a neutron bomb—a nuclear weapon capable of killing people with radiation, while leaving buildings intact.
“The history of our atomic age is a research area that I never explored before coming to New Mexico Tech,” Zeman relates. “But shortly after arriving and learning about the university’s proximity to Trinity Site, its collaborative work with Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, and its role in Cold War history, my interest was sparked. . . . It’s now become a major focus of my research.
“If you had asked me six or seven years ago whether I’d be studying the history and culture of our atomic age, I would not have been able to imagine doing so,” he says. “However, now I’m captivated by the subject: I find it absolutely fascinating!”