Sunday, September 28, 2008

Day 100: Atomic etymology

a new form of critical mass, image: creative commons ibcbulk

Over the last couple of weeks I have come across several verbal references to atomic processes appropriated in contemporary, non-scientific writing. After encountering another "meltdown" last Thursday, I thought I should take the time to make an "official" acknowledgment of this. Perhaps these references have always been common and I am just noticing them now, but these lingering referents seem like powerfully tangible traces of how deeply the atomic era was/still is embedded in our culture.

In the last issue of ArtForum I came across the word "atomized" twice. The recent cover of the New School's brochure for Environmental Studies touts "fusion thinking". Then I realized that every month bikers who take to the street are enacting "critical mass". I am going to keep updating this post, so each time I encounter one of these references in print, I'll just edit or add a comment to this post. Feel free to do the same. I think it will be a worthwhile exercise to bring some present awareness to the topic by tracing these words back to their source...

Here are the words collected so far. I'll work on tracking down their exact appearances and references in print, and original meanings, as time allows:

atomized: ArtForum, Sept. 2008
fusion: New School's Environmental Studies brochure Fall 2008
critical mass: monthly bike ride
chain reaction:

1st submission: Jan Kruse found the nuclear lexicon

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Submitted from the Nuclear Lexicon by J:

The final entry (10) in the following list is the most shocking to me..........
As for the first entry I have often heard people say...... "that is real bomb" or "I think I bombed that test" meaning something negative:
Example: ....... creating a bathing suit named to glorify the test of devastating weaponry at the expense of the local population was a real bomb of an idea. (BAD)

1) You’re the Bomb!
A superlative to describe something or someone as good/great, as in: You are really cool! You are really wonderful!

2) I’m going ballistic!
A state of being to describe a feeling of hyperactive or craziness, as in: I’m going nuts!

3) I’m having a meltdown!
A state of being to describe a feeling of helplessness or an inability to achieve something, as in: I’m going to break down!

4) Nuke it!
A phrase used to describe destruction or dismay. Can be used as an expletive. The verb to nuke can also be used in reference to heating food in a microwave. In this sense TV dinners, frozen pre-prepared, meals, can be referred to as nuclear dinners. Uses include: Nuke it! or Instead of using the stovetop, let’s nuke the popcorn.

5) What an atom splitter!
A derogatory phrase used to berate a person’s intelligence, as in: he not too bright, a real atom splitter.

6) Bombshell
Used as an adjective to describe a beautiful woman, as in: She’s a real bombshell. Marilyn Monroe was among the first, the original Blonde Bombshell.

7) Overkill
Nuclear terminology describing the excessive force of a nuclear explosion, for example that a nuclear bomb not only destroys but over-kills, kit carries more force than is required for total destruction. Now the word is synonymous with anything thought to be excessive, as in: that homework assignment was overkill.

8) Firestorm
Light, heat, blast and radiation are some of the primary effects of a nuclear explosion. Immense light and thermal heat (comparable to the interior of the sun) initiate a phenomenon called a firestorm. Firestorms deplete oxygen from the environment and create hurricane-like winds, which attract debris and feed the storm itself, causing super-infernos. No living being can survive a firestorm. The word is now used to describe any controversy, as in: there’s a firestorm brewing in the city’s threat to raise bus and subway fares.

9) Ground Zero
The term originated with the world’s first nuclear explosion at the Trinity Test in Almagordo, New Mexico. The exact point beneath an explosion was called point zero - zero as the center point of the destruction. Later, the term was specifically used in reference to the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the origin of "Ground Zero" is rooted in the development of nuclear bombs and their use in World War II, today the phrase is used to describe the former World Trade Center Site in New York City.

10) Bikini Bathing Suit
In 1946, the French clothing designer Louis Reard, invented a two-piece bathing suit and named it after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, where the US government was conducting atmospheric nuclear weapon tests. The famous, and at the time shocking, swimming costume was named after the results of a hydrogen bomb test, which literally split an atoll in two, inspiring Reard to invent his bathing suit, still popular today.