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The Science of Nuclear Weapons, Visualized

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this infographic visualizes the science of how nuclear weapons work, including the processes of fission and fusion

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Visualized: How Nuclear Weapons Work

In 1945, the world’s first-ever nuclear weapon was detonated at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, United States, marking the beginning of the Atomic Age.

Since then, the global nuclear stockpile has multiplied, and when geopolitical tensions rise, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse understandably causes widespread concern.

But despite their catastrophically large effects, the science of how nuclear weapons work is atomically small.

The Atomic Science of Nuclear Weapons

All matter is composed of atoms, which host different combinations of three particles—protons, electrons, and neutrons. Nuclear weapons work by capitalizing on the interactions of protons and neutrons to create an explosive chain reaction.

At the center of every atom is a core called the nucleus, which is composed of closely-bound protons and neutrons. While the number of protons is unique to each element in the periodic table, the number of neutrons can vary. As a result, there are multiple “species” of some elements, known as isotopes.

For example, here are some isotopes of uranium:

  • Uranium-238: 92 protons, 146 neutrons
  • Uranium-235: 92 protons, 143 neutrons
  • Uranium-234: 92 protons, 142 neutrons

These isotopes can be stable or unstable. Stable isotopes have a relatively static or unchanging number of neutrons. But when a chemical element has too many neutrons, it becomes unstable or fissile.

When fissile isotopes attempt to become stable, they shed excess neutrons and energy. This energy is where nuclear weapons get their explosivity from.

There are two types of nuclear weapons:

  • Atomic Bombs: These rely on a domino effect of multiple fission reactions to produce an explosion, using either uranium or plutonium.
  • Hydrogen Bombs: These rely on a combination of fission and fusion using uranium or plutonium, with the help of lighter elements like the isotopes of hydrogen.

So, what exactly is the difference between fission and fusion reactions?

Splitting Atoms: Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission—the process used by nuclear reactors—produces large amounts of energy by breaking apart a heavier unstable atom into two smaller atoms, starting a nuclear chain reaction.

When a neutron is fired into the nucleus of a fissile atom like uranium-235, the uranium atom splits into two smaller atoms known as “fissile fragments” in addition to more neutrons and energy. These excess neutrons can then start a self-sustaining chain reaction by hitting the nuclei of other uranium-235 atoms, resulting in an atomic explosion.

Atomic bombs use nuclear fission, though it’s important to note that a fission chain reaction requires a particular amount of a fissile material like uranium-235, known as the supercritical mass.

Merging Atoms: Nuclear Fusion

Hydrogen bombs use a combination of fission and fusion, with nuclear fusion amplifying a fission reaction to produce a much more powerful explosion than atomic bombs.

Fusion is essentially the opposite of fission—instead of splitting a heavier atom into smaller atoms, it works by putting together two atoms to form a third unstable atom. It’s also the same process that fuels the Sun.

Nuclear fusion mainly relies on isotopes of lighter elements, like the two isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium. When subjected to intense heat and pressure, these two atoms fuse together to form an extremely unstable helium isotope, which releases energy and neutrons.

The released neutrons then fuel the fission reactions of heavier atoms like uranium-235, creating an explosive chain reaction.

How Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs Compare

Just how powerful are hydrogen bombs, and how do they compare to atomic bombs?

BombTypeEnergy produced (kilotons of TNT)
Little Boy 🇺🇸 Atomic15kt
Fat Man 🇺🇸 Atomic21kt
Castle Bravo 🇺🇸 Hydrogen15,000kt
Tsar Bomba 🇷🇺Hydrogen51,000kt

The bombs Little Boy and Fat Man were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, bringing a destructive end to World War II. The scale of these bombings was, at the time, unparalleled. But comparing these to hydrogen bombs shows just how powerful nuclear weapons have become.

Castle Bravo was the codename for the United States’ largest-ever nuclear weapon test, a hydrogen bomb that produced a yield of 15,000 kilotons—making it 1,000 times more powerful than Little Boy. What’s more, radioactive traces from the explosion, which took place on the Marshall Islands near Fiji, were found in Australia, India, Japan, U.S., and Europe.

Seven years later, the Soviet Union tested Tsar Bomba in 1961, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon. The explosion produced 51,000 kilotons of explosive energy, with a destructive radius of roughly 60km.

Given how damaging a single nuke can be, it’s difficult to imagine the outcome of an actual nuclear conflict without fear of total annihilation, especially with the world’s nuclear arsenal sitting at over 13,000 warheads.

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How Much Do Americans Trust the Media?

Media trust among Americans has reached its lowest point since Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

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How Much Do Americans Trust the Media?

Media trust among Americans has reached its lowest point in six years.

Gallup began its survey on media trust in 1972, repeating it in 1974 and 1976. After a long period, the public opinion firm restarted the polls in 1997 and has asked Americans about their confidence level in the mass media—newspapers, TV, and radio—almost every year since then.

The above graphic illustrates Gallup’s latest poll results, conducted in September 2023.

Americans’ Trust in Mass Media, 1972-2023

Americans’ confidence in the mass media has sharply declined over the last few decades.

Trust in the mass media% Great deal/Fair amount% Not very much% None at all
197268246
197469218
197672224
1997533115
199855359
1999553411
2000513712
2001533314
2002543511
2003543511
2004443916
2005503712
2007473517
2008433521
2009453718
2010433621
2011443619
2012403921
2013443322
2014403624
2015403624
2016324127
2017412929
2018453024
2019413028
2020402733
2021362934
2022342838
2023322939

In 2016, the number of respondents trusting media outlets fell below the tally of those who didn’t trust the media at all. This is the first time that has happened in the poll’s history.

That year was marked by sharp criticism of the media from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

In 2017, the use of the term ‘fake news’ rose by 365% on social media, and the term was named the word of the year by dictionary publisher Collins.

The Lack of Faith in Institutions and Social Media

Although there’s no single reason to explain the decline of trust in the traditional media, some studies point to potential drivers.

According to Michael Schudson, a sociologist and historian of the news media and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, in the 1970s, faith in institutions like the White House or Congress began to decline, consequently impacting confidence in the media.

“That may have been a necessary corrective to a sense of complacency that had been creeping in—among the public and the news media—that allowed perhaps too much trust: we accepted President Eisenhower’s lies about the U-2 spy plane, President Kennedy’s lies about the ‘missile gap,’ President Johnson’s lies about the war in Vietnam, President Nixon’s lies about Watergate,”
Michael Schudson – Columbia Journalism School

More recently, the internet and social media have significantly changed how people consume media. The rise of platforms such as X/Twitter and Facebook have also disrupted the traditional media status quo.

Partisans’ Trust in Mass Media

Historically, Democrats have expressed more confidence in the media than Republicans.

Democrats’ trust, however, has fallen 12 points over the past year to 58%, compared with 11% among Republicans and 29% among independents.

How-Much-Do-Americans-Trust-the-Media

According to Gallup, Republicans’ low confidence in the media has little room to worsen, but Democrat confidence could still deteriorate and bring the overall national reading down further.

The poll also shows that young Democrats have less confidence in the media than older Democrats, while Republicans are less varied in their views by age group.

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