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?
|Bomb||Type||Energy produced (kilotons of TNT)|
|Little Boy 🇺🇸||Atomic||15kt|
|Fat Man 🇺🇸||Atomic||21kt|
|Castle Bravo 🇺🇸||Hydrogen||15,000kt|
|Tsar Bomba 🇷🇺||Hydrogen||51,000kt|
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.
A Century of Unions in Europe (1920-2022)
This year marks 100 years since the birth of the Soviet Union. How have countries in and near Europe aligned themselves over the last century?
Timeline: A Century of Unions in Europe (1920-2022)
On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine launching one of the biggest wars on European soil since World War II. The invasion reflects a longstanding belief of Russia’s that Ukraine—and much of the Soviet Union’s former republics and satellite states—is still their territory to claim. But what is the “former glory” of Russia?
Of the USSR’s former republics and satellite states, many have moved on to join the European Union, and in Putin’s eyes have become more “Westernized” and further from Russian values. In fact, Ukraine recently had its candidacy status approved with the EU.
It’s now been a full century since the formation of the USSR. Much has changed since then, and this visual timeline breaks down how countries within and near Europe have aligned themselves over those 100 years.
The USSR / Soviet Union
The Soviet Union—officially titled the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)—was formed 100 years ago in 1922 and was dissolved in 1991 almost 70 years later. At its height it was home to 15 republics, over 286 million people, and stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Ukraine, with virtual control and influence in countries as far west as East Germany.
Notable leaders characterized both the rise and fall of the USSR, starting with its establishment under Vladimir Lenin until the union’s dissolution under Mikhail Gorbachev. Latvia and Lithuania were among the first republics to make the move for sovereignty, beginning the demise of the Soviet Union.
Here’s a look at which modern day countries were a part of the USSR.
|Modern Day Country||Name Under USSR||Date Joined||Date Gained Independence|
|🇬🇪 Georgia||Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇺🇦 Ukraine||Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇦🇲 Armenia||Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇦🇿 Azerbaijan||Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇧🇾 Belarus||Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇷🇺 Russia||Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇺🇿 Uzbekistan||Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic||1924||1991|
|🇹🇲 Turkmenistan||Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic||1924||1991|
|🇹🇯 Tajikistan||Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic||1929||1991|
|🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan||Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic||1936||1991|
|🇰🇿 Kazakhstan||Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic||1936||1991|
|🇱🇹 Lithuania||Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1990|
|🇪🇪 Estonia||Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1991|
|🇱🇻 Latvia||Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1990|
|🇲🇩 Moldova||Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1991|
Additionally, there were multiple satellite states, which were not formally joined with the USSR, but operated under intense Soviet influence.
|Modern Day Country||Country Name at the Time|
|🇦🇱 Albania||People's Republic of Albania|
|🇵🇱 Poland||Polish People's Republic|
|🇧🇬 Bulgaria||People's Republic of Bulgaria|
|🇷🇴 Romania||Romanian People's Republic|
|🇨🇿 Czechia||Czechoslovak Socialist Republic|
|🇸🇰 Slovakia||Czechoslovak Socialist Republic|
|🇩🇪 Germany||East Germany (German Democratic Republic)|
|🇭🇺 Hungary||Hungarian People's Republic|
|🇸🇮 Slovenia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇭🇷 Croatia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇷🇸 Serbia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇧🇦 Bosnia & Herzegovina||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇲🇪 Montenegro||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇲🇰 North Macedonia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇲🇳 Mongolia||Mongolian People's Republic|
Today, there are still some countries that align themselves with Putin and Russia over the EU.
Belarus, sometimes called Europe’s “last dictatorship”, shares a border with both Ukraine and Russia and facilitated the entry of Russian soldiers into Ukraine. Furthermore, according to the Pentagon, Russian missiles have been launched from Belarus.
The European Union
The European Union was officially formed in 1993 and has 27 member states. Some former USSR republics are now a part of the union including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The most recent member to join was Croatia in 2013.
The EU has its roots in the European Coal & Steel Community which was formed in 1952 with Italy, France, West Germany and a few other countries comprising its first members. There are currently six candidate countries on track to join the EU — all but one were either former Soviet satellite states or formal republics:
- 🇦🇱 Albania
- 🇲🇪 Montenegro
- 🇲🇰 North Macedonia
- 🇷🇸 Serbia
- 🇹🇷 Turkey
- 🇺🇦 Ukraine
- 🇲🇩 Moldova
There are many reasons countries opt to join the EU: a common currency, easier movement of goods and people between national borders, and, of course, military protection.
However, in 2020 the UK formally left the union, making it the first country in history to do so. Here’s a look at every EU member state.
|EU Member States||Year Joined||Former USSR Republic?||Former USSR Satellite State?|
|🇩🇪 Germany||1952||No||Yes (East Germany)|
The iron curtain that was draped across Europe, which used to divide the continent politically and ideologically, has since been drawn back. But the war in Ukraine is a threat to many in Europe, and countries such as Poland have voiced fears about the spillover of conflict.
In late June, the European Council approved Ukraine’s bid for expedited candidacy to the EU, but the process will still likely be lengthy—for example, it took Croatia 10 years to formally join at the normal pace.
Beyond other needs such as military support, joining the union would allow refugees from Ukraine the freedom to migrate and work in other EU countries with ease.
Missing Migrants: Visualizing Lost Lives Along the Mediterranean Sea
Each year, thousands of migrants take the journey along the Eastern Mediterranean to get to the EU. Some never make it to their destination.
Missing Migrants: Lost Lives Along the Mediterranean Sea
Each year, thousands of migrants flee war-torn countries in search of asylum.
Even before the migrant crisis caused by the Russo-Ukrainian War, Europe has been the focal point in the past decade. Many refugees from conflicts in Africa and Asia, including those from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and have traveled to Europe along the Eastern Mediterranean migration route—a dangerous passage across the Aegean Sea that weaves along the coastlines of Greece and Turkey.
The journey to reach Europe is risky, and some of the migrants who attempt the crossing never make it. Using data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this map by Elbie Bentley visualizes the reported deaths and disappearances along the Eastern Mediterranean from 2014 to 2021.
Inspired by Levi Westerveld’s Those Who Did Not Cross, each lost life is captured with its own dot, in an effort to humanize the data.
The 2015 European Crisis
1,863 deaths and disappearances were reported along the Eastern Mediterranean between the years of 2014 and 2021.
Almost half of those recordings came from 2015 during the European migrant crisis, when a record-breaking one million people sought asylum in the EU.
About 800,000 of the one million migrants traveled to Greece through Turkey, with many of the refugees escaping Syria’s civil war.
|European Migrant Crisis by Year||Reported deaths and disappearances|
In an attempt to control the situation, the EU and Turkey signed a migration deal in March 2016 that agreed to send back migrants who did not receive official permission to enter the EU.
Though the agreement drastically reduced the number of people traveling through Turkey to Greece, thousands still make the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea each year. In 2021, 111 people were reported dead or missing along the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Dangerous Journey
According to the International Organization for Migration, the most common cause of death along the Eastern Mediterranean is drowning.
While the journey is only 5.4 nautical miles or less, transportation conditions to Greece are not always safe. Boats are sometimes forced into tumultuous waters, according to migrants who’ve experienced the journey firsthand.
And these boats are often severely underequipped and overcrowded—rubber dinghies designed to carry a dozen people are sometimes loaded with up to 60 passengers.
Safer means of transportation are available, but the costs are steep. According to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, it could cost a family an average of €10,000 to travel by yacht.
Rescue Efforts for Migrants is Needed
Further complicating the dangerous journey is a lack of rescue resources.
According to a 2021 report by IOM, the EU does not currently have a dedicated search and rescue team. Instead, the onus is on individual states to patrol their own waters.
Until the crisis is better addressed or local conflicts begin to resolve, there will be an urgent need for increased rescue operations and a standardized migration protocol to help mitigate the number of migrant deaths and disappearances each year.
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