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Alternate Technology: A Nuke By Any Other Name

By Tom Anderson

If they named it after the place, this could be a Los Alamos, a Hiroshima, or a Bikini.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once in the heavens, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One. I am become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds”. With these portentious words – actually a misquote by Oppenheimer from the Bhagavad-Ghita (covered in my article on mistranslations ), the world had entered the atomic age. With the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Second World War came to an end, and the planet would never be the same.


Regardless of what one thinks of this development, it is undeniable that the A-bomb is the central defining invention of the 20th Century, a technology which has had more impact on the direction of global politics than even the transistor or the computer. Because of this sheer centrality, it is all the more striking to reflect that the Bomb could have been known by a very different name. And, indeed, alternative names for it abound in the field of Alternate History, even from authors who seldom consider alternate terminology for more prosaic technologies.


Firstly, what about the origins of the terms in our timeline (OTL)? I say ‘terms’, not ‘term’, because there are several. The term atomic bomb (contracted, less precisely, to ‘atom bomb’) is probably the oldest. Similar to the recent development of artificial intelligence in the news, the idea of an atomic bomb in 1945 was not surprising to those who had paid attention in the preceding years, the only surprise being that it was happening now after long speculation.


To explain the meaning of the terminology, we first have to explain what ‘atom’ means. The term originates in the writings of the Greek philosopher Democritus of Thrace, who lived four centuries before Christ and whose philosophy predates that of Socrates. Democritus’ atom was more of a theoretical concept; he envisaged taking a piece of cheese, cutting it in half, then in half again, ad infinitum... and argued that eventually one would reach the smallest possible fundamental particle which could no longer be divided. To this he gave the word atomon, meaning ‘uncuttable’. Democritus’ atomic philosophy did not catch on in mainstream Aristotelian philosophy because it required that the atoms be separated by empty space – vacuums – and Aristotle did not accept the existence of vacuums.

Democritus of Thrace; bust presented by Greece to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

Atoms would eventually be revived, many centuries later, in the post-Scientific Revolution Europe of the 1800s. Researchers like Antoine Lavoisier had used superior measurement techniques to demonstrate that matter was always combined in very precise ratios to make compounds, implying that the combination was based on a numerical sum. Carbon dioxide was always made with one part carbon to two parts oxygen, so perhaps it was based on a fundamental combination of one carbon and two oxygen atoms: CO2. The British scientist John Dalton argued for the atom as the basis of matter once again. Our ‘whiggish’, triumphalist history of science often pretends that that was the end of it, but in fact many scientists remained extremely sceptical of atoms for many years. Even in the early 20th Century, some textbooks claim atoms are just a mathematical abstraction and there is no proof for their existence! In fact, in a supreme irony, just about around the most most scientists had accepted the existence of atoms, evidence began to emerge that they were not, in fact, ‘uncuttable’ or indivisible. The atom, it turned out, was made up of even more fundamental particles – protons, neutrons, and electrons. And there are no prizes for guessing that protons and neutrons turn out to be made of more fundamental particles still, in the form of quarks.


The first blow to our perfect ‘snooker ball’ conception of the indivisible atom was the discovery of radioactivity in the late 19th Century, by Marie Curie, Henri Becquerel, and others. They found that certain heavy atoms could spontaneously break down into two other, lighter elements and release energy. Some of their mass had been converted into energy and released. As the understanding of the atom evolved, the source of this energy became clearer. An atom was, Rutherford thought, made up of a heavy ‘nucleus’ of protons and neutrons at the centre, with electrons whizzing around it like a mini solar system. This is not true, but it has not stopped it being taught in schools over a century after we learned it wasn’t. Because protons are positively charged, and positive charges repel each other, it was understood that there must be a very powerful force holding this nucleus together. With a striking lack of imagination, we now call this the ‘strong nuclear force’. Because the force is very short-range, if the nucleus gets big and heavy enough, it starts to shake apart (to simplify), hence the origin of radioactive decay of heavier elements.

The Rutherford model of the atom. It's wrong.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When people in the early 20th Century talked about atomic energy, they were envisaging the release of some of this powerful force that was so strong it could oppose the protons’ urge to fly apart from each other. In practice, the relationship between mass and energy is slightly more complex, being summed up by Einstein’s famous equation, E equals mc squared. If we take an atom of mass m, then if that atom was entirely converted to energy, the resulting energy would be equal to the mass multiplied by the speed of light – c – squared. The speed of light is a very big number on its own, never mind its square, so the energy contained in a single tiny atom is tremendous. Small surprise that atomic power was heralded as an endless source of power that would serve all our needs, replacing the vast and wasteful burning of coal or oil.


In practice, the release of energy from atoms is never as efficient as this. As awesome in power as atomic warheads are, they only convert a fraction of a percentage of the mass of their fissile material to energy. Nonetheless, it is enough to produce a weapon capable of destroying an entire city and changing the course of a war. While early 20th Century speculation about atomic power focused on its peaceful uses, in the shadow of the First World War, many realised that it could also form the basis of a weapon.


Popular 1950s terms like ‘splitting the atom’ or ‘atom smasher’ are, we now see, rather oxymoronic, because the word ‘atom’ means indivisible. If we wanted to be especially pedantic, we might even argue that ‘atomic power’ also makes no sense as a term, because that power is released by breaking up the nominally unbreakable. Perhaps in some timelines we would have abandoned the term ‘atom’ altogether. After all, there are other concepts in modern physics that are arguably closer to the original conception of the atom as a basic, indivisible fundamental, such as the Planck length, energy, and time.


On the other hand, science is more conservative and less rational about these things than many people like to think; consider conventional current flow in physics and engineering (still sticking to an incorrect conception of the direction electricity flows that has known to be wrong for over a century) or the name ‘oxygen’ in chemistry, which inaccurately means ‘acid maker’ because Lavoisier incorrectly thought all acids contain oxygen. One gets the idea.


So much for the terms ‘atomic bomb’, ‘atom bomb’, ‘A-bomb’, etc. They are so called because they get their power from atoms. The alternative, and today more generic (though not for any logical derivation), is ‘nuclear bomb’ (or ‘nuclear weapon’). This term stems from the fact that the power comes from the nucleus of the atom specifically.


A traditional atomic bomb uses a fissile material such as uranium or plutonium. I’ll focus on uranium as it was the first one tried. Uranium is a very heavy element, by most definitions the heaviest naturally occurring element before one enters ones so heavy that they start to fall apart spontaneously and thus are no longer naturally present on the Earth. Uranium is element number 92 on the periodic table, defined by the fact that it has 92 protons in its nucleus. However, it also has a large number of electrically neutral neutrons, and two atoms of the same element can have different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei. These are referred to as ‘isotopes’ and are chemically almost identical, but may behave differently in terms of how stable their nuclei are. For example, the most common isotope of uranium, U-238 (which has 146 neutrons to add to its 92 protons) is stable on a human lifespan, with a half life of four and a half billion years. The term half-life means that after that time has passed, an arbitrary, statistical half of the atoms of a given sample of the substance in question will have fallen apart of radioactively decayed. So, for U-238, we are looking at the entire age of the Earth for half of it to decay.


By contrast, there is also the much rarer uranium isotope U-235, which has three fewer neutrons. This seemingly tiny difference results in very different properties – U235 has a half-life of ‘only’ 704 million years. When a uranium atom breaks apart, it releases two smaller nuclei and three free neutrons, which can hit other uranium atoms and trigger their breakup as well.


In the 1930s and 1940s, scientists discovered that if a mixed sample of uranium was ‘enriched’ with a larger percentage of U-235 (achieved via means such as centrifuges) then it could reach ‘critical mass’; at this point enough uranium atoms would be breaking apart and releasing enough neutrons to hit other atoms that more neutrons were being produced than consumed. So it became a runaway reaction and a significant amount of the uranium atoms were broken up, releasing energy in the process. The atomic bomb was born.


Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There are a number of means to achieve this ‘critical mass’ in a controlled manner. One is to smash two suitably-sized pieces of fissile material (such as enriched uranium) together at a sufficiently high speed; such weapons have the advantage that if the conventional explosive driving only one half goes off, it hitting the other at a slower speed is insufficient to accidentally trigger the reaction. Earlier on there was also the cruder ‘uranium gun’ model, where a gun fired a smaller piece of fissile material into a larger piece, which was more prone to accident as it had a single point of failure.


The Manhattan Project also discovered that there were alternatives to uranium. It was possible to convert uranium into the synthetic heavier elements of neptunium (plus one proton) or plutonium (plus two protons). Plutonium proved to be an alternative source of fissile material.


As nuclear weapon development continued throughout the Cold War, it was also found that it was possible to use the energy released in an atomic bomb to reach the temperatures found in the Sun, and so trigger fusion in hydrogen isotopes wrapped around the inner bomb.


Fusion is a different form of nuclear reaction, in which light atoms are combined to make heavier ones rather than heavy ones being broken apart (known as fission). It remains the holy grail of power generation on Earth, as it has few of the disadvantages of fission, but at present no-one has a method that can release more energy from the fusion process than it takes to reach the heat and compression needed to trigger it in the first place. However, in a fission-fusion bomb or ‘hydrogen bomb’ it has been used to make an even more powerful nuclear weapon.

The ITER Tokamak design, a fusion reactor. Said to be 20 years from practical operation. And it has been 20 years from practical operation for the last 50 years.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I could go on to talk about a number of other variations that came about in the Cold War, scary doomsday devices like the cadmium bomb or neutron bomb, but we shall stick to the more conventional A-bombs and H-bombs here. We can see that, due to the proliferation of terms in OTL, it is quite possible to create alternate terminology just by using some lesser-known OTL terms. They can also be used to set the tone for an era; even though fission weapons abound today, we rarely call them ‘A-bombs’ anymore, so using that term tends to set a story in the 1950s or give it 1950s overtones. Frank Herbert’s Dune now feels deliberately archaic in its use of the term ‘atomics’. Terms like fission and fusion are common, but people rarely use the combination ‘fission bomb’ or ‘fusion bomb’, so we might choose those words for an ATL that’s closely related to ours, but to which we want to give a slight flare of difference.


I often recommend looking at terms used in different languages for technologies in OTL, as these can sometimes be an inspiration. This advice is less good in the case of nuclear weapons, however, which made such an impact on the world when they appeared that pretty much every language uses renderings of the same terms as English.


So where else might we turn for alternative names for this fearsome weapon? Harry Turtledove has employed a number of ideas in his various alternate history works. In his TL-191 series, which diverges from OTL in 1862, he uses the prosaic term ‘uranium bomb’. However, he also interestingly has parallel ‘Manhattan Projects’ going on in multiple nations, all of which devise their own names for the two new elements after uranium that are discovered. The United States logically uses neptunium and plutonium like OTL (using the names of the two planets after Uranus), but the Confederate States project instead counts backwards and calls them saturnium and jovium (after Saturn and Jupiter respectively). The British (and presumably German) projects use different terms for the elements again. It’s a nice touch.


Turtledove has more original terms for nukes in some of his other books. In Down in the Bottomlands, a setting based on the what-if that the Mediterranean never flooded and Neanderthals are still around alongside Homo sapiens, the equivalent to a hydrogen bomb is called a ‘starbomb’. A logical term, as an H-bomb briefly replicates the conditions for fusion inside a star. Similarly, his short but fascinating AH work Ready for the Fatherland, about a stalemated WW2, uses the term ‘sunbomb’. In his Worldwar series, his terminology became a little confused; in the initial run of books, he had the alien Race mostly use recognisable terms like uranium or nuclear, while humans (who mostly did not know anything about the weapons being used against them) tended to use terms like ‘explosive-metal bomb’. In the sequel Colonisation series, Turtledove seems to forget this and have the Race call them that as well, which feels rather unfitting.


Tony Jones’ many alternate history settings are an excellent expression of original ideas in terms of science and technology (in particular). However, he mostly uses the OTL terms for nuclear weapons. This is probably mainly intended as an authorial translation for the reader, as he does note that in his Gurkani Alam scenario (based on a surviving and modernising Mughal Empire), the in-universe term for nuke is ‘Pasupata’, from the ultimate weapon of that name described in the Hindu epic, the Mahabarata. Oppenheimer would approve.


Finally, in my own AH setting Look to the West, I have decided to terminologically divide nuclear weapons from nuclear power, reflecting the manner in which they were discovered in this timeline. The term roughly equivalent to the word ‘nuclear’ is ‘carytic’, so one might speak of carytic energy or carytic power (but rarely carytic weapons). This term is derived from ‘caryus’, meaning ‘nut’ (compare ‘kernel’). The term ‘nucleus’ in OTL science is used for both the core of the atom and, confusingly to me as a child, the core of a cell – which is, of course, made up of many, many atoms combined in molecules. When nuclei were first spotted in cells by early microscopists such as van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th Century, one early term used was ‘nut’ or ‘kernel’ to describe the nuclei visible within cork cells. (The term ‘cell’ dates from the same period originally, because the microscopists thought the oblong cork cells looked like cells in a monastery). I have taken inspiration from this, and so in LTTW ‘caryus’ is used to mean both the nucleus of a cell and the nucleus of an atom.


In addition to the adjective ‘carytic’, I have other terms. Nuclear reactors are referred to as ‘paradox engines’, reflecting the point that ‘splitting the atom’ is strictly a paradox given that atom means ‘uncuttable’. This is a term originally given by their detractors that has caught on, as is often the case in science and technology.


I also have a term for damaging radiation, ‘del-para’, which is a contraction of ‘deleterious paralight’, reflecting the fact that X-rays and gamma rays are just invisible forms of light that are ‘above’ (para-) visible light in terms of energy and frequency. I feel this term ‘del-para’ is a realistic one because it also (by coincidence) sounds like it should come alongside ‘paradox engine’.


But what of nuclear weapons themselves? I have chosen the term ‘threshold bomb’ or ‘threshold weapon’. Rather than the atoms from which the power is derived, or the element of the atoms in question, I have named the weapon after the principle of the critical mass that it must reach in order for a nuclear reaction to take place. Rather than ‘critical mass’, this is referred to by the synonymous term ‘the threshold’. This also comes with the advantage that it can easily be turned into an adjective; whereas we might say a city has been ‘nuked’, the inhabitants of LTTW would say it had been ‘threshed’, which carries overtones of destruction (compare the Bible’s use of the ‘threshing floor’ metaphor for destruction that separates the wheat from the chaff).


While there have been many AH scenarios that feature nuclear weapons, there have been relatively few attempts to create unique terminology for them. If you’re an author reading this, why not have a go yourself?

Discuss this article Here.


Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series


among others.





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