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UC Berkeley Point of View

'Awful beauty': Reactions to '100 Suns' exhibit on Memorial Glade

'Suns' setting
"100 Suns" is on display in Memorial Glade through Friday, Oct. 7; a selection of images from the book of the same name is posted on photographer Michael Light's website. The installation is part of a multidisciplinary "Arts and the Atomic Bomb" event series through the month of October.
– This year marks the 60th anniversary of the dawning of the Atomic Age, when U.S. atomic bombs destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hundreds of thousands of their civilian residents, ending World War II.

"100 Suns (For Robert, Ernest and Edward's Berkeley, 1945-1962)," a weeklong public "bookwork" commissioned by Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, documents the era of visible nuclear testing — an era in which UC Berkeley played a pivotal role. Photographer Michael Light has unearthed 100 photographs from government archives, including previously classified material from a facility in Hollywood, that capture the nightmarish shape of mushroom clouds as well as the awestruck faces of soldiers who witnessed them.

"The university's role as the primary architect of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War of the last century is surpassed only by the U.S. government itself … may every student at Berkeley understand their university fully," writes Light in the introduction to the Memorial Glade installation.

We asked eight viewers of "100 Suns" to share their reactions.

Jaime Herren
'Well, I'm a combustion grad student, so this is pretty intense. It's amazing how beautiful such a deadly thing can be. It also makes me wonder whether everyone who worked on them knew how enormous and powerful they are, how many megatons of water they displaced, for example.'
—Jaime Herren, first-year Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering. Hometown: Vallejo, CA

'I knew almost all of these facts — not what each test was called, but I have seen a documentary on Oppenheimer and read Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking" — but somehow this is different. Some things I knew but was not conscious of, that UC Berkeley was so involved in the development of the bomb. It's quite shocking to have that sink in, that 60 years ago the university I am attending was doing that work. Also, even though I knew this, too, it is shocking to be reminded that after 1945, the politicians went on with such tests — that they didn't care what the explosions on islands, the exposure of the soldiers, and the killing of thousands of people had done.'
—Matthias Goerner, first-year Ph.D. student in mathematics. Hometown: Bremen, Germany.
Matthias Goerner

Ellie Bush
'It's depressing and horrifying. Somebody I know's father was one of the soldiers in the pictures who was present at a blast; he died of leukemia. She took part in a lawsuit seeking compensation from the government, but I don't know if it was successful. So it makes me think about her and also about my teenage son. He's a photographer and I think he would like to see this.'
—Ellie Bush, visitor to campus. Hometown: Vacaville, CA

'The photographs are beautiful, but should they be? It's eerie how beautiful but wrong they are at the same time — an evil, awful beauty.'
—Martijn Van Duijn, bioengineering postdoc. Hometown: Leiden, The Netherlands
Martijn Van Duijn

Ashley Clark
'It's amazing looking at all these pictures and seeing all the destruction these bombs could cause. I couldn't believe they put soldiers only a few miles from the tests. It's kind of an eye-opener. It's really scary to think all this is out there — you never know what could happen.'
—Ashley Clark, second-year student (undeclared). Hometown: Sacramento, CA

'I think it's really great the Journalism School is doing this because I'm sure there are a lot of kids here who don't know about the university's involvement in creating nuclear weapons. I did know, but not about the troops being so close to the blasts. That was really disturbing — those pictures of people watching the blasts with just goggles on. Also, I was amazed by the beauty of the photos.'
—Jake Himmel, fifth-year architecture student. Hometown: Palo Alto, CA.
Jake Himmel

Susan Hsueh
'I didn't know there had been some 200 tests, and that there were people sitting that closely to them, until I saw the photos. I think some of those photos had been classified until now. You know, lots of times you can read about something or see a movie, but when you see the real thing, you get a different impression — it really impacts you so much more.'
—Susan Hsueh, Graduate Assembly manager. Hometown: Moraga, CA

'I found the photos disturbing yet beautiful. I didn't know the quantity of bombs that had been detonated. I guess I did know that the university was involved but not the scale of the involvement. It's shocking but interesting, too.'
—Brittain Gulden, fourth-year mechanical engineering student. Hometown: Ventura, CA.
Brittain Gulden

Have a suggestion for a Point of View topic? Send an e-mail to bpowell@berkeley.edu. Answers to previous surveys are available from the Point of View archive.

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