National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Site Office; Wikipedia (public domain)
- A popular Reddit thread suggested a US scientist once lit his cigarette with a nuclear explosion.
- The story appears to be true: The theoretical physicist Ted Taylor ignited his smoke with thermal energy released by a test blast on June 1, 1952, according to a book published in 1999.
- Taylor used a cup-shaped mirror to focus the light from the detonation onto the tip of his cigarette.
- A 1955 video by the US Department of Defense suggests word (and emulation) of Taylor’s gag may have spread among other nuclear-weapons testers.
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There are all kinds of strange ways to light up a cigarette, from blowtorches to magnifying glasses. But few people on Earth have ever used as bizarre or overkill a method as devised by a Cold War physicist: the explosion of a nuclear bomb.
On Sunday, a thread from Reddit’s popular "r/TodayILearned" community mentioned the story of how the theoretical physicist Ted Taylor used the blinding flash of an atomic explosion to light a cigarette in 1952.
Records of "atomic cigarette lighter" events aren’t exactly robust, but it appears Taylor was the first to come up with the idea. That’s according to the author Richard L. Miller, whose 1999 book "Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing" chronicled the event in detail.
Taylor apparently lit his cigarette during a Operation Tumbler-Snapper, which was a series of test blasts orchestrated by the US military at the Nevada Test Site. The operation happened in the throes of the Korean War — a conflict in which President Harry S. Truman considered dropping the bomb (again).
Government officials code-named the test explosion or shot in question "George" because it was the seventh in a series (and "G" is the seventh letter of the alphabet). Its purpose wasn’t to light up a smoke, of course: Military researchers placed a roughly 3,000-pound nuclear-bomb design, known as the Mark 5, atop a 30o-foot-tall tower to try out a new blast-triggering technology, according to the Nuclear Weapons Archive.
The day before the test shot, Taylor apparently found a spare parabolic (cup-shaped) mirror, according to Miller’s book, and set it up in the facility’s control building ahead of time. Taylor knew exactly where to place the mirror so that it’d gather light from the test explosion, which would release gobs of thermal energy, and focus it on a particular spot.
Next, Taylor hung a Pall Mall cigarette on a wire so that its tip would float directly in front of the focused light beam. The arrangement wasn’t too different in principle from holding out a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight on a piece of paper and light it on fire.
On June 1, 1952, Taylor and other weapons experts huddled into the bunkerlike control building near Area 3 of the Yucca Flats weapons test basin in Nevada. Then they set off the bomb.
"In a second or so the concentrated, focused light from the weapon ignited the tip of the cigarette. He had made the world’s first atomic cigarette lighter," Miller wrote of Taylor’s setup.
‘It is a form of patting the bomb’
Taylor’s nuclear-age antics likely did not stop with him.
Martin Pfeiffer, an anthropologist who researches humanity’s relationship with nuclear weapons (and who frequently forces the release of documents related to the bomb) tweeted that a 1955 Department of Defense film appears to show the concept in action.
About 19 minutes into the half-hour movie, titled "Operation Teapot Military Effects Studies," a narrator describes how parabolic mirrors were used to concentrate the light-based energy from nuclear explosions on samples of ceramics.
In the clip, a person’s hand holds the tip of a cigarette in a beam of focused light, causing it to smoke and ignite:
Although this looks like another cigarette being lit by a nuclear weapon, that’s unlikely.
There’s no blinding flash — a telltale effect of a nuclear explosion — and the length of time the light beam stays on-screen is far too long as well. The person being filmed probably just held out his cigarette for the videographer so as to demonstrate the concept of a parabolic mirror focusing would-be bomb energy.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine the story of Taylor’s feat spreading among his colleagues over many years and hundreds of above-ground US nuclear test shots. A few others probably tried it themselves.
In any case, Pfeiffer isn’t enamored by such stunts.
"Lighting a cigarette with a nuclear weapon … is at least in part an effort of domestication of nuclear weapons through a performance articulating it to a most quotidian act of cigarette lighting," he tweeted. "It is a form of patting the bomb."
That is to say: The act risks trivializing nuclear weapons, which can and have inflicted mass death and destruction. The 1945 US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, for example, led to approximately 150,000 casualties, and decades of suffering for many who survived the attacks.
Today, above-ground nuclear testing is mostly banned worldwide, since it can spread radioactive fallout, mess with electronics, be mistaken for an act of war, and more. But US-Russia relations have deteriorated to the point that each nation is racing to develop and test new nuclear armaments.
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, or CTBT, endeavors to ban nuclear explosions "by everyone, everywhere: on the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, underwater, and underground." Russia has signed and ratified the treaty, but eight other nations have yet to complete both steps and bring it into effect.
The US signed on to the CTBT in 1996, but Congress has yet to ratify the nation’s participation in the agreement. There are also nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons in existence today, which means the atomic-cigarette-lighter trick could, almost certainly for worse, be tried again.
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