Television: Debating Putin’s Nukes

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was a guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday. During the broadcast he discussed his new book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization, which I commented on in an earlier post.

The odd part of the discussion came when Mr. Tyson was trying to explain that hydrogen bombs are not as bad as atomic bombs because they give off less lethal radiation. Bill Maher had earlier expressed his concerns about Russia’s Putin using a nuclear weapon and was surprised to learn that a hydrogen bomb was less dangerous in terms of radiation. He asked about this again, but Mr. Tyson went onto a different topic about the power of conventional arms and never did get back to Mr. Maher’s main concern.

Sadly, Mr. Tyson missed a chance to inform the audience about the dangers of nuclear weapons, be they hydrogen or atomic. As I had noted in an earlier post about nuclear risks, scientists have found that even a limited nuclear exchange can do great damage to the world because of the soot it throws into the upper atmosphere. A Columbia Climate School study on this issue, “Even a Limited India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Bring Global Famine, Says Study,” found that even 50 Hiroshima-size explosions, which are quite small by today’s standards, would “…launch some 5 million tons of soot toward the stratosphere.” This soot would “…cause production of the world’s four main cereal crops—maize, wheat, soybeans and rice—to plummet an average 11 percent over that period, with tapering effects lasting another five to 10 years.” The impact of famine would lead to the loss of countless lives around the world.

The real risk today is a nuclear winter, which Mr. Tyson never explained. Instead, the audience was left with the impression that a nuclear explosion is not all that serious. Apparently, he was more interested in sharing all of his knowledge about World War II than addressing the question on the table. Mr. Tyson is supposed to be a good science communicator, so he really needs to correct the record. This is no time to be sloppy about nuclear war.