Embracing Mystery: Radiation Risks and Popular Science Writing in the Early Cold War


Narrative form is crucial to the understanding of science in popular culture. This is particularly true with subjects such as radiation, in which the technical details at hand are often remote from everyday experience—as well as contested or uncertain among experts. This article examines the narrative choices made by three popular texts that publicized radiation risks to the public during the Cold War: John Hersey's Hiroshima, David Bradley's No Place to Hide, and Ralph Lapp's The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon. It contends that each author borrowed from well-established literary genres and that this borrowing was crucial to coherence and effective messaging of the argument. At the same time, placing the arguments in such a familiar form served to blunt some of the radical potential in those same messages.

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    The book jacket for No Place to Hide concludes with the assertion that “just as John Hersey’s HIROSHIMA made the fate of that city clear to millions of readers, so NO PLACE TO HIDE interprets these controlled explosions in terms of the whole world.”


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Thank you to Jacob Darwin Hamblin for the invitation to submit this piece, as well as for advice and suggestions on the article itself—along with Karen A. Rader, Linda M. Richards, Marsha Richmond, and two anonymous referees whose feedback greatly improved it.

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Correspondence to David K. Hecht.

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Hecht, D.K. Embracing Mystery: Radiation Risks and Popular Science Writing in the Early Cold War. J Hist Biol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-021-09629-6

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  • Radiation
  • Nuclear
  • Risk
  • Narrative
  • Popular culture