Anxiously understanding ‘Nuclear Anxiety’

“I once asked a class what the word ‘radiation’ evoked for them.
Familiar worried looks emerged from the sea of faces. The responses –
‘cancer’, ‘death’, and ‘bomb’ – were all reasonable. But as I pointed out,
‘bananas’, ‘life-saving’, and ‘human’ would have been equally appropriate.”
– E. Williams, ‘Beyond the Bomb’’

Both ‘anxiety’ and nuclear weapons have become synonymous with everyday modern existence. Despite the Cold War ending, we still live under the threat of atomic war, with hundreds of active nuclear warheads circulating the globe (around 225 warheads in the UK). In 2017, nuclear anxiety seems to be rapidly increasing internationally, with newly elected US President Donald Trump advocating nuclear arms build-up, increased atomictweet.png tensions between the US and Russia, North Korean atomic testing, and the uncertainty surrounding Trident in the wake of Brexit. Furthermore, in January 2017, the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists moved the ‘Doomsday clock’ to 2.5 minutes to midnight, the closest we have been to nuclear war since 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, the need to understand the ways in which ‘nuclear anxiety’ affects our daily lives, in the present and the past, is ever more urgent. ‘Nuclear anxiety’ has been a problematic term in historiography but little theoretical or methodological structure has been generated for its practice. A universal definition of ‘nuclear anxiety’ is virtually non-existent as the term has come to cover all manner of nuclear ‘terror’, ‘fear’, ‘stress’, and ‘worries’. What exactly is ‘nuclear anxiety?’


‘We’re on the Brink of Nuclear War’, Daily Mirror, 2017

First coined by Freud, anxiety is usually defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with uncertainty. Freud first referred to the feeling of anxiety as:

The organism would attempt to remove the ‘excitement’ in order to avoid unpleasant consequences of acting upon it. However, in avoiding the unpleasant consequences, the organism was actually taking the frustrated excitement into itself.

Thus, anxiety has a real, physical energy, within the psychic dynamics of a person, as they take a worry ‘within themselves’ to manifest, and it is subsequently expressed as affective anxiety. The development of anxiety within an organism must thus be seen as both psychic and from within and as physical, unconscious meaning from an outside ‘fear’ or ‘potential death’ Anxiety thus stems from both the psychological body experiencing and interpreting the affect, and from the outside world affecting the being.

Paul Tillich marries y both external and internal anxieties by arguing that the “underlying ambiguities and uncertainties of finite life produce a basic kind of anxiety which is common to all people”. He claims that the threat to all human existence is the threat of being to non-being and this feeling is a constant, everyday occurrence in the human experience. Anxiety thus becomes both conscious and unconscious, internal and external, ordinary and extraordinary; a fluid, variable affect informed from both within and outside the body. Rollo May suggests that it is the awareness of a threat which results in anxiety. He claims that anxiety is characterised by:

physiological (faster heart rate, paling of the face), physically affective (sense of panic, perceptions are blurred) and cosmic (invades the ‘core of being’) attributes.  


‘The Drive for Mass Shelters’, LIFE Magazine, 1962 

Anxiety can be expressed three states: (physiological, affective, and cosmic) with different ‘combinations’ per the individual and the stimuli (a person may tremble, or turn pale, they may show ‘obvious’ anxiety – or not -, they may express anxiety – or not).

Atomic weapons have a physical, potential and cosmic presence, entering a being’s potential time, space and consciousness. A person may ‘tremble’ when talking about nuclear weapons (physiological), they may express ‘worry’, ‘unease’, or ‘dread’ (affective), and they may unconsciously deny, oppress or ‘be anxious’ about the potential and uncertain death caused by nuclear weapons (cosmic).

Robert Lifton suggests that all ‘nuclear anxiety’ is ‘denied’ and oppressed within ourselves. This is known as ‘psychic numbing’: the “loss of feeling in order to escape the impact of unacceptable images. He proposed that individuals experienced anxiety by engaging with unconscious psychological defence mechanisms such as denial. Everyone experiences ‘nuclear anxiety’ but do not always take action against it or obviously express worries.


If ‘nuclear anxiety’ is truly an internal phenomenon, informed externally, but is not expressed but oppressed, how can we deal positively and actively with it to ensure healthy attitudes towards atomic weapons? How can nuclear anxiety be measured if it is a ‘hidden’ affective state? If nuclear anxiety is an invasive, internal emotion, how does it affect the rest of our lives and social attitudes towards nuclear weapons/power? These are the questions I hope to answer and uncover in order to better understand our mindsets in the Cold War onwards. As my project advances I hope to continue to reflect on the ‘definition’ of ‘nuclear anxiety’ and provide a new understanding of a relatively new and under-researched phenomenon.




Freud, S. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Translated by A. Strachey (Eastford: Martino Fine Books, 2013).
Hogg, J. British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
Lifton, R. J. Connection: On death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Touchstone Books, 1979)
May, R. The Discovery of Being (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994)
Tillich, P. The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957)
Weart, S. The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012)
Williams, E. ‘Beyond the Bomb: Seeing through the Nuclear Fear’, AQ Australian Quarterly, 84.2 (April – June 2013), pp. 25-32.

Welcome to the Digital Age: New Digital Practices, Projects, and Audiences

Digitisation has become an almost fundamental part of human life in the twenty-first century. Communication, entertainment, culture and increasingly education are becoming digitised to greatly enhance our capacity to create and learn. At the New Digital Practices, Projects, and Audiences workshop at the University of Liverpool, we were presented with questions surrounding the future of the digital humanities, historical research and teaching at the university. What new forms of knowledge/educational benefits might digital projects bring? Are there significant limitations? To what extent does technology drive the shape, content and methodology of digital projects? What audiences are we trying to reach? How should digital projects be evaluated for their academic contributions for academic credit?

But what exactly are the digital humanities and how are they changing the academic landscape at universities? The digital humanities involves the collaborative, interdisciplinary and computationally engaged research, teaching and writing, allowing new kinds of teaching and research possible such as Virtual Reality and Digitised Primary Source Bases.[1] Thus, the field both employs technology in the pursuit of humanities research and subjects technology to humanistic questioning and interrogation, often simultaneously.[2]  Debates in the Digital Humanities (2016) acknowledges the difficulty in defining the field: “Along with the digital archives, quantitative analyses, and tool-building projects that once characterised the field, Digital Humanities now encompasses a wide range of methods and practices: visualisations of large image sets, 3D modelling of historical artefacts, ‘born digital’ dissertations, hashtag activism and the analysis thereof, alternate reality games, mobile maker-spaces, and more. In what has been called ‘big tent’ Digital Humanities, it can at times be difficult to determine with any specificity what, precisely, digital humanities work entails.”[3] Typically, the digital humanities involves the open access of secondary and primary materials, data mining tools, digital archives, online publishing and Analysis of Macroscopic Trends in Cultural Change. But what exactly is the potential for the digital humanities at the university?

BAFTA nominated screenwriter, director, and activist  Tina Gharavi opened the workshop, discussing how history and culture can be presented creatively through documentary and sensory stimulation. Tina began with a screening of her 2015 documentary People Like Us, a short film exploring the experiences of wrongful conviction and exoneration in mass incarceration era Louisiana. The film gives an insight into ‘live after death row’, using artful, snappy editing, immersive sound and metaphorical images, overlaying oral history interviews, to capture the psychological and emotional experience of an exonerees.

“My film weaves the emotional experience of those who have been released as they come to terms with what has happened in their lives.” – Tina Gharavia, Feb 2017.

Tina’s work highlights the unexplored avenues of oral history interviews. While many historians have used oral history, television and documentary extensively, Tina explores the more creative and sensory avenues, presenting the viewer with difficult questions in an attempt to create empathy and understanding. By using film to not only inform, but as a reflective, engaging platform, new ways to present and understand oral history can be explored. Tina also discussed her work-in-progress  Tribalism is Killing Us, which was created through a collaborative storytelling platform. Through this, many participants could contribute, comment and edit the documentary, allowing a greater collaboration between disciplines when presenting visual information.

Zoe Alker  (UoL) also discussed new ways of presenting visual data through VR technology, evidenced to be particularly good at engaging students in the classroom. Through basic programming and tools such as SKETCHUP© to create historically correct environments, such as  Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, an institutional prison which was never built, and enabling the exploration of the virtual environment with VR technology. Through VR, the potential for teaching and learning seems endless. Allowing students to explore and possibly create historical environments teaches skills in programming, computing, understanding source accuracy and an exploration in the history of senses/history of emotions while using the VR headsets. Furthermore, realistic events such as court room environments could be animated and overlaid with recorded sound, allowing deeper immersion. Zoe also noted that her software allowed the user to set their height-view within the VR environment, allowing the historian to ‘see’ as a historical actor once did. VR (and perhaps educational gaming) have the potential to open new avenues for historical understanding, presentation, and exploration as well as new ways to teach and engage students in the classroom.

0116-digital-humanities (1).jpg

Primary sources are integral to historical research and digitisation has allowed  libraries, students and academics to easily curate and access these materials. Tom English, Library Reference Executive at Gale Cengage Learning, demonstrated the benefits of data mining of digital archives. Using the Nineteen Century Collections Online, Tom demonstrated how data (including newspapers, monographs, articles etc.) could be effectively ‘mined’ and analysed, using tools such as data frequency, key word searches and multimedia graphs. Benjamin Ehlers, Alexandra Greco (UGA), Nicholas Fuqua and Joe Kelly (UoL) discussed ‘Slavery and the 19th century Atlantic Economy’, a developing digital resource that taps into sources from archival repositories in Liverpool and Savannah, unifying the University of Liverpool and the University of Georgia through collaborative digital work benefiting students and academics alike. Clearly then, the digital humanities has a lot to offer in terms of putting primary and secondary sources online. Data sites such as JSTOR have become part of a modern historians everyday life and enable groundbreaking research anywhere, at anytime. Speaking from experience, the digitisation of more sources, such as local newspapers will help find information and allow research which was previously difficult to undertake.

Finally, Jon Hogg (UoL) demonstrated his new Open Access electronic textbook Using Primary Sources, which provides students with a digital guide to historical research. The online textbook currently has three sections: Early Modern Sources, Medieval Sources and Modern Sources. Within each are a number of useful chapters written by academics and postgraduates on using different thematic primary sources such as memory, environment, religion, and social class. Alongside the chapters are a number of scanned primary source materials which compliment the chapter. Due to its online nature, the textbook can be edited and updated with new chapters and materials almost anytime, giving it endless possibility. Furthermore, its use in the classroom is highly useful. The textbook outlines ways of analysing and understanding primary sources, while actively engaging with the material within the textbook itself. Using Primary Sources is thus a huge resource for lecturers and students, allowing a unique way of engaging with texts as well as providing a basic source for theoretical and methodological primary source analysis.


Overall the workshop was engaging, useful and interesting, raising questions about the future of history and the digital humanities. Perhaps the largest conclusion drawn was the potential of the digital humanities; its potential for teaching, learning and education across all levels. Film, VR, Source bases and Online Textbooks are all clearly incredibly useful materials that are marrying history and digital humanities, each have vast (possibly endless) potential. So where does it end? In an age increasingly reliant on technology, perhaps the biggest question we could ask is should we move towards digitising history? In my opinion, the answer is simply yes. The digital humanities allow new ways for historians to present and engage with the past, engage increasingly distant students (usually due to smart phones), and collaborate and learn with one another. If visualising sources is becoming increasingly popular, then why shouldn’t historians follow foot? If more students are using smartphones in lectures, why not create apps to engage them inside and outside the classroom? If historians can now work and create with one another from all reaches of the world – why shouldn’t they? However, I also think that the skills of manually searching for primary sources, giving live presentations and networking should not be forgotten. As we rapidly speed towards the digital era and realise the intriguing potentials for the digital humanities, we should do what we do best as historians, and not forget from whence we came.


[1] J. J. O’Donnell, ‘Engaging the Humanities: The Digital Humanities’, Daedalus, 138.1 (Winter 2009), pp. 99-104
[2] R. Scholes, and C. Wulfman, ‘Humanities and Digital Humanities’, South Atlantic Review, 73.4 (Fall 2008), pp. 50-66.
[3] M. K. Gold and L. F. Klein, Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

NuclearBrink Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today


The University of Stanford is currently offering an interesting and unique online course: NuclearBrink Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today. The course offers an introduction to the history of nuclear weapons, focusing on topics such as Deterrence, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall, Proliferation, Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Policies and so forth. See an outline of the course here:

Week 1: Introduction; What Are Nuclear Weapons and Why Were They Developed?
Dr. William J. Perry; Dr. Joseph Martz; Dr. Siegfried Hecker

Week 2: Nuclear Proliferation in the United States and Around the World
Dr. William J. Perry; Dr. Joseph Martz; Dr. Siegfried Hecker

Week 3: Under a Nuclear Cloud: Early Cold War
Dr. William J. Perry; Dr. David Holloway

Week 4: Fear and Loathing and Relief: Later Cold War
Dr. William J. Perry; Dr. David Holloway

Week 5: A Lack of Intelligence
Dr. William J. Perry; Philip Taubman

Week 6: Dilemmas of Nuclear Policy
Dr. William J. Perry; Dr. Scott Sagan; Dr. David Holloway; Dr. Andre Kokoshin

Week 7: New Nuclear Dangers: Nuclear Terrorism
Dr. William J. Perry; Dr. Martha Crenshaw; Dr. Siegfried Hecker

Week 8: New Nuclear Dangers: South Asia and Proliferation
Dr. William J. Perry; Dr. Scott Sagan; Dr. Martha Crenshaw; Dr. Siegfried Hecker; Dr. Andre Kokoshin

Week 9: What Has Been Done, and Can Be Done, about Nuclear Dangers
Dr. William J. Perry; Amb. James Goodby; Secretary George Shultz

Week 10: What Next?
Dr. William J. Perry; Joseph Cirincione

The course is currently on its fifth week but you can still sign up and ‘play catch up’ the course offers a number of videos, lectures and a wide array of primary and secondary material.

“The key goals of this course are to warn you of the dangers you face and to give you some insight on what could be done to avoid those dangers. My challenge in this course is to make vivid to you that the dangers of nuclear weapons, far from being historical curiosities, are existential dangers today. You will have the opportunity to engage in discussions about these topics with both world experts and peers from around the globe.”

– William Perry

It should be noted that the course does primarily focus on the American nuclear bomb, but does offer segments of history regarding South Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia and the United Kingdom. Another thing to consider is that it takes an anti-nuclear approach. William Perry  outwardly states that he hopes the course will help people take action against nuclear weapons. This political stance should be considered when embarking on the modules, as some information and arguments may be distorted and one-sided. However I would encourage all those interested in the history of nuclear weapons, and the fear surrounding them, to sign up!