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Juniata Students Learn the History and Science Behind \'The Bomb\'

(Posted October 11, 2004)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Students today often use the phrase "the bomb" as shorthand for something good, but Juniata College physics professor Jim Borgardt wants to give his students insight into how "The Bomb" was developed and how nuclear weapons have evolved into major elements on the world stage.

"I've always been interested in the cultural and political tie-ins to science," says Borgardt (pronounced "Bogart"). "When I was growing up, I was aware of the Cold War and how nuclear weapons played a role in that and today I think students are less aware of now nuclear weapons affect society."

Although Borgardt regularly teaches physics, the new course, Cultural Analysis 299: The Threat of Nuclear Weapons, places much more emphasis on the history and social implications of nuclear weapons. "We start in 1900 with the first experiments with radiation and come through to the present day," he says. "Basically I'd like them to think about the question "Do nuclear weapons have a role in your life?"

Borgardt also would like the students in the course to think about the role science played in creating atomic power. The students will receive a healthy does of science instruction, including working with radiation-detecting Geiger counters, testing the half-life of Barium and several other laboratory experiences.

"I'm going to give them enough science instruction so they can understand why nuclear bombs are much more powerful than chemical bombs," Borgardt explains.

To understand the history and sociology of nuclear weapons, Borgardt will use a variety of tools to pique student interest. The class will watch several films, including the harrowing documentary "Hiroshima" as well as "Atomic Cafe" and the Cold War thriller "Fail-Safe."

In addition, the class will read an acclaimed Japanese comic book (known as "manga" in Japan) called "Barefoot Gen," by Keiji Nakazawa, which depicts the story of a five-year-old Japanese boy who survives the Hiroshima blast. Borgardt also received a government pamphlet, with the forbidding title of "Nuclear War in Lancaster County," that had been researched and written by a retired chemistry professor at Elizabethtown College. The booklet, written in the 1980s, details casualty predictions, damage predictions and radiation distributions that might result if a nuclear weapon were dropped in Lancaster County.

"These statistics will start to mean more to the students if they can visualize a bomb that directly affects an area they are familiar with," Borgardt says.

Borgardt also has tied in one of Juniata's featured speakers into the curriculum, Stephen Schwartz, who will speak on "The Nuclear Tipping Point: U.S. Nuclear Policy and the Future of Nonproliferation and Disarmament" at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 on the Juniata campus.

"My goal is to get the average person to absorb enough scientific literacy to have an understanding of how nuclear weapons affect our history and our future," Borgardt says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.