The Blue Flash: Nuclear Accidents and the Origins of Superhero Origins


There's been an accident. The young scientist--or, perhaps, his lab assistant or friends--stands stunned. He knows he's been washed in a massive dose of radiation. He knows his life will never be the same.

In the real-world, the victims of criticality accidents spend time in the hospital. Some die. In fiction, they wake up with powers beyond the imagination of normal humans.

Researching the history of criticality accidents made me wonder how accidental exposure to massive levels of radiation became the de rigueur method of achieving superhero-dom. And, while I suppose comic book writers would have a well-formed opinion or two on this, I decided to ask a group of people whose point of view I'd never seen--actual nuclear scientists.

To get the scientists' perspective on superhero origins, I turned to three men:

Niel Wald is professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's department of Environmental and Occupational Health, where he studies the effects of radiation on the human body. Ron Pevey is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee who researches criticality safety, and nuclear reactor analysis and design. Geoff Meggitt is a retired health physicist, and former editor of the Journal of Radiological Protection, who worked for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and its later commercial offshoots for 25 years.

None of them found the nuclear influence on comics particularly surprising. Even Wald, who said he's never read any comics and completely missed the whole phenomenon of radioactive spiders, gamma rays and the like, wasn't terribly startled to find out such things existed.

I worked on a number of weapons tests in Nevada. Before dawn you'd be in the dark and suddenly the mountain ranges 50 miles away would be lit up like noonday, he said.

With that kind of awe-(and fear)-inspiring backdrop, it's no wonder writers dipped into the nuclear well. But even if we'd never tested an actual A-bomb, we might still have ended up with nuclear-powered superheroes. Ron Pevey remembers comic book stories involving irradiated heroes that date to the 1930s. The public fascination with the transformative power of radiation goes back further than 1945.

Pevey thinks its a case of pop culture mixing two scientific facts.

In the first part of the 20th century, the evolutionary scientists were expressing the idea that maybe cosmic radiation, which we've lived with on earth for our whole history, might have caused some changes to our DNA. Radiation can do that. At the same time, people were learning about evolution, which depends on random changes. I think that caught their imagination. That connection between radiation and evolution. I remember one of the earliest stories I read where they put this guy into a chamber and irradiated him, and he evolved before their eyes. Really he would have just died, but the idea remains.

In fact, the idea could go back further still, Geoff Meggitt says, back to the patent medicines that dominated the turn of the 20th century---the heyday of which coincided with the discovery of radium. With tragic consequences.

It was seen to have near magical properties: radium glowing perpetually in the dark, x-rays seeing into people. Radium drinks were thought to give vitality. Also radiation did achieve some remarkable cures of medical conditions from the very early days - and still does. So magical and transforming!

He points out the case of Eben Byers, the socialite son of a wealthy American industrialist, who died in 1932 after drinking more than 1000 bottles of a "medicine" made up of radium dissolved in water.

But the final piece of the puzzle--and probably an important one, at least for anybody who appreciates Alan Moore's "Watchmen"--is the eerie blue glow reported by some witnesses of criticality accidents. You saw a recreation of it back on Wednesday, if you followed the link to watch the fictionalized movie version of Louis Slotin's 1946 accident.

Niel Wald suspects this flash of unnatural color helped add to the mysterious nature of radiation, and created an almost ready-written Zap/Pow moment when you can see that everything has changed.

But what is the blue glow? Where's it come from? On that point, even scientists disagree. Wald and Meggitt think it has to do with the way charged particles released by a nuclear chain reaction interact with oxygen and water molecules in the air. But there's another theory.
Ron Pevey thinks the blue glow is caused by something called Cerenkov radiation. Basically, it's what happens when atomic particles travel faster through something--like water--than light can travel through that same material.

It sounds strange because we're used to saying that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. But the truth is that that's only true in a vacuum. Light doesn't travel that fast in water. Electrons, neutrons and little alpha particles can actually travel faster through that medium than light can, and that's what causes the blue glow. It's a weird thing. Astronauts have experienced it, too. And there's some speculation that, when this is seen outside of a watery environment, that it's actually occurring in the water in your eyeball.

Image of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen movie publicity stills.


  1. “He points out the case of Eben Byers, the socialite son of a wealthy American industrialist, who died in 1932 after drinking more than 1000 bottles of a “medicine” made up of radium dissolved in water.”

    …Makes me think of eve hypos from bioshock.

  2. Superheroes are often born from the x-factor of their generation. A generation ago Peter Parker got his powers from a radioactive spider, now it’s a genetically modified one. Our kids will probably read about a spider-man powered by nanotechnology.

  3. That last quote is ridiculously interesting. It’s great to learn something completely and utterly new.

  4. “Even Wald, who said he’s never read any comics and completely missed the whole phenomenon of radioactive spiders, gamma rays and the like…”

    What kind of science geek is this man? Never read comics? Next we’ll find out he’s at ease around pretty girls and plays sports. He’s a fraud!

  5. The comic book hero theme satisfies animistic impulses without actually theorizing animism. If you enjoy comic books, as I have, I think it show that no matter how “modern” you are there is some of that old hunter gatherer in you.

  6. re: “faster than light”

    It should be clarified that photons individually never travel at anything other than C (the speed of light in a vacuum). It’s just that in a transparent medium, they are constantly being absorbed and reemitted by successive atoms, leading to a propagation that moves slower than C.

    Clumsy analogy: Person A throws a snowball at person B 50 feet away. Person B takes out his anger at this by making another snowball an hour later and throwing it at person C, 50 feet beyond, who is then likewise enraged and begins crafting his own snowball. While the wave of snowball-induced rage is traveling at 100ft/hour, actual snowballs are flying much faster than that, and the snowball the emerges at the end is not the same as the one that started it, though it may be identical.

  7. I just been reading Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing for the first time. Thinking about this now gives a whole new angle on the nuke-face storyline.

  8. What brainspore said. Whatever is poorly understood can be used as a bit of “tech-speak” to create supernatural heroes and monsters. Heck, superman was powered by the simple fact that our sun is yellow and not red.

  9. Hammer’s creepy film “The Damned”, filmed in 1961 and directed by Joseph Losey, a Red Scare victim, has an interesting, if flawed, take on irradiated children.

  10. The Cerenkov radiation is the blue glow you can see if you look down in to an experimental reactor. I’ve seen it, and it looks pretty much like it does on ‘Dr No’.

    In a criticality, you might see a blue flash, but the flash might be the Cerenkov radiation within your eye. Alternatively, it could be ionizing radiation messing with other parts of your brain, but that could give you all sorts of otehr stuff.

    Radium was first noticed by its glow. This is a different sort of process. The radium in a 1930’s watch would give off beta particles (electrons) that would get converted to light by a phosphor such as zinc sulphide. Probably, the radium particles in the air that the Curies saw had some other stuff. Maybe the low light level made them appear bluish, a bit like the stars can appear bluish at night, though colour film sees them as all sorts of different colours. However, that meant that Flash Gordon would be condemmed to shovelling blue glowy stuff into the Radium Furnaces to keep the Birdmen’s flying city aloft.

    Radiation does not seem to be much cop at generating mutations to order. I used to work on that sort of stuff, and I am still waiting for my superpowers. What a gyp!

  11. I think folks are missing an important point: Most of the superfolk whose origins involve radiation are either 50’s-to-60’s-era or are modelled on characters from that time. (Watchmen is deliberately a back-reference to that period, in many ways.) That was “the atomic age”, when fusion and fission were simultaneously seen as heralding a bright new future of unlimited energy an technological breakthroughs, *AND* were viewed with horror both for what was known and what wasn’t. The serious SF literature of the time is filled with explosions, mutations, radiations “setting the atmosphere on fire” or otherwise destroying the world, giant/killer creatures of all kinds (or, in a flip of that trope, The Incredible Shrinking Man) and so on. Comic characters were created out of that same terrified hope, or hopeful terror (or hope or terror alone), though in simplified form.

  12. I just saw “Watchmen” for the first time last night. And this morning, before I even finish my tea, my mind has been freakily enriched by Koerth-Baker’s delightful post. In honor of this kosmic koincidence, a poem:

    I think that I shall never see
    Such flawless serendipity.
    Thank you! Thank you,
    Ms K-B.

  13. technogeek, if you’ll allow me to paraphase what your wrote: Comicbook superheroes are created using radiation because radiation is linked to fantastic power and mystery.

  14. The wikipedia page for criticality accidents has a lengthy argument against Cherenkov radiation being the cause of the infamous “blue glow”, arguing instead that the fission reaction ionizes the air and causes it to fluoresce. I’m not qualified to say whether it’s right or wrong, but either way, it’s neat.

    I wonder, however, whether survivors of criticality would characterize the blue glow as enveloping the entire space of the accident, or whether it faded as the distance from the fission reaction increased. I would assume the former would be an argument for Cherenkov (if the glow is within the eye of the viewer) and the latter would support air ionization.

    1. Lilah is right about this not being Cherenkov radiation-related. The blue color is a coincidence. I am the original author of the section in the wiki article from a few years ago explaining this. Though IANAP, I put considerable time into researching the rationale for attributing the blue flash to air ionization by beta/gamma radiation rather than cherenkov radiation. I queried a couple particle physicists about the explanation and they agreed it was valid.

      I would very, VERY much like it if amuderick could provide more information on that movie from 1937. There is no other reference to it anywhere and the historical value would be significant.


  15. Concentrated Radium does actually glow. The amount of radiation energy emitted is enough to ionize the surrounding air. This emits a glow not unlike those plasma chamber globes where when you touch them the spark moves to your finger.

    There is a short film called “Romancing the Isotope” from 1937. It is about 15 minutes. There is some history given of the element’s discovery and uses. Then a vial of pure radium salt is exposed to the camera (through massive lead shielding) and it glows considerably. There is no zinc contamination of any kind causing the glow.

  16. super interesting. as a person with a touch of nukyulr experience a couple of things jump out.

    Blue glow is indeed associated with storage of zoomie-rich evil in water. Cherenkov radiation: other things cause it, but fuel in water is where it is seen very often.

    The term ‘criticality accident’ is new to me. I have not heard this term before. The word critical is the most misunderstood in all of nukedom, in part because of near unanimous misrepresentation in movies. Critical means normal operation in real life. ‘super critical’ is when you want shades and sunblock. Be assured there are many things that can go fatally wrong in a power gen facility short of a reactor meltdown. Safety first, kids! None of those produce superheroes, tho.

    Genetic engineering will present vastly more probable backstories. Nuclear origins are fun in that you can just make stuff up. They were tickling at Avatars and Djinn with the dr manhattan character, things with a resonance of great reach. I look at this turning world and fear the imbalances in living things and our own forays into industrial chemistry and biotech much more. the Toxic Avenger always seemed to me a thumb in the eye of comic creators, since it’s a more likely but less sexy scenario.

  17. THe mention of Radium poisoning reminds me of the Radium Girls nearly a hundred years ago. Women who worked in factories painting items, like watch dials, with Radium. They often would lick their brushes to get a nice point for fine lines, which led to many cases of mouth cancer.

  18. Great article!
    I have a collection of antique bottles. This article made me just investigate one of them.
    It was from the “Great Radium Spring Water Company” in Pittsfield Mass. They sold water that supposedly had Radium in it for health benefits. For the longest time, I just thought that was the name of the place the water came from.
    Crazy stuff!

  19. I once saw a lovely term used to describe science in the Star Trek universe: wantum mechanics. What the director wantum, the writer supplied.

  20. In the real-world, the victims of criticality accidents spend time in the hospital. Some die. In fiction, they wake up with powers beyond the imagination of normal humans.

    Ah, so I should probably stop irradiating myself with the squirrel monkey equipment.

  21. A question for the nuke experts: I once read that ‘the only cure for radiation poisoning is morphine’. I assumed this meant you were probably gonna die, that it would be painful, and palliation was all that could be done. (As in, for example, the horrifying case of Litvinenko.) Is this correct, or is there some sense in which morphine could actually be curative? Seems unlikely….

    1. The “morphine cure” is almost certainly referring to cases of acute radiation poisoning. This table breaks down how much dose is how bad for you.

  22. Before anyone else says it; if it isn’t already, The Radium Girls should be a roller derby team.

    I once knew a dumb kid who had swiped a tube of tritium(?) from an exit sign, and joked about jabbing himself with it, I told him that was a Bad Idea, that it may be harmless externally, but taken internally… No, he didn’t do it, at least not while I was around.

  23. He points out the case of Eben Byers, the socialite son of a wealthy American industrialist, who died in 1932 after drinking more than 1000 bottles of a “medicine” made up of radium dissolved in water.

    There was a WSJ piece on this at the time, called “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off”.

  24. I took a nuclear engineering course at Cornell where one day our Professor pulsed the test reactor (yes, they have a test reactor in a non-challant building) as we watched the pool of water it was in. The water immediately glowed bright blue and stayed that way even thought the reaction lasted only a fraction of a second. The blue glow definitely occurs and not only during criticality accidents.

  25. Dear Ms. K-B
    We love you. you must write more posts like this.
    Thank you,
    Boing-Boing Readers Everywhere.

  26. The movie runs on Turner Classic Movies maybe once or twice a year…usually in the early AM as a fill-in for 10-15 minutes of another film’s overrun time. You have to keep an eye out for it.

    The blue glow of Radium is definitely not Cherenkov radiation. It is ionization, not dissimilar to an electric spark traveling through air. Many other purified radioactive materials exhibit the same property.

    If you are interested in this sort of thing, I recommend joining the GeigerCounterEnthusiasts Yahoo Group. There is a treasure trove of experts from many different radiation-related areas there. You will learn a lot.

  27. suhweeeeeet! thank you!

    (actually it turned out to be kind of a corny dramatization and not of much pedagogical value, but the last 3 minutes were somewhat interesting as they did actually show a sample)


  28. After Hiroshima & Nagasaki, authorities noticed that vegetables planted grew to huge dimensions. This lead to the first atomic creature horror film THEM, about giant ants terrorizing New Mexico, then LA. Then the Japanese followed with GODZILLA, the submerged theme being that the A-bomb has woken up monsters that will now punish humanity for their impertinence. Then came giant grasshoppers, giant spiders, Rodan, giant rabbits(?), the atomic man & other Japanese monsters. All this naturally spilled over to the comics.

  29. And for all you Makers out there, here’s the clip, from the “Nuclear Boy Scout” documentary, that shows how to make a DIY Breeder Reactor.

  30. Thinking about famous superheroes, it seems like all of the radiation-caused ones are published by Marvel:

    * The Fantastic Four (cosmic rays)
    * Spider-Man (radioactive spider bite)
    * The Hulk (gamma bomb)
    * Daredevil (radioactive isotope in the face)
    * The X-Men (“children of the atom”, though other explanations for their mutations have been suggested over the years)

    Of DC’s most famous heroes, the only one with a science accident in his origin is the (silver age) Flash, who was exposed to electrified chemicals.

    Dr Manhattan’s an ambiguous case, since we don’t know exactly what an “intrinsic field” is.

  31. The radioactive boy scout story is full of many falsehoods, half-truths and outright exaggerations.

    The facts are that David Hahn obsessively collected radioactive material and tried to make a breeder reactor. However, the extent of harm to himself and others as well as claims of his success have been dramatized to create a compelling story.

    He did not make a breeder reactor. Nor could he. Basic physics requires that the quantity of materials be many orders of magnitude greater than what he was fiddling with.

    It didn’t help that the Atlantic Monthly writer clearly had no scientific background to help balance the incredible stories he was hearing. Nor, that people tend to believe anything when you add the word ‘radioactive’ to the story.

    I say this as someone who read the book, was fascinated, believed it, and was motivated by it to learn about radioactivity and the physics involved. What I later learned about radioactivity was fascinating…but, it showed me that the book is completely inaccurate on so many topics.

  32. Jammed my finger in a Troxler soil guage trying to get the radioactive part back inside the machine. an OSHA incident as my finger got infected.

    I regrettably have no super powers to show for it. Those comic books are fictitious I say!

  33. When I saw the picture of Dr. Manhattan and criticality accidents I was sure someone would mention Anatoli Bugorski: the real Dr. Manhattan.

    Anatoli Bugorski was working on the Soviet Union’s largest particle accelerator when safety measures failed and his head got caught in the beam. The place where the beam entered his head got hit with 200,00 RAD (that’s not a typo or exaggeration) and 300,000 RAD where it came out. To give you an idea the maximum permissible, life time, full body dose for a radiation worker is 25 RAD. Somehow he managed to not only live but completed his PhD and raised a son. Assuming he’s still alive today he’s 67 years old.

    1. “The place where the beam entered his head got hit with 200,00 RAD (that’s not a typo or exaggeration)”

      I think that may be a typo ;)

  34. First they take our gods and devils, our werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. Then they take our flying cars. Now they take our atomically mutated super heroes. Where will it end?!

    Stupid scientists! Stop ruining our lives with your “science”.

  35. Does radiation poisoning cause film directors extreme paranoia that they’ll be lynched by detail-obsessed fanboys of a dated graphic novel, causing them to faithfully depict a nuclear scientist’s big blue swinging dick, even if that means it’ll look like a preposterous 25 foot man log on the IMAX screen?

    Because you know, that would explain a lot.

  36. #45: From Wikipedia: “There was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity, but the fatigue of mental work increased markedly. Bugorski completely lost hearing in the left ear and only a constant, unpleasant internal noise remained. The left half of his face was paralyzed, due to the destruction of nerves. He is able to function perfectly well, save the fact that he has occasional absence seizures and rare tonic-clonic seizures.”

  37. Two small points:

    billo had almost the whole story. Alan Moore was originally writing “Watchmen” using existing characters, including the Captain Atom character. When DC (as I recall) asked him to not use those characters, he switched every one to an original — so Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, The Question became Rorshach… and Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan. (I think it’s significant because it sort of lessens to total # of occurrences by 1 or 1/2 because Dr. Manhattan would never have existed if some lawyers hadn’t stuck their noses in there.) I concur, also, that he was a deliberate evocation of the Atomic Age trope.

    2. I just thought the blue light was as simple as that he was a source of energetic photons and that we just couldn’t see anything — or, more likely, Dr. M. didn’t let anything leave his personal space — that was more energetic than blue light.

    Dr. Manhattan probably learned after a while that letting his body emit UV light causes all his stuff to start breaking down and gives people cancer (wouldn’t want that to happen!), so he made sure that the most energetic photons that could reach anyone/anything around him was harmless, soothing blue light. He’s the world’s wackiest mood ring!

    (I also base my theory on the instance where he deliberately changes color. How could he do that unless the source of his light and his color were the same phenomenon, and that it was a phenomenon that was chromatically alterable? In other words, if Dr. M. was blue because of tiny electrical sparks, there’d be no way for him to change the nature of electrons so as to turn al those tiny sparks turquoise… but if it were simply photonic emission, then perhaps he could “tune” himself to whatever color was necessary.

    Cannabis is great.

  38. I think that ionizing radiation has an effect on the retinal cells of the eyes. I have had a few CT scans of my sinuses and each time I have seen momentary rotating crescents of light from my closed eyes. I’ve met others who have also seen this, but most people don’t – I have no idea why.

  39. I’ve done some research on the origins of this particular motif in popular fiction. “The Metal Man” by Jack Williamson, published in 1928 (the same decade Hermann Muller discovered that radiation caused mutation in fruit flies), is the earliest science fiction story I can find in which radiation causes the development of a mutant race.

    “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton in 1931 is the earliest story I know of in which a human gains super powers through exposure to radiation (in this case “cosmic rays,” decades before the Fantastic Four). However, this was no accident – the scientist in the story was deliberately trying to evolve himself with radiation. (This story seems to be the premise of the Outer Limits episode “The Sixth Finger”)

    These types of stories became more popular after the atomic bomb.

    Radiation-mutation stories have an ancestor in electricity-evolution stories. There were claims that electricity could be used to manipulate cells or generate life in the 1800s (some of these are referred to in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a pre-Darwinian evolutionary tract).

    “Professor Bommsenn’s Germs” by Ernest G. Harmer, published in 1888, was the story of a scientist who found a way to cause cells to evolve by manipulating them with electricity. While attempting to create a cow from a single cell, he accidently created a large headed being with “mesmeric” abilities.

  40. As far as blue-glowing reactors goes — I am still somewhat amazed in retrospect that Brookhaven Labs, which had an open-pool reactor (!) amongst its many lovely nuclear widgets, also hosted an open house (!!) many years ago… so, yes, I’ve seen Cerenkov radiation, and I too can confirm that it really was a rather attractive blue glow.

    (Brookhaven did a whole bunch of cool stuff, back when folks were still working at the nuclear level rather than getting down below that. Some of it being in the simple “so what _would_ happen if…” category. One of my favorites was the nuclear forest — put a high-intensity source (which could be shielded remotely) out in the middle of a few square miles of woodland, leave it exposed most of the time, and see just how nature reacts to the insult — what survives and how well.

    Though Brookhaven was always fairly respectful of what they had, so they never caused anything like the incident that inspired Fred Small’s song, _Hot_Frogs_On_The_Loose_.

  41. Author writes as if the blue glow might not be real. I have seen the glow repeatedly over 20 years, during refueling of commercial nuclear reators in many states of USA. Blue glow is in water close to used fuel bundles (rod assemblies) while in reactor, in storage pool or in transit to or from reactor. Seeing blue glow in air would be fatal according to physics specialists. I would run from any being with blue glow!

  42. I like Brainspore’s comment about superheroes always being a product of the X-factor of their generation: Radiation becomes genetics becomes nanotechnology. Science’s reach is always slightly behind science fiction’s grasp, and this relationship is as old as the genre itself. For Frankenstein, Mary Shelley needed to be purposefully vague about a popularly-known but ill-understood phenomenon on the frontiers of science – something people could believe might hold the secrets to life itself. Her imaginations being bound by the limited paradigm of the early 19th Century, what strange force did she employ…..electricity…ooh! :)

  43. As an undergraduate at MIT, I designed isolation electronics for a student-built and -run tokamak, an expermental device that might possibly, eventually, achieve nuclear fusion. When we fired up the tokamak, injecting a mixture of deuterium and tritium gas into a vacuum chamber with a magnetic envelope designed to contain the gas while we superheated it, the gas would flash to plasma and give off exactly the eerie blue glow you describe here.

    The tokamak was incredibly dangerous to be around while it was running. Just pointing at it while it was running could cause electricity to arc across and instantly kill you. In general, we ran all our experiments from behind a nice thick concrete wall. But if you could hold completely still, you could stand right next to the tokamak’s one tiny porthole and watch the gas turn to plasma. That blue glow hits something in your hindbrain. To this day, seeing that particular shade of blue makes all my hairs stand on end. It inspired the first journalism article I ever wrote, entitled “Little Blue Glows.” Ironically, it was about trying to save the world.

    That was in the early 90s, and at the time I thought we were around 20 years away from viable fusion power. here we are, 20 years later, and we’re no closer to fusion, as far as I can tell. Why? At the time, we were hampered by the physical challenges (how do you contain something hotter than the sun?) and the really incredibly daunting math behind it. (Nigh-insoluble second-order differential equations, anyone?) What puzzles me is that today we have far, far greater computing power available. Mathematical modeling ought to be able to crack those equations now. Why haven’t we solved the fusion problem? What is it about that blue glow that is both so primal and so complex?

  44. This is a great blog on the nuclear element of pop culture and superheros. I’m writing a bit on this time period, and am interested in ways the later cyborg characters mimic some of the same characteristics. If you’d like to talk more about this stuff I’m at

    Thanks, Steven Mentor

Comments are closed.