A Nuclear Winter's Tale

From Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology

A Nuclear Winter's Tale

Science and Politics in the 1980s

By Lawrence Badash

The rise and fall of the concept of nuclear winter, played out in research activity, public relations, and Reagan-era politics.





The rise and fall of the concept of nuclear winter, played out in research activity, public relations, and Reagan-era politics.

The nuclear winter phenomenon burst upon the public's consciousness in 1983. Added to the horror of a nuclear war's immediate effects was the fear that the smoke from fires ignited by the explosions would block the sun, creating an extended “winter” that might kill more people worldwide than the initial nuclear strikes. In A Nuclear Winter's Tale, Lawrence Badash maps the rise and fall of the science of nuclear winter, examining research activity, the popularization of the concept, and the Reagan-era politics that combined to influence policy and public opinion.

Badash traces the several sciences (including studies of volcanic eruptions, ozone depletion, and dinosaur extinction) that merged to allow computer modeling of nuclear winter and its development as a scientific specialty. He places this in the political context of the Reagan years, discussing congressional interest, media attention, the administration's plans for a research program, and the Defense Department's claims that the arms buildup underway would prevent nuclear war, and thus nuclear winter.

A Nuclear Winter's Tale tells an important story but also provides a useful illustration of the complex relationship between science and society. It examines the behavior of scientists in the public arena and in the scientific community, and raises questions about the problems faced by scientific Cassandras, the implications when scientists go public with worst-case scenarios, and the timing of government reaction to startling scientific findings.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262012720 424 pp. | 7 in x 9 in


  • Badash's work is very well documented, and readers will appreciate the clarity of his explanations; advanced undergraduates may benefit from some of the chapters as a means of understanding the importance of healthy scientific debate and the dangers of one-sided political ones.

    Canadian Journals of History

  • This remarkable book is as well informed and as objective as one can be when discussing events that occurred within living memory...Anyone interested in the relations between science and society would do well to read it and ponder its implications for today.



  • Lawrence Badash's new book deftly weaves the science of nuclear doomsday with Reagan-era political debates and citizens' reactions. A Nuclear Winter's Tale shows, in surprising ways, how the science of nuclear war connected to other disciplines like ecology and meteorology. As we face new nuclear and climate-related perils, the story of nuclear winter exemplifies the challenge of providing essential yet contested scientific advice. This well-researched and clearly-written book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand both the Nuclear Age and the complex relations between scientists, politics, and society.

    W. Patrick McCray

    University of California

  • Badash has written an exciting account of the 1980s deep concern about nuclear winter in the scientific and political world. This book is an interesting story of the complex web of characters and motives.

    Warren Washington

    Senior Scientist and Head, Climate Change Research Section, Climate and Global Dynamics Division, National Center for Atmospheric Research

  • A Nuclear Winter's Tale provides the first in-depth study of the science and politics of 'nuclear winter.' The book admirably weaves together a wide range of scientific and technical efforts, from basic physics and chemistry to meteorology, ecology, nuclear-weapons design, and beyond. All the while, the book traces political developments, foreign policy, public relations, and media accounts across an international canvas. In addition to interviewing several key players in the controversy, Badash has tracked down obscure technical reports, back-room memos, and far-flung media coverage. He weaves all these together, skillfully explaining complicated scientific practices and political negotiations in a refreshingly clear manner. A major achievement.

    David Kaiser

    MIT, author of Drawing Theories Apart