Stranger Than Fiction

The unbelievable power of nuclear devices is what really captivates McPhee and Taylor. It is magnitudes higher than what most people think of when they think of explosions.

An example:

"He said that Carson Mark had once pointed out to him a number, a fact, that brought with it the most astonishing realization he had ever experienced in physics. It had to do with binding energy, and it was that when Fat Man exploded over Nagasaki the amount of matter that changed into energy and destroyed the city was one gram -- a third the weight of a penny."


Fission / Fusion

A Dumb Guy (Me) Tries to Understand Fission & Fusion

Disclaimer: This is almost definitely a deeply flawed explanation. But, it helps me to think about it this way.

Nuclear weapons get their explosive force by splitting heavy atoms (Fission) or merging light atoms (Fusion). Both processes rely on the conversion of physical matter into energy. The trick is: when two atoms are fused, the resulting atom is lighther than the sum of it's parts. This mass can't simply disappear: the extra mass is converted into an explosion.

Fission uses heavy elements that have absorbed lots of energy (and lost mass) when they were formed millions of years ago in exploding stars. During fission (inside the bomb / millions of years later) this energy is simply released when the atom is split.

Fusion uses light elements that actually release energy when they fuse together. They don't take much energy to bind, so the lost mass doesn't all get used up in the binding energy - the extra mass gets blasted out into the world as the nuclear explosion.