An Unexplained Plaque

When I was working in the astronomy department at Columbia University in New York City, I noticed the building I was working in, Pupin Hall, had a historic building plaque at the entrance.  The odd thing was, there was no explanation on the plaque of why it was a historic building.  It took me a few years to find out why, and when I finally did it inspired this song.

Growing up in the Cold War

Like many of us who were children in the 1960s, I grew up under the constant threat of nuclear armageddon and integrated this reality into my personal culture.  I listened to King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”, especially the song “Confusion will be my Epitaph” which captured the feeling we all had of helplessness while world leaders were playing games with an arsenal that could wipe out life on Earth multiple times.  I had dreams of waking up and looking out my window to see a forest of mushroom clouds signaling the end of days brought about by human stupidity.  At the same time, the Apollo program inspired me to embrace the exploration of space as the possible saviour of humanity.  This led me into astronomy and the study of physics and eventually to Columbia University where I worked and eventually went to graduate school and earned my PhD in astrophysics.  

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

During my time working at Columbia I read a book called “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize winning account of the Manhattan project (highly recommended for Cold War geeks).  A year or two after reading this book, Richard Rhodes himself came to give a talk at Columbia University on his new book.  It was a sequel called “The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”.  The title of his talk was “Poisoned Apples” and in his introduction he inadvertently explained the historic plaque on Pupin Hall.

The Explanation and Inspiration

He opened his talk with something like: “I am honored to be here in the building where the Manhattan Project started” and proceeded to explain why, from a strategic point of view, nuclear weapons are truly useless.  They are “Poisoned Apples”, since once you use them all your strategic advantage goes up in a puff of fallout-laced smoke along with the rest of the world.  I was stunned to find out the building where I had worked for years was the origin of the Manhattan Project.  I went home and wrote the words to Poisoned Apples in less than an hour.  Those lyrics are pretty much unchanged from what we recorded for the EP Moon in the Branches last year.  It is the first and (so far) only time a song has sprung fully formed into my brain in that way.  As the years rolled by and the Cold War came to an end, I was relieved and thought perhaps my song would lose its relevance.  Unfortunately, human stupidity combined with powerful technology is still a force of destruction that we all have to guard against.  I fear that this song will never lose its relevance.  All I can hope for is that this song will warn people about what is at stake and how technology without some guiding humanity can threaten our very existence.

Click on the blue button below to view the lyrics of the song on my bandcamp site.

Don Recording Poisoned Apples
At Rich Mix Studios recording overdubs for Poisoned Apples
A youthful vision of Nuclear Armageddon
A nightmare realized on the chalkboard of my undergraduate office in the early 1980s.

jdn3

astro-nerd songwriter

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