A New Nuclear Expertise

Alex Wellerstein on a stage

As a Farber Fellow, Professor Alex Wellerstein is pursuing research on the civil effects of nuclear explosions.

Stevens professors know a lot of interesting things, such as how to protect coastlines from violent storms, stop high-tech trading fraud, and develop lifesaving drugs. And now, the university is honing a new expertise through Alex Wellerstein’s gripping, interdisciplinary research on surviving nuclear weapons.

Wellerstein designed NUKEMAP, a website that simulates nuclear explosions over notable cities. One could gauge the death toll from the historic Hiroshima bomb over New York City, or, relevant these days, the latest menacing weapon from North Korea. NUKEMAP visitors have simulated some 200 million detonations. The site has been featured on NPR, Fox News, The New York Times and The Daily Show, and Wellerstein’s Twitter handle, @wellerstein, is a blue-check source for social media.

By training and inclination Wellerstein is a historian, though he studies a topic involving complex science. He is also a computer programmer, a rarity among traditional historians. As such, he believes few universities would be able to process his interdisciplinary work.

“The work I’m doing could probably not be done anywhere but Stevens,” said Wellerstein, who has taught at Harvard and Georgetown. “Many history departments can be fairly conservative and would look at my work as strange. Stevens recognizes it as interesting, because some problems don’t fit into traditional academic silos.”

His overall goal is to help people reconsider their thinking about nuclear weapons. “Since the end of the Cold War, most people think about nuclear weapons zero percent of the time, and then something happens and we go into freak-out mode, and then two weeks later something happens that has nothing to do with nuclear weapons and we drop back down to zero. I’m interested in finding ways to balance that, so when the big reminders come, they’re not as shocking.”

Wellerstein benefits from two recent major philanthropic gifts, including being selected for a David and GG Farber Faculty Fellowship, supported by the legendary computer scientist Dave Farber ’56, an inaugural inductee of the Stevens Hall of Achievement.

“As we continue to see from following the news, the work that Alex does has great value to society for the way he encourages us to rethink our assumptions,” Farber said. “Stevens benefits from his presence as a notable professor, and I am happy to support him.”

Additionally, Wellerstein, along with fellow College of Arts and Letters professor Kristyn Karl and Julie Pullen of the School of Engineering and Science, has been awarded grants from the Carnegie and MacArthur foundations to establish Reinventing Civil Defense, an advocacy group whose stated goal is to “develop new communication strategies regarding nuclear risk that have high potential to resonate with a public audience…and identify what an effective, nonpartisan, level-headed approach to nuclear risk communication looks like in the 21st century.”

“All of this work has been funded by philanthropy because it doesn’t fit into the categories of most academic funding agencies,” Wellerstein said. “I can’t go to the National Science Foundation and say please fund my crazy plan to hack the culture. But philanthropists often have a lot more leeway. We can go to them and say, ‘we’ve got all these good people and all these good ideas, and all we need is a little bit of money to get started.’”