The material power of nuclear weapons is universally recognized, but their communicative power is equally extraordinary. The strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued that war is fundamentally a social activity, a form of persuasion guided by rules of grammar more than by strict logic. He also took pains to distinguish between the abstract concept of “absolute” or “ideal” war and the inevitable particularity of “real” war. Both of those insights apply to nuclear weapons viewed as devices of communication; that is, both products and instruments of communication.

Nuclear weapons could not have arisen without two kinds of organized communication: the organized inquiry of Big Science and the organized production of 20th-century industry. Those two institutions emerged at a historical moment that led to their application, at an ...

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