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The nuclear egg: challenging the dominant narratives of the atomic age

The nuclear egg: challenging the dominant narratives of the atomic age

While researching early Egyptian perspectives on nuclear weapons, I repeatedly came across the symbol of the egg. The atomic bomb, and atomic technology more broadly, was frequently imagined and drawn as an egg in the period after August 1945 in Egyptian magazines and popular science journals. Cartoonists, journalists, and even some scientists narrated the dawn of the atomic age through this recurring visual. The atomic bomb, some authors suggested incorrectly, was the size of an egg. The description of the atomic bomb as tiny likely emerged because of the association of atoms as miniscule, though others have offered more scientific explanations for the visual. Today, this visualization has largely faded, though it is still invoked in some jokes

The image of the egg can be contrasted with other unrealistically small depictions, such as Albert Camus’s description of the bomb being the size of a football. However, it is notable that the mushroom cloud, considered to be the uncontested image of the nuclear age, barely featured in early Egyptian accounts of nuclearization. By going beyond this iconic image, which reflects the specific vantage point of the US, we can better understand the agency of actors typically seen as lying beyond the scope of nuclear politics. In a recent article published in a special section of International Affairs, dealing with Feminist Interrogations of Global Nuclear Politics, I discuss the implications of the visual of the egg, alongside several other images and metaphors that featured in Egyptian nuclear imaginations. In doing so, the article challenges the dominant narratives, histories, and aesthetics of the atomic age.

To begin with, the egg is associated with fertility and femininity. The reliance on the egg to describe the nuclear age, therefore, challenges the long-standing association between masculinity and nuclear weapons. The link between these two has become conventional wisdom in feminist nuclear literature since the publication of Carol Cohn’s article “Sex and Death” in 1987, which is based on an analysis of US military strategists, who use phallic imagery to discuss nuclear politics. But perhaps this link is unique to states that possess nuclear weapons. My research on Egyptian nuclear imaginations reminds us that for nuclear technology to be desirable, it does not necessarily have to be encoded within masculine symbols. 

“The reliance on the egg to describe the nuclear age … challenges the long-standing association between masculinity and nuclear weapons.”

Nationalist modernizers in Egypt, like elsewhere, were enthusiastic about the atomic age. They used the symbol of the egg to highlight the promise of nuclear energy and nuclear technology for postcolonial nation-building. The symbol of the egg was used to highlight atomic technology’s usefulness in the creation of a modern nation. Atomic science was described through its potential applications for energy, architecture and urban planning, fertility and medicine. 

In contrast with the visual of the football, the metaphor of the egg implies life within. Intellectuals embraced the dichotomy of nuclear energy as life-giving and nuclear weapons as life-taking. Despite their enthusiasm for nuclear technology, nuclear weapons were unsurprisingly associated with colonial violence. There was a stark distinction between how intellectuals depicted nuclear technology at the national level and how they saw it on the international level. When describing international nuclear politics, the bomb was drawn as a monster, a devil, or a rocket—scarier images that highlight the threat nuclear weapons posed to the decolonizing world. Through these depictions, global powers were depicted as irrational, immature, irresponsible—inverting the patronizing discourse of colonies being unprepared for self-rule. 

“Nationalist modernizers in Egypt … used the symbol of the egg to highlight the promise of nuclear … technology for postcolonial nation-building.”

The bomb’s lethality was simultaneously linked to anxieties about women. The atomic bomb was likened to the “woman of the future”—described as slim, sleek, small; beautiful though also dangerous. Indeed, by the early 1950s, the atomic bomb had become part of everyday life and language in Egyptian popular culture. The 1951 film “My mother-in-law is an atomic bomb” capitalized on the sensationalism of the atomic bomb and popular interest in the subject. The film does not deal with nuclear war, and the term “atomic bomb” is only heard once throughout the film, as a metaphor of destruction. The film follows a power struggle between a man and his mother-in-law. It invokes her desire to be “the man of the house” as threatening and emasculating. Yet, the film ends with the mother-in-law subdued, suggesting that the couple was successful at taming and controlling her, a metaphor for nuclear technology.

Through these early images, we can obtain a more nuanced picture of nuclear histories in the Global South, which have long been overlooked. People in the Global South have participated in the production of the nuclear condition, but also in contesting and reshaping its parameters. Drawing links between gender, race, and the nuclear order, they have sought to imagine alternatives to the contemporary nuclear order. This is crucial for us to remember as we consider the long-lasting implications of the bombings of Japan, along with the legacy of nuclear testing, and amid continuous disputes over the Non-Proliferation Treaty, ahead of the 10th review conference. 

Featured image by Johannes Daleng via Unsplash, public domain

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