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Men in Black at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

by Michael Shermer, Mar 01 2011
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On Saturday, February 5, 2011, my audio book producer John Wagner and I took a break from endless hours of my reading aloud (with John editing out my countless mistakes) my next book, The Believing Brain, which ironically includes chapters on UFOs, aliens, and conspiracy theories. Ironic because for this break John and I took what we thought would be an uneventful tour of the beautiful new National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This is definitely a museum well worth visiting for a comprehensive tour of all things atomic. It was originally opened in 1969 as the Sandia Atomic Museum, but then changed in 1973 to the National Atomic Museum to include a broader history of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and finally morphed into the new building that now houses the collection, which includes replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs (see photograph), along with a B-29, a B-52, an F-105, an A-7, an Atomic Cannon, a Titan II Rocket, a Minuteman Missile, a Jupiter Missile, a Thor Missile, and hundreds more smaller items inside the museum building itself, including these two amusing early uses of atomic energy for “health” purposes:

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1. The Spectro-Chrome Device, “invented around 1911, was used in the practice of Spectro-Chrome therapy. The inventors believed that every element exhibits a certain color. Ninety-seven percent of a human body is made up of four main elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon. The color waves of these elements were thought to be blue, red, green, and yellow respectively. Illness was thought to occur when one or more of these colors became out of balance, either too dim or too brilliant. The Spectro-Chrome Device treated the afflicted part of the body with the proper amount of color and light to restore balance in the body. Once balance occurred, the patient should recover.” The operative word here is “should”.

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2. The Revigator: “This large pottery crock was lined with Radium ore. Instructions on the jar suggest that you fill it every night with water and drink an average of six or more glasses daily. After its discovery by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, Radium was considered a ‘cure-all’ until the early 1920s.” The operative word here is “crock”.

We were also quite impressed with the array of nuclear-tipped missiles, including these two (see below), one of which had been in space and survived the reentry. Can you tell which one?

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Then something really weird happened. As John and I were strolling along the exhibits talking about this and that, I wondered out loud if they had any examples of the sand that was turned into glass in the Trinity atomic bomb test explosion on July 16, 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico. Just then the museum docent who had kindly joined us to offer more detailed narratives to accompany the printed plaques, explained that they did, indeed, have a display of said sand-to-glass fusion, and there it was, beautiful in its horrific creation. We chatted it up with the docent for a time, at which point I asked if it is possible to go to White Sands and see the glass in situ. She said, “no, it has all been taken away.” I said, “who took it away, and where is it?” She responded rhetorically: “Right, who took it, where, and why?” I repeated the question and she repeated the rhetorical answer.

“Uh, what are you saying? Someone secreted it away?” “Yes, right, it’s gone and no one knows where,” she explained unhelpfully. “But someone must know,” I pleaded.

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At this point she hinted that there are many government secrets still surrounding nuclear weapons. Of this I am quite certain, since governments do keep secrets in the interests of national security, but she seemed to be speaking of a different sort of secret. I probed for more examples of such secrets. “When you go outside,” she offered, “you will see a B-29 bomber, like the one that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Look at the serial number on the tail. It says 451748. But if you go inside the cockpit and look behind the pilot seat you will find another serial number for that plane: 451749.”

“Okay, so someone messed up,” I suggested. “After all, the people who spray paint numbers on planes are probably not the engineers who design and build planes for Boeing. So what?”

“Well, I looked into that matter myself when I was restoring the plane,” she continued breathlessly, “and it turns out that plane number 451749 disappeared over the South China Sea in a mysterious explosion in the early 1950s. Supposedly one of the bombs armed itself inside the B-29 and then detonated itself.”

“Is that possible?” I queried, wondering just where this story was going but suspecting it was about to take a dramatic turn into conspiratorial waters.

“Have you ever heard of a bomb arming itself and then detonating itself?” she queried. I had to admit that I hadn’t, but I also signaled to her that I didn’t know much at all about bombs and what they are capable of doing, but then suggested that I could certainly imagine how the same people who spray paint the wrong serial number on the tail of a plane could easily screw up while arming a bomb and cause it to explode. Human error happens not infrequently in operating complex machinery.

“Well, I’ll tell you—that doesn’t happen,” she countered my feeble objections. “That plane was shot down or intentionally destroyed.” Okay, shot down. Intentionally destroyed. By whom, enemy fighter planes or an anti-aircraft missile over enemy territory? “No, it was destroyed by our own government.” Why? “Because the crew saw something.” What? What did they see? “Remember, this was not long after Roswell….”

Okay, here we go, we’re on my turf now! Aliens, UFOs, Roswell, New Mexico. The alien encounter in 1947. The crew, she said, probably had a UFO encounter of some sort, and they were silenced. “Wow, that’s incredible,” I enthused. “How can I look into this further?” At this point my erstwhile conspiratorialist grew quiet, warning me in a voice too fervent by half: “You can try but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I made some calls myself and finally got a hold of a two-star general, who told me ‘I don’t know what happened and you don’t either.’”

“What did you take that to mean?,” I pushed. “He was telling me that if I didn’t drop my investigation of what really happened to plane number 451749, that Men-In-Black would come pay me a visit,” she explained unhesitatingly and with enough dramatis that I would get the message myself.

So…there it is. That’s all I know from my brief visit and having conducted no further investigations. If anyone reading this knows, or knows someone who knows…or who has a Friend-of-a-Friend who knows someone who knows what happened to B-29 plane number 451749, I would really like to know myself. And if there are any M.I.B. out there planning to come visit me, bring an extra pair of those cool black sunglasses for me.

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50 Responses to “Men in Black at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History”

  1. QuestionAuthority says:

    Forget the cool sunglasses. I want one of those “flashy thingy” memory-deletion devices!

  2. Welmoed says:

    We visited this museum in 2000 with our kids, who were then 9 and 11. We all enjoyed it; even getting INTO the museum was an adventure, what with stopping at the guard gate, having to show IDs, and getting instructions to drive directly to the museum and not stray from the road or we would be escorted out…

    My favorite exhibit was about the plane that went down off the coast of Spain, with two warheads on board. I had never heard of that incident before!

  3. BraselC5048 says:

    I suspect that the reason there are two different numbers is that the plane contains parts from two different B-29′s. Another possibiity is that, since the only difference is that one number ends in an 8 and the other in a 9, that the 9 is actually an 8 that has some paint missing. Also, early B-29′s were prone to engine fires, although would be that unlikly by the 1950′s. Besides, I’d like to see some evdience that the B-29 in question actually blew up.

  4. Someone You Know says:

    I visited that museum several years ago. I found the most movingthing to be the ratty, tattered old flag from the Trinity test site. It’s ratty and tattered from years of flapping in the wind, not from the atomic explosion, but somehow knowing that doesn’t make it any less striking an image.

  5. Chris Howard says:

    Way cool! Standing next to old nukes (even gutted) must have been pretty profound, in a macabre sense. So, not to turn this into a total plug for your book, but when does it come put?

  6. SkepLit says:

    Was there any indication of a higher than usual background radiation level at the museum? I’m worried that the people working there may be developing undiagnosed brain tumors.

  7. Chris Howard says:

    “out” when does it come out. My fingers are too fat for my iPhones keyboard. Steve Jobs stole the technology from aliens, FYI. They have smaller fingers, than we do.

  8. MadScientist says:

    Are you allowed to sit on top of one while waving a cowboy hat and shouting “yeee-hah!” ?

  9. Robo Sapien says:

    I call shenanigans on this one. Riddle me this, Mr. Shermer: how can the maintenance crew screw up the numbers if they are STENCILED ON?! I’m sure the lying government would just LOVE for us to believe that this critical serialization discrepancy was just due to some mundane worker error. Riiiight.

    Michael Shermer is clearly in the pocket of Big Genocide. Wake up, people.

    • The Midwesterner says:

      It could have happened if it was done by a bloodsucking, overpaid, lazy public employee. That would explain everything.

  10. feralboy12 says:

    “Have you ever heard of a bomb arming itself and then detonating itself?” she queried.
    “Well, I’ll tell you—that doesn’t happen,”

    Joseph Kennedy, Jr.?

  11. Max says:

    Crazy conspiracy theorists should worry more about men in white coats.

  12. Max says:

    Here’s what happened
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ASM-A-1_Tarzon

    “On March 29, 1951, however, a Tarzon strike against Sinuiju went awry; the group commander’s aircraft was destroyed as a result of the premature detonation of the bomb when, the aircraft suffering mechanical difficulties, the weapon was jettisoned in preparation for ditching. The thirtieth, and as it proved final, mission, three weeks following the Sinuiju mission, also suffered an unintentional detonation of a jettisoned, “safed” bomb, although this time without the loss of the aircraft.
    An investigation proved that the fault lay in the construction of the bomb’s tail; breaking up on impact, a ‘safed’ bomb would have its arming wire removed, rendering it ‘unsafe’ and detonating the weapon. Modifications were made to solve the problem, but the damage had been done…”

  13. bigjohn756 says:

    Michael, you ought to wish for one of those memory erasers to go with the sunglasses. Just think, you could go tho a different church each Sunday and…

  14. ZenMonkey says:

    Fascinating! I wonder if there are creationist docents in hiding at the Museum of Natural History.

    I’m curious why there’s a Star of David on the Spectro-Chrome device (one of the more awesomely goofy health-related inventions I’ve ever seen). Is it denoting Judaism or is it serving some other function? Unfortunately I can’t make out the symbols all around it.

  15. jwthomas says:

    Great find, Max.

  16. Bill Dietrich says:

    Of course true Skeptics don’t believe in any conspiracy theories. Billionaires don’t collude to protect and expand their wealth and control. Capitalists don’t take advantage of Laborers. Governments don’t lie to the people and we can believe our politicians and elected officials. Men of great wealth are not selfish and greedy and don’t do bad things to other people for self gain. Governments don’t conspire to take the resources and wealth of other countries. All wars are accidents and are not planned in advance. All Government mistakes are just incompetence. Wall Street Billionaire Bankers deserve their tax payer provided bailouts and million dollar bonuses while foreclosing on the mortgages of the tax paying public who are unemployed. Yes, that is the world of the true believing Skeptic.

    • Laura Simpson says:

      Skeptics don’t believe just because someone tells them so. We believe in evidence. However, we’re not so naive to think people can’t do bad things, or that people can’t conspire against one another. There are some folks who collude, take advantage of others, lie, are selfish and greedy, and are incompetent and undeserving. Yet those same qualities also make a grand conspiracy harder to achieve.

      Believing the government is misleading you about budget spending is different than believing the government is covering up alien encounters. It’s much easier to pull the wool over folks eyes about budget concerns, because most folks don’t know much about how the budget gets determined and get lost in the 30 second sound bites from either party trying to tell you their way of managing the budget is better, and have a few hundred economists there to back them up. The “truth” about which budget is best for the country is speculative, and therefore easier to confuse people. Alien encounters is something regular people can latch onto and speculate about without needing a degree to discuss it.

      I also believe that it’s easier for folks to believe there’s a big conspiracy than to contemplate the individuals involved. We’re smart monkeys, but we can only hold so many variables in our heads at once. The vast numbers of individuals increases the complexity, and conspiracies simplify it to a few gross ideas.

      • Bill Dietrich says:

        Laura, I will set the record straight here. I DO NOT BLIEVE WE ARE BEING VISITED BY ALIENS! NEVER HAVE. That’s just a cunard to discredit someone who does not believe what the government tells us. All governments lie to the people and ours is no different. Well at least anyone over the age of 40 knows that. Bill

    • SkepLit says:

      How many head of cattle will now starve because all of their hay has gone to making that list of straw men?

      • Bill Dietrich says:

        SkepLit, Very few. Nothing like the 12 million children in America who are under nourished and go to bed hungry each night and live in dirt poverty with unemployed parents while Wall Street Bankers take millions in tax payer bonuses and buy new yachts, limos, mansions, private jets, and $5,000 a night prostitutes. Bill

      • HummusLord says:

        I’m guessing no cattle will starve since hay and straw are two different things. Take all the less nutritive straw you want to make that strawman, the cattle still have the hay to feed on.

    • tmac57 says:

      No Bill,That is not how a “true Skeptic” thinks.A truly skeptical person would ask “what does the evidence show?” and then adjust their view based on the strength,reliability,and verifiability of that evidence.Also,a skeptic will look at the arguments presented by others,and examine them for logical fallacies,such as ‘the straw man argument’ or a ‘non sequitur’.

      • Bill Dietrich says:

        tmac57, So why do Big Name Skeptics accept the government’s version as the true facts and correct conclusions based on the evidence and anyone who challenges the government’s case with facts is blown off as a “Conspiracy Theorists”? Some Big Name Skeptics have a 100% agreement track record with the government’s cases. I asked a Big Name Skeptic to name just one or two real False Flag Operations committed by our government over the last 100 years, and he said he could not think of one. How incredibly naive is that? Bill

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        I think we are victims of sloppy language.

        Skeptics do believe in conspiracy theories (i.e. organized crime exists, business collusion occurs, bad people sometimes get together in secret) but we do not believe in conspiracy hypotheses (i.e. Extra-terrestrials visit Earth and gang-probe mid-westerners but it’s all kept secret)

      • Bill Dietrich says:

        Bad Boy, Let me set the record straight. I DO NOT BELIEVE EXTRA-TERRESTIALS ARE VISITING PLANET EARTH! I do believe our Government engages in False Flag Operations and then lies to the people about it. Lots of bloody hands in the CIA, NSA, DIA, FBI, to name just a few, yet some Big Name Skeptics say “I don’t belive any of that. Those are just conpiracy theories.” Bill

      • We don’t. We review the evidence.

        And, speaking of “evidence,” who is the “Big Name Skeptic,” context of your comment, etc.?

        Until you put up more evidence, you go in the troll file.

      • Bill Dietrich says:

        SocraticGadfly, You don’t have to look far within the Skeptic Society. Not that difficult to figure out. Who among your leaders consistantly says in public forums, “Foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor, JFK second gunman, RFK second gunman, 9/11 foreknowledge, etc. are all conspiracy theories and there is no evidence to prove any of it. Why has no one come forward?” Answer, a lot of people have. Bill

      • Bill, apples and oranges.

        First, define what you mean by “false flags.”

        If you’re going to claim debunked conspiracies as “false flags,” then the conversation is over.

        A lot of people have come forward …

        AND BEEN DEBUNKED!

        Hugely debunked on JFK. Ditto on Pearl Harbor. Double ditto on RFK. (I suppose the California parole board is part of this conspiracy?)

        9/11 foreknowledge? Which variety are we talking about? The Jews in the WTC that didn’t get the note from Mossad? The Bush campaign donors in the financial companies that didn’t get the note from Cheney?

        Doubting that you will, you’re still in the troll file. Arguing with conspiracy peddlers is like shooting fish in a barrel that refuse to admit they’ve been shot.

    • Patrick says:

      DON’T FEED THE TROLLS

    • The Midwesterner says:

      True Skeptics are not convinced of anything because someone goes into a rant. Perhaps all of the things you mention are true…in some instances. So what?

  17. Specimens of sand grains fused and transformed by the nuclear blast (known as “trinitite” after the Trinity test site) are not that rare. We have some in our collection at Occidental College on display in our ground floor glass cases. They were never very abundant, so there may not be much on the market, but at one time it was possible to obtain them. Given their very limited supply, it’s no surprise that you can’t get any more–and it takes no “conspiracy” by generals to remove it from the market.

  18. AJ Ball says:

    A few minor changes:

    “Of course true Believers believe in every single conspiracy theory (even the one about reptoids). Billionaires always collude to protect and expand their wealth and control. Capitalists always take advantage of Laborers. Governments always lie to the people and we can never believe our politicians and elected officials. Men of great wealth are always selfish and greedy and always do bad things to other people for self gain. Governments always conspire to take the resources and wealth of other countries. All wars are not accidents and are planned in advance. All Government mistakes are never down to incompetence.”
    I kinda with you on the banks thing though. (Though that is more of a politics/morality thing).

    Seriously though that sounds like an interesting place to visit. Like the Atomic Testing museum in Las Vegas.

  19. Solak says:

    Dear Michael,

    If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times – don’t exaggerate! Did you really spend “endless” hours reading and make “countless” errors while doing so? If so, I assume you wrote the blog and made the visit to the musuem all the while continuing to read and make errors….. and are still continuing your error-filled reading to this day……

  20. Marilyn Blanck says:

    You can see plenty of trinitite out at the Trinity Site, especially under the shelter that covers part of the bomb crater. Your docent was misinformed. Trinity Site is open to the public two days a year. For some good photos of the site on open house days, see http://www.notpurfect.com/travel/nuke/trinity.html#visit. I was out there with a group from the Smithsonian several years ago, on a private visit. Our docent held several pieces of trinitite in his hand and demonstrated that it still made the Geiger counter click. We were advised, “Do not put this stuff in your pocket.” Do not expect “white sand” at the site, although it is part of the area designated with that name. It’s plain old New Mexico desert.

    • Right. IIRC, one of the two dates is on or near the test date.

      • Bill Dietrich says:

        False flag operations are covert operations designed to deceive the public in such a way that the operations appear as though they are being carried out by other entities. The name is derived from the military concept of flying false colors; that is, flying the flag of a country other than one’s own. False flag operations are not limited to war and counter-insurgency operations, and can be used in peace-time.

        If you believe all Fales Flag operations have been debunked and therefore the US does not engage in them, then I have to ask which Intelligence Agency do you work for because you could not possibly believe they are not committed by the US Intelligence Agencies.

  21. Michael, you can still see the glass in Trinity New Mexico, near White Sands!

    It is open 2 days a year, and if you get the chance, I strongly suggest you go. Most of the glass was trucked away as you mentioned, however, if you walk around the outside perimiter (there is a circular fence) and look in the sand, you will find occasional flat green stones, they reminded me of green peanut brittle. This is the glass that was left behind. I picked up a few, and put them back for others to look at. Many people take them, but this is illegal.

    I saw most of them in the sand by the edge of the fence where the metal “shack” is in the ground – I have no other way of describing it unfortunately.

  22. John Wagner says:

    We don’t understand everything about the universe so we have the “God of the gaps theories.” We don’t understand reasons for all the complex events in societies and governments so we have wild conspiracy theories. Nothing is easy, but gods and conspiracy theories have a lot in common! Especially when common sense, reason and logic eliminates most scewball explanations.

  23. Anyone visited the Hiroshima Museum? If not…and you’re in the area, check it out.

  24. kickbundler says:

    I’ve always wanted to visit that museum. Check out the following link for the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum Collection. It contains an excellent collection of artifacts including an extensive group of “radioactive quack cures” such as the revigator mentioned in Michael’s post.

    http://www.orau.org/ptp/museumdirectory.htm

  25. Daniel says:

    Sorry, Michael. Not even Google has heard of this conspiracy theory.

  26. Eugene says:

    29 Марта 1951 года в ходе отражения налёта 27 “Крепостей” на Синыйджу брат моего отца Сергей Коробов сбил B-29 №45-21749 командира 19-й БАГ ВВС США полковника Пэйна Дженнингса, который при возвращении на Окинаву упал в море, весь экипаж ( 13 человек ) погиб. Это был 44-й боевой вылет полковника Дженнингса в небе Кореи.

    March 29, 1951 during a raid reflection 27 “Fortress” in Sinuiju my father’s brother Sergey Korobov shot down B-29 № 45-21749 commander of the 19th Air Force BUG Colonel Payne Jennings, who on returning to Okinawa fell into the sea, the entire crew (13 people) died. It was the 44th combat mission, Colonel Jennings Korean skies.