Stewart Smith
Stewart Smith Nukes Hero 1

A certain aerospace company was interested in hiring me as their Head of Customer Experience Design—and I was delighted. The final piece of the interview process called for candidates to deliver a 30-minute presentation on a non-work-related topic of their choice.

I’d reached a crossroads at Amazon Web Services. The product I’d been hired to support, Sumerian, had been silently deprecated after being run into the ground under poor leadership. Personally, I was ready to pivot entirely away from virtual reality in favor of quantum computing, if only the nascent Amazon Braket team would officially invite me into their division to lead their product experience, rather than unofficially angling for my labor. (But that’s a story for another day.) It was time for me to seek the greener pastures that lay beyond Amazon’s fences.

A strong start

My search kicked off with a bang. Facebook (now Meta) had made me an offer to join their Reality Labs team based on the strength of my open-source hand pose recognition toolkit for WebXR. Google had tapped me on the shoulder about a mystery role that they wanted me to consider (but oddly wouldn’t disclose what it was). Apple had also reached out to me; they were rounding out their own XR team for what would evolve into the Apple Vision Pro headset two years later. And there were numerous interesting XR startups in the mix as well. (Special shoutout to the fine folks at Transfr who continue to tirelessly push XR for good. And love to Ada Rose Cannon who took my hand pose toolkit and built a superior one—and then joined Apple! Ada, you make the Web and the world a better place.)

A former employer, Unity Technologies, was also in the mix. When I’d left Unity Labs for AWS, it was essentially to pursue the dream of the Unity Editor in a Web browser. I was an early pioneer in Web-based virtual reality, and although Amazon had turned out to be a dead end for me, it was a side road that had been too exciting to leave unexplored. Now, just as I was discovering that this side road was a cul-de-sac, new highways were opening up back at Unity HQ. Some of those blue-sky ideas we had played with back in my Unity Labs days were now becoming realizable in the marketplace. Could it be the perfect time to rejoin the family I’d been torn about leaving to begin with?

Mach: A supersonic aerospace company.

Lastly, I’d also struck up a conversation with this very interesting aerospace startup—let’s call them “Mach.” Their technology was promising. Their tiny design and branding team was superb. I’d been interviewing with some of their engineers and designers; folks that were equal parts wise, kind, and industrious. (This was all done via video chat, of course, as we were just a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and business travel was still largely curtailed.) The final piece of Mach’s candidate process involved a 30-minute presentation on a topic of the candidate’s choosing—with the caveat that this presentation had to be a personal interest, and not a portfolio review of professional work. This was an opportunity for a candidate to showcase their thought process and communication skills, while allowing Mach employees to explore what it was like to interact with the candidate in a group setting.

Nothing to lose

As my scheduled presentation day for Mach approached, my conversations with other companies progressed significantly. I had offers in-hand. And those offers didn’t require transplanting my family from Brooklyn to an air hangar in the middle of nowhere. But this presentation was the final stretch of what had become a rather exciting marathon. I wanted to cross that finish line—and to do so with moxie. I wanted to impress (or at least entertain?) these folks in accord with how they had so impressed me. I had 30 minutes of their attention, a topic of my choosing, and nothing to lose. If there was ever a time to gamble on boldness, this was it.

A topic of my choosing… They didn’t want me to flip through portfolio slides. A personal project might be fine, but they wanted to see how I break down the nuances of some particular topic, explain it in a group setting, field follow-up questions, and so on. I wanted to pick something that would make a real impression. I wanted to lean into both my predilection for deconstructing complicated scientific concepts, and my dark sense of humor. The title and outline of the talk came to me all at once: Nuclear Weapons for Dummies. I’d give a half hour primer on what nuclear weapons were, and how to make your own. For fun.

The setup

This already seemed shocking enough—to distastefully endorse the idea of conjuring mass death for play. (And I fully planned to temper that darkness slightly with the condemnation that creating any sort of nuclear weapon is indeed a pursuit fit only for dummies.) But I felt this yellow cake needed a cherry on top. I decided to organize my lecture thusly: Begin with an overview of atomic structure, touch on forms of radioactivity, explain the difference between fusion vs fission, sub-critical and critical masses, and that would open the door to nuclear weapons design.

Background radiation is everywhere. And totally normal. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.

Along the way I would also need to explain that some amount of constant background radiation is absolutely normal and surrounds us at all times. Had this lecture been in person I could have passed around a Geiger counter for each audience member to take their own reading with—like the one I’m using above in a failed attempt to detect the minuscule potassium decay from bananas. But the forum was a video chat, so instead I opted to share a hyperlink to my local Department of Energy monitoring station, KNYC, which reports live radiation levels in microSieverts (μSv). The KNYC monitoring station is located in Belvedere Castle, Central Park, Manhattan—a structure that has its own rich history and is America’s oldest weather monitoring station still in operation.

After discussing modern nuclear bomb design and ambient radiation, my audience would have the foundation necessary to follow me through a few conclusions: Creating a reliable nuclear bomb (think “mushroom cloud”) is so incredibly difficult to do that only well-funded nation states are capable of it—and those that are capable are generally very concerned about the security of their materials and so on. (Thank heavens.)

Dirty bombs, however (silent spreaders of lethal radiation) are far easier to assemble and deploy. This is absolutely terrifying. To me this is the horror we ought to be sleepless over. Which means a dirty bomb is the perfectly wrong thing to use as a jump scare during a professional interview.

That cherry on top

After explaining the nightmare of dirty bombs, I moved on to discuss something more positive: using Thorium breeder reactors as a means of “safer” nuclear energy; a process that is not capable of meltdown, produces less radioactive pollution, and is unsuitable for building weapons. (Which is exactly why the US Navy didn’t pursue or fund this method of nuclear power production back in the 40s and 50s when nuclear power was getting off the ground.)

A few beats passed before the first audience member was startled by their computer sounding a shrill emergency klaxon alarm. Soon everyone who had kept the KNYC website open were frantically searching for the browser tab responsible for this alert noise. When I reopened the site myself I was able to see what they were seeing: a major nuclear event had occurred in Manhattan and the radiation levels were suddenly decidedly lethal. Soon my phone was sounding a government emergency alert. The sounds of incoming texts, a ringing landline, and even police sirens in the distance began to clutter the audioscape of my quickly devolving presentation. My video chat window became a grid of confused and concerned faces.

My local Department of Energy monitoring station, KNYC, located in Central Park, Manhattan. Left: KNYC website when freshly loaded. Right: KNYC website during a nuclear event.

The trick of course, was that the Monitoring Station KNYC website—so obviously constructed sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s—was actually a fake. It was my website. No such radiation monitoring station exists. And I had tripped the flag that caused the site to switch into “Meltdown Mode.” The sounds of texts, phones ringing, police sirens, and so on, were actually the product of a makeshift soundboard I had setup. There was (thankfully) no nuclear emergency in New York that day.

Fallout

So how did it all land? I had honestly hoped for a stronger reaction from my audience. (After all, if I had really sold the story that a major nuclear event was unfolding around me, I could have gotten out of the Q&A session afterward and enjoyed an early drink with the missus.) There was definitely some uncomfortable silence; it all makes for a better story in retrospect than it did as a live experience in real-time. But at least for that handful of very smart, very professional folks at Mach, they now have an unexpectedly silly story about that time some crazy guy was interviewing for a high-level role and pretended to be under nuclear attack to get out of the Q&A. I bet that doesn’t happen often.

My slideshow

So that’s how my “Nuclear Weapons for Dummies” slideshow came to be. The slideshow infrastructure is a custom web-based toolkit that I created for myself called Kikkoman—a name I chose as a pun; the Japanese word for soy sauce is shoyu (like “show you”), which seemed appropriate for presentation software. I created Kikkoman years before ideating this slideshow, but the odd coincidence wasn’t lost on me; embedding a tiny thread of Japanese culture in the thinking and production of a chat on nuclear weapons. (It’s always wrong to harm civilians in order to protect soldiers. Always.)

I created Kikkoman specifically to allow the direct inclusion of interactive Web content without having to awkwardly switch from whatever slideshow program to a regular old Web browser. Keyboard: Use your arrow keys to navigate forward / backward. Tap C or mouseover the top of the window frame to view the navigation controls. (All of the slides are meant to be flipped through quickly.) Tap - (hyphen) to lower the slideshow’s volume, or + (plus or—more accurately, the equals key) to raise the volume. Tap N to toggle the speaker notes. (Speaker notes are also visible in the JavaScript console, along with time elapsed—this way you can open the Console as a separate window and drag it to a screen not being shared with the audience.) These were just rough notes for myself, not fully fleshed out and not 100% adhered to when I spoke. Touch: Tap near the top of the screen to reveal the navigation bar. There’s a limited table of contents as well as forward and reverse arrows. (That’s about the extent of the control on touch devices. Apologies. I built it to run presentations from my laptop, after all.)