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Sci-Tech

Video showing how to launch a nuke is equally captivating and chilling

Physicist Derek Muller walks through the process by which one of the world's most destructive forces could have been unleashed. It's frighteningly simple.

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Just a few dials and keys are all it would have taken to launch a 9-megaton nuclear missile from Arizona. Video screengrab by Michael Franco/CNET

Physicist Derek Muller has made some entertainingly education videos for his YouTube channel, Veritasium, such as what happens to a basketball when you lob it off the top of a dam. Tonight he'll be moving from the computer screen to the TV screen -- and upping the seriousness quotient -- in a documentary titled "Uranium: Twisting the Dragon's Tail" airing on PBS July 28.

As part of the research for the show, Muller headed to a Titan missile silo in the Arizona desert and was shown what would have gone into launching the rocket it holds -- a rocket that at one time hosted a 9-megaton thermonuclear bomb 650 times more powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima.

The video (see below) starts out interestingly enough, as we learn that missile silos had to be built with some serious sound-baffling materials so that the roar of their own engines didn't shake them apart. But then Muller moves into the control room with host Chuck Penson at the Titan Missile Museum, and things get real.

As Penson walks him through the process, the video gets a lot more sobering as you begin to realize how much sheer destruction someone could have unleashed upon the world by verifying a few codes in a notebook, turning some dials that look like they could have been on a high-school locker and twisting two keys. The gravity of the moment is clear on Muller's face as he asks, "So that's it; we've basically just ended life on Earth?"

"Uranium: Twisting the Dragon's Tail" is being released in the year of the 70th anniversary of the first explosion of an atomic bomb, the Trinity Test. If the documentary's description on the PBS site is any indication, it sounds like we're in for a powerful show:

"Uranium is a changeling. ... This rock, considered worthless, transforms itself into the most desirable, the most expensive and the most feared substance on Earth. In a warming world, uranium may yet transform again into our savior as a source of clean, limitless power. Be careful how you wake the Dragon."