Nuclear Anti-Mimesis: The China Syndrome

Edric Zeng
June 11, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: A photo of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mimesis is the Aristotelian principle that art imitates life. Conversely, anti-mimesis is the principle that suggests art affects life, more than it imitates it, written on by nineteenth century writer Oscar Wilde. [1]

Steven Gilbert, a former professor at Oakland University, defined science as a process of constructing predictive conceptual models. [2] A mimesian perspective on science, this common definition assumes the world's life's governance over the development of science as a base of knowledge.

However, in the case of the 1979 thriller about a nuclear power plant, The China Syndrome, audiences across the country were left with a lingering question: to what extent do art and science alter the development of the world and the lives of its inhabitants?

The China Syndrome, Content and Context

The China Syndrome follows Kimberley Wells, an intelligent news reporter from California, who goes to a nuclear power plant and discovers a potential accident cover up. She inspires an engineer to speak out, saving thousands from a potentially costly event. [3] The name "China Syndrome" postulates a nuclear meltdown of such proportions that a hole would be burned across the world over to China; sensational in appeal, the name is problematic in its Orientalist origins and modern impact on public perception of China.

A little under two weeks after the film opened in theaters, the infamous accident happened at the Pennsylvania Three Mile Island nuclear plant (Fig. 1), caused by both mechanical and human failures. [4] Cleanup for the incident took several years and cost around $1 billion. [5] The accident had synergistic effects in catalyzing the popularity of The China Syndrome, increasing public interest in nuclear energy. [6]


The ongoing debate on the relationship between art, science and reality raise several questions in attempting to make sense of The China Syndrome: Was this film a product of increasing public interest and fear in nuclear energy? Or was it a catalyst for public investment in the nuclear industry? How does harnessing the laws of nature fundamentally change the way we encounter them?

Art, in this case in the form of film, is closely tied to public perception, which has major impacts on political outcomes in the democratic United States. [6] Policies determine funding for scientific research, like that centered on nuclear energy. And as demonstrated by The China Syndrome, science is one of the ways in which humans try to understand the world. The filmmakers understanding of the world informed how they made art.

© Edric Zeng. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] N. Sammells, Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde (Addison-Wesley Longman, 2000).

[2] S. W. Gilbert, "Model Building and a Definition of Science," J. Res. Sci. Teach. 28, 73 (1991).

[3] V. Canby, "Nuclear Plant Is Villain in 'China Syndrome': A Question of Ethics," New York Times, 16 Mar 79.

[4] S. Sherman, "The Accident at Three Mile Island," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[5] C. Hopkins, "Three Mile Island," Physics 241, Stanford University, 2015.

[6] K. Hurlbutt, "Nuclear Power in Cinema," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.