Sunday, December 09, 2007

Happier Christmas thoughts coming soon!


I just finished a book about Robert Oppenheimer called The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer: And the birth of the modern arms race. It was okay, but I'm not mentioning it here because I'm recommending it to anybody as a great read.

I am mentioning it though because it ties in with a long ago post about Easter Island and how smart we humans really are.

Now Oppenheimer, as we all know, is the scientist who, in World War II, gave the world the atom bomb. The U.S. was expecting that if they had to land troops on Japanese soil to finish the war, they'd lose thousands and thousands of men in an effort to bring the war to an end. The scientists working on the A Bomb knew this as well, and wanting to avoid the loss of these troops, finished work on the A bomb in time to destroy two Japanese Cities and force the Japanese to surrender.
Oppenheimer, a very philosophical man, worked on the A Bomb with great moral misgivings. While watching the first successful test of the A Bomb, he famously (mis)quoted Krishna in the Bhagwad Gita - "Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds." (Apparently the real translation is I am time, the destroyer of all.)

So World War II ends, and suddenly the Americans are racing against the Russians to develop a Nuclear Bomb. Where the A Bomb was a weapon whose destructiveness was dozens of magnitudes higher than the worst regular bomb used in World War II, the Nuclear Bomb would be even worse still. While not quite sure that they could even develop a nuclear weapon, the scientists at Los Alamos in the late 1940s were torn about whether they should even TRY to make a nuclear weapon.

In late 1949, the head committee, which included Oppenheimer, of the Atomic Energy Commission wrote a report on H Bomb (Nuclear, or "Super" Bomb) development, with the following passages:

We have been asked by the Commission whether or not they should immediately initiate an "all out" effort to develop a weapon whose energy release is 100 to 1000 times greater and whose destructive power in terms of area of damage is 20 to 100 times greater than those of the present atomic bomb. We recommend strongly against such action.
We base our recommendation on our belief that the extreme dangers to mankind inherent in the proposal wholly outweigh any military advantage... Let it be clearly realized that this is a super weapon: it is in a wholly different category from an atomic bomb. The reason for developing such super bombs would be to have the capacity to devastate a vast area with a single bomb. Its use would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians. We are alarmed as to the possible global effects of the radioactivity generated by the explosion of a few super bombs of conceivable magnitude. If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore, a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide.

We believe a super bomb should never be produced.

The fact that no limit exists to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.

So, I just find this fascinating. Just the way people on Easter Island knew that tearing down the island's trees was jeopardizing their future, and just the way we know today that most of the things we do jeopardize the planet, scientists in the 1940's knew that building nuclear bombs could destroy the world. Yet they were forced to do it anyway.

You kind of wonder "how did we actually avoid nuclear war?" And then you remember the Cuban Missle Crisis and realize that we barely did.

And if all this interests you, you should probably try to see Why We Fight sometime.

1 comment:

Momentum said...

In fact, there have been a number of known near launches of nuclear weapons when computer or other errors caused one side or the other to believe that they were under attack.
The closest call was when a cool-headed officer doubted his own warning systems, though he had no secondary system to consult.
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/21/world/main618901.shtml
The others were mainly avoided because there were secondary systems that did not agree with the primary warning systems.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/missileers/falsealarms.html