Week 4: On Questions of Nuclear Weapons (Dyson 15-16)


Last weeks journey in STS really focused around two areas. With Dyson we explored the world of consequences of continuing research in recumbent DNA. While fascinating I can't bring anything to the table beyond what I've read by Dyson and the meager thinking I've done about the consequences of cloning, so I won't simply quote Dyson and rehash his thoughts. If you wish to know what he thinks and why then I suggest you read his book. Instead, I will be looking at the other area in last weeks journey, atomic weapons.

Over my time in college I have joked about getting an audited minor in physics as I've audited a couple upper division physics courses. Most relevant to this discussion though will be Atomic and Nuclear. Now, in all honesty I didn't actually audit it, rather I sat in on the second half of the course, the half that covered atomic weapons. So I have seen the math and physics behind these powerful creatures and because of that they are more real to me.

In class last week Dr. N had three questions for the the weeks “questions du jour”:

  1. If you had been asked to help develop the atomic bomb in 1942, what would have done?
  2. If you had been President Truman in August 1945, what would you have done to end the war?
  3. What would you have decided about the hydrogen bomb in January 1950?

They were intended to get us to really think about the events that lead upto the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I really don't find it that hard a question to answer. But then again, I've spent so time already thinking about it.

On the physics trip I went on, with the SNU physics department, one of the places we visited was Los Alamos New Mexico. We got to see many of the places in which the historic events of the creation of the atomic bomb took place. It was a fascinating experience as there were entire museums dedicated to that era of history. At several of the museums I saw bomb casings identical to Little Man and Fat Boy, the bombs dropped on Japan to end WII. They weren't behind glass or barriers, they were right where we could touch them, to run our hands along the metal shapes that represent the most fearful weapon technology of the times. And in the pit of your stomach you can feel it tighten as your thoughts drift back into time, considering the destruction they wrought. Just as frightening is the knowledge that in comparison, Little Boy and Fat Man are relatively weak compared to current bombs. The hydrogen bomb using in the Ivy Mike test, 10.4 megatons, is nearly 1000 times more powerful than the 20 kiloton bomb exploded for the Trinity Test.

However, in spite of the awesome destructiveness of the bombs I find my self agreeing with President Truman. I to would have dropped the atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. When faced with the estimates handed to me by my military advisors, of the number of lives that would potentially be saved by not invading Japan, it seems like there was no other option. At the worst, it would cause no more death than the invasion, and while it may sound bigoted, at least American lives would be saved. And in that vein I would have gladly worked on the development of that weapon, right along side Oppenheimer and others. On one hand is the privilege to get to work on the new and exciting, the cutting edge of physics, who wouldn't want to do that? And the other lies the possibility of saving the lives of your brothers, cousins, and friends. Again, I don't see that there would be any question, I would have most definitely worked on it.

This letter is far to short to even begin to do justice to the thoughts that needed to be thought, and questions asked, but my time is running short and I must close now. Perhaps we will later continue this discussion in more depth. Till then my friend, Nathaniel Troutman