Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, July 16, 2005

First Nuclear Explosion

I almost missed noticing this important date in history. Today is the anniversary of the test of the first atomic bomb. World War II ended about one month later - about as soon as the bomb could be deployed after the successful test at Los Alamos, NM. For a first hand account of the test, go to NPR where they have a recent recording of Don Honig, the youngest physicists at Los Alamos.

There are a lot of dimensions on which we could discuss this event...scientific, political, military, moral etc. But no matter how you slice it, the first successful test of an atomic bomb is the among the most important human actions since the invention of agriculture.

Comments? Observations?


Dr. Strangelove said...

"Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish."

-William Carlos Williams
from The Desert Music (1954)

Anonymous said...

It is important to note that no heathan barbarian ever concieved of genocide or nuclear anihilation or weapons of mass destruction. Such things are the bi-products of "civilization." 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

RBR, you are dead wrong on genocide. The Mongols, just to name one example, conducted genocidal campaigns. So bad were they, that the Caliph in Baghdad (during the crusades(!)) appealed for help from the Pope. The Mongols burned out the cities of Central Asia: Khorezm, Bokhara, Samarkand. The modus operandi was to encircle a swath of land, often 100+ miles in diameter, and slowly close the circle, eliminating all human life and livestock. In Iraq, they destroyed also all the irrigation built up over 5000+ years. It has nveer recovered. In Russia, the Mongols destroyed the Kievan state altogether, exterminating the Kievan Rus, except for those who fled North to the vicinity of what was to become Moscow. Genocide is not new. You can also read about such tactics, sadly, in the books of the Old Testament. On more than one occasions, the Hebrews (nomads) killed ALL the male inhabitants of walled cities, and enslaved the rest.


// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Well, if the Mongols or other invading nomads atempted it (there is also the legend of the Eirie tribe on the south shore of the lake by the same name who were supposedly exterminated by the Iroquois - but there are tribes in Canada that claim to be their decendents), they didn't have the technological, or administrative sophostication to have any hope of achieving it. Unless we define race as some group so small it can be contained in a city or a 100 sq mi territory, I don't think what these ancient examples actually achieved could be called genocide. Mass murder? Yes. Indiscriminant destruction? Certainly. When does mass murder become genocide? At 10,000 lives? 100,000? Or is it a percentage of followers of a particular culture? But we quibble here.

Anyway, I think the spirit of my comment, if not is technical veracity, holds. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

The mushroom cloud was one of the most potent symbols of fear during the Cold War--a time so seemingly dark that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said we were but three minutes away from the midnight of our species. But then the wall fell.

How strange it is that in this new world order, when there are more nuclear states than ever and nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists--for whom deterrence appears impossible--the darkness seems to have lifted. Was it all a nightmare? Did we work ourselves up over nothing? Or are we simply in denial?

Mutual assured destruction kept the peace for forty years. But it was not a good peace. Half the world was under totalitarian rule, and foreign policy seemed a stalemate. Now we are once again cursed to live in interesting times.

Nuclear weapons are 60 year old technology now. With the right materials, a few graduate students could build one. And our worldwide grasp on those materials is slipping. So when the terrorists set off their first nuclear explosion, what will we do? Always we wait until there is a crisis before we act. But think of how our nation responded to 9/11 and imagine how we will react to the first nuclear strike. Do the fragile flames of democracy, peace and freedom even stand a chance, or will they utterly be snuffed out by that blast?

Robert Oppenheimer, father of the American atomic bomb, said famously that, "In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."

Edward Teller, father of the American hydrogen bomb, said, perhaps more perceptively, "Physics is, hopefully, simple. Physicists are not." He also said, "Two paradoxes are better than one; they may even suggest a solution."

In that last thought, there may yet be reason for hope. Perhaps we may devise a defense against nuclear weaponry. And biological weapons. And chemical weapons. But so long as the great powers continue to possess them, there I see no chance that we will succeed in saving them from the hands of terrorists.

So if we no longer require nuclear weapons for deterrence, I say we get rid of them all. Every last one. Why can't we put the genie back in the bottle? Nuclear weapons were not a visitation from the devil; they were a choice. Let us make another choice: unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Perhaps that "crazy" step is the second paradox we need. Thanks for reading the rambling musings of a guilty physicist.

Anonymous said...

Unilateral nuclear disarmament is more than crazy, it is suicidal. At best it would cripple the United States in the international arena at a time when the only viable alternatives to US hegemony are Chinese hegemony (a tyrranical disaster waiting to happen) or the chaos that would arise from the hamstrung U.N. trying to run things.

Consider this: Since World War I, no country has ever used nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against anyone who had the capability to retaliate in kind. Unilateral disarmament puts us in the category of potential victims.

Universal nuclear disarmament is a completely different matter and should be the goal. But with our control over the technology slipping away I wonder if either approach will really solve the problem.

The problem is not so much the existence of the technology but the willingness of people to use it. Robert McNamara, in the movie/interview "Fog of War" calls for humanity to give more attention to the morality of war itself and nuclear weapons in particular. He contends that we are far to acceptant of the idea that war is a solution to political and economic problems. I agree.

Now as for proliferation: I don't fear the weapons of states. Those can be detered. If Hitler was detered (and he was), anyone can be detered. Only a few states can really think in terms of a totally destructive attack and none of those are "rogue" states.

I fear a terrorist nuclear attack but not the way I feared nuclear war when I was a kid. When I was kid nuclear war meant the total anihilation of the human species. A terrorist attack with nuclear weapons would mean the destruction of a single city. A tragedy certainly. And if I'm in that city at the time, a serious bummer. But a terrorist or even several terrorists can't launch the hundreds of nuclear bombs we were thinking about during the Cold War. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

I wondered if anyone would get down to the "unilateral muclear disarmament" part of my message--but I can always count on RxR to read my posts. I honestly appreciate that. RxR's answer reminds me of A Bug's Life when the Queen responds to Flik's suggestion of confronting the tyrant grasshoppers like so: "Why didn't I think of that? Oh, because it's suicide!"

RxR is very right that none of us fear a terrorist strike as we used to fear the Cold War when we were kids. But I think this may be mistaken on all our parts. A single nuclear blast is less devastating than nuclear winter, but it is also more likely. And while (we believe) MAD can deter a "conventional" nuclear strike, we have no such deterrence capabilities against terrorist acts. We probably wouldn't even get a twenty-minute warning.

My thoughts on disarmament go something like this: is deterrence really a credible threat? If we knew half the world was about to be destroyed no matter what we did, would we really destroy the other half just to make a point? Well, maybe not, but the more likely question is: if our enemies destroy some of our cities, would we retaliate by destroying some of theirs? That is at least more believable. Ironic, isn't it, that a less destructive threat could be more effective?

But should we go back to the old "eye for an eye" threat? Does that not, as Gandhi said, just make the whole world blind? And what if the best response to a limited nuclear strike is not to return fire? (And if so, would deterrence be credible?) I don't know. I am just asking the question. I fear we have all just decided to accept the conventional wisdom that we need nukes for deterrence and that's that, even though any use of nuclear weapons against a civilian population is surely immoral in the extreme, regardless of what their government did to us.

So long as one nuclear weapon is tolerated, I have no doubt it will eventually be detonated. Maybe disarmament is a way out. Maybe America needs to lead the way. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one...

Anonymous said...

I disagree, RBR - the spirit of your comment does not hold. Civilization and technology increased the ease of genocide, and the number of humans available to kill, but the fact is that human beings engaged in genocidal warfare long before.

The problem with deterrence is that it only works until it doesn't. And it always fails eventually. Given that the costs of failure are unimaginable, what are we doing to find another solution?


// posted by LTG