What the Atomic Bomb Revealed


In a recent article in Foreign Policy, former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara wrote: “I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous. The risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear launch is unacceptably high. Far from reducing these risks, the Bush administration has signalled that it is committed to keeping the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a mainstay of its military power—a commitment that is simultaneously eroding the international norms that have limited the spread of nuclear weapons and fissile materials for 50 years” (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=2829&page=0).

Reading these lines reminds me of incidents in my own personal history. My father was a theoretical physicist. During World War II, one of his friends was sent to invite him to Los Alamos to help develop the atom bomb. He declined. He never really explained why he refused to go, but I think it was because he believed the human race was doomed if a bomb could be built. During the war he worked on radar instead of the bomb.

On the morning of the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he and my mother turned on the radio and heard the bad news. My father said “So this is the end of history.” Certainly, on the evidence of thousands of years of history, human beings are not the sort of animals you would expect to make wise use of such immense powers for destruction and self-destruction. Later as I was growing up and as we saw the effectiveness of deterrence, he became more optimistic. Still, once in a while his gloomy foreboding returned. I recall telling him when I was about 12 years old that we were being taught at school how to survive nuclear attack: duck under your desk, cover your head, and close your eyes. He looked contemptuous and told me I’d be lucky to die in the first seconds of the attack.

As I study technology, these memories remind me that technology is not just a wonder, it is also a terror. We need to think seriously about the risks as well as the benefits, as McNamara reminds us. 

Both risks and benefits have increased enormously since World War II. That was when the most powerful institutions in our societies, governments and corporations, got involved with scientific and technological development. Before that time, few domains of science were of practical value. The most important inventions of the previous century came not from the minds of scientists but from the hands of clever inventors. But the first time all the power of a modern state was placed in the service of scientific discovery the result was a huge leap in the scale of human control of natural forces.

After World War II, many of the scientists who had worked on the atom bomb project advocated nuclear disarmament. Unlike military leaders who were disdainful of the Russians and believed they would never make a bomb, the scientists had studied alongside Russian students in Germany before Hitler came to power and knew their abilities. They foresaw an arms race and their dire predictions have been verified to a frightening degree. After a momentary calm at the end of the Cold War, the risk of nuclear conflict has reappeared with threats of a preventive attack on Iran.

The bombing of Hiroshima should be placed in the larger context of history. It was only the most dramatic of a series of disillusioning events that shattered our confidence in progress in the 20th century. The First World War discredited both governments and the official socialist opposition, which in most countries supported the slaughter in the trenches. In subsequent years, concentration camps and mechanized warfare did nothing to encourage a more hopeful view. Technology, which the 19th century believed would save humanity, became the great threat to survival in the 20th.

Subtler threats emerged after World War II from the same potent combination of powerful government and corporate sponsors and scientific-technical research. Once again, we are witnessing a rising tide of concern among scientists and engineers regarding the dangers of their own achievements. Just as the atomic scientists called for restraint after creating the bomb, so today scientists who have helped create new technologies in the domains of industrial production, computing and biology are calling for restraint in the application of their inventions.

For example, Bill Joy, cofounder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, and coauthor of The Java Language Specification, shocked the technical community with a portentous article in Wired in 2000. There he wrote, “The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them….I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals” (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/).

Of course practically no one wants to give up the many benefits of progress, particularly in medicine, agriculture, and communication. The critique of modern technology is not about regression to a premodern condition. The question is what to do about the contradictory effects of progress.

These effects cannot be grasped in the old optimistic view of technology as a benign force for good. The very definition of technology seems to be violated by its evolution. We think of our action as “technical” when it changes the world more than it changes us. The hunter kills the rabbit but nothing happens to him in the process. The driver moves a ton of screaming steel down the highway but sits peacefully in the car listening to music on the radio. This disproportion between action and reaction back on the actor is in the very nature of technique and distinguishes it from activities in which there is more reciprocity such as human relations.

But we seem to have reached the limit to the technical way of being in the world. There is no escape from the reaction when the technologies become so powerful they overwhelm everyone within their range including those who deploy them. Nuclear weapons revealed our vulnerability to our own technologies. Environmental problems such as pollution and global warming continue to teach the same lesson: we exist in the world our technologies transform and cannot escape their effects.

The German social theorist Ulrich Beck calls this new situation the “risk society.” A risk society is one in which technologies have become so powerful as to interfere with their operators and with each other. Restraint is needed, but also a new sophistication in technical disciplines. For example, it used to be possible to keep engineering and medicine separate, each in its own sphere. No longer. Today many engineering decisions have medical consequences and engineers must deal with health and safety as once they dealt with materials strength and raw materials availability. Similarly, medicine employs many engineering marvels and mistakes in design can have fatal consequences. The interference and overlapping of technologies creates a new situation in which specialization must be compensated by frequent appeals to the knowledge contained in other disciplines. Only then can we hope to avoid such consequences of modern technology as environmental pollution.

But there is a more basic precondition for surviving the unintended consequences of progress and that is the will to live in peace and harmony with others and with nature. So long as that will is lacking and a will to violent domination continues to be the rule in the affairs of nations, human survival is at risk. After World War II, the scientists who made the bomb formulated the situation in terms of the growth of the human species. Once the toys become too powerful, it is a race between the habits of childhood and responsible maturity. We are still in this race and the outcome is uncertain.