delirium happy

Just keep on trying till you run out of cake

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
The Manhattan Project
delirium happy
I tend to see criticism levelled at the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project with a fair degree of regularity, and I think that almost all of it is unjustified. The coincidence of the anniversary of VE day with my reading a book of the letters of Richard Feynman has motivated me to try to defend them somewhat, for what little my opinion matters.

The first thing to point out that these were smart people. Really smart people. Really, really fucking smart people. Robert Oppenheimer. Hans Bethe. My own personal hero, Feynman. I think that John Wheeler was involved too, but I'm not so sure about that one. Now, these names may not mean a whole lot, or anything at all, to you, but they do to me. Please trust me when I say that these guys were smart. Furthermore, they were far from your stereotypical ivory-tower academics. I think that one of the things that attracted me to physics was the characters of some of the lead players. Reading about the history of the subject is full of anecdotes about the people involved. Feynman was a bongo player and a safe cracker. Bethe once co-authored a paper with Alphe (sp?) and Gammow purely for the humour value in the names. They certainly weren't a bunch of crusty old dons.

One accusation that I often see is that these physicist went and invented an atomic bomb and thought "ooh, isn't this interesting" and "look at all these pretty equations" without actually stopping to think about the military applications of what they were doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. They knew precisely what they were doing. To say otherwise is just wishful thinking on the part of those who do so. It's so much easier to live with the idea of people so much smarter than you if you can also attribute to them some sort of horrible flaw, such as a complete lack of common sense. In this case though, that's just not true.

The thing to remember, of course, is that they were at war at the time. A particularly bloody and unpleasant war, no less. They developed the bomb not because they took pleasure in blowing things up, or because they didn't think about the deaths it would cause, but because people were already dying in great numbers. If people have to die, they might have reasoned, it's better that it's people on the other side than on ours. Even with the benefit of 60 years of hindsight, I can't fault their logic there.

The Manhattan Project was started by Roosevelt after he was repeatedly urged to do so by Einstein. Yes, that Einstein. The celebrated genius, pacifist and German Jew, Einstein. See, Einstein was worried about the prospect of Hitler getting his hands on atomic weapons, and rightly so. As it happens, Hitler was already dead by the time the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert, but the Germans did, indeed, have their own atomic weapons project. It didn't advance very far though, fortunately. This was partly due to lack of funding and manpower, and possibly also due (and I choose to believe this) that the (equally brilliant) German scientists involved deliberately sabotaged things and underreported their results.

Can you imagine what would have happened if Hitler had his hands on that technology before anyone else did? I don't think it's possible to exaggerate just how truly terrible that would have been. Imagine how horrible it would be and how terrified we'd be today if we knew that Al Qaeda had access to a nuclear bomb, then imagine how much worse it would have been if it had been Hitler who already controlled half of Europe, and who came close to winning even with only conventional weapons. Imagine how much worse it would have been if he was the only nuclear power on Earth, and there was nobody to stop him. Bye-bye London. Bye-bye Moscow. Bye-bye New York. Bye-bye allies. Hello fascist, genocidal global rule. I don't know about you, but I really don't want to spend too long contemplating that possibility.

That was the situation they were faced with. Success was imperative. Failure was not an option. While I'm sure that most of the people involved did find their work interesting, that wasn't the reason why they did it. Many of them didn't work on nuclear physics before or after the war effort. To use Feynman as an example, since I've been reading some of his letters from the time, his wife was dying in hospital of tuberculosis while he was holed up in Los Alamos, and he was able to see her only once a week. I don't care how interesting the work was, there's no way that alone could keep a man from his dying wife. No, the reason they did the work was moral imperative, and fear of what could happen if they didn't.

See, the cat was already well out of the bag by that point;the box had already been opened. Doing perfectly innocuous research, the physicists of the time had realised just how much energy was tied up in atomic nuclei, and that some of this energy could be released in certain conditions. It doesn't take a genius to leap from "lots of energy" to "military applications". There was no possible way to close the box. Somebody was going to develop nuclear weapons. This was not in question. The only questions were "who" and "when". If the Americans hadn't done so, then the Nazis were trying too, and even if they failed too (which they did) then the Soviets were working on it too. Given the alternatives, I'm really glad that things happened the way they did.

Maybe if you're Ghandi or Jesus then you can claim that pacifism is absolute and that violence is always wrong, but otherwise you have to acknowledge a certain element of pragmatism is needed, and accept the lesser of two evils (and if you are Ghandi or Jesus, then you're probably humble enough not to be critical of others doing what they genuinely believe to be the right thing).

  • 1
Thank you. I've been very pro-MP scientists ever since I started reading up more about Einstein, and it always bothers me when people either trash or idealize them.

Ah, a pet topic of mine, because of my birthdate (August 6). Usually the argument I hear is not whether we should have developed the bomb, but whether we should have used it and whether both were needed. I've given it a lot of thought, and I think dropping the August 6 bomb was a mistake, but one that was quite understandable given the information they had at the time and the time pressure and general difficulty of the situation. I certainly don't think it was an easy call, and I'm willing to accept that it happened and say it wasn't evil, because it's a lot easier to spend years analyzing the situation in retrospect to come up with the best solution, and even then it's not clear or obvious what that is. They didn't have years and they didn't know everything that is known now.

(Deleted comment)
I've heard that argument before. Also the argument that they did it to stop the war so that the Russians couldn't get as good a bargaining position with the agreements afterwards.

However, I've also heard the argument that they honestly believed that the show of force would lead to fewer total lives loss. You need to consider the Japanese mentality... they were fully willing to die for their nation. In the 1970s they were still finding people who had been out of contact and were still fighting World War II. They had to get Japanese officers to come back to announce that yes, the war was over, so that they knew it wasn't a trick.

The bombs created such a massive amount of damage, destruction, and death that it had shock value. Enough shock value to make people realize that they had to surrender. Especially the bomb on the 9th, that showed the US could make several such bombs and just keep dropping them.

In retrospect, Japan was getting ready to surrender already. Documents that the US did not have access to demonstrated that. But they didn't know, and it was a massively difficult decision. Reducing it to any one factor seems too simplistic. I expect many reasons factored into their decision, along with the belief and assurances of scientists that the radiation would not cause any lasting damage.

Hear hear! I agree totally with you!

(Yes I know this is an useless "Me too!" post but had to say *something* ;))

  • 1

Log in

No account? Create an account