Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - Richard Rhodes

The minds which made up the international physics community became, in the early half of the twentieth century, a seemingly rootless and stateless society. Moving across international, political, and ideological boundaries, this group of transformative and revolutionary thinkers created what Niels Bohr conceived as a transnational community of science. Seemingly organized around a common pursuit of truth, the only hierarchies here, so we might be lead to believe, were meritocratic. Powerful idealists, as well as great thinkers, scientists like Oppneheimer, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, and Rutherford would come to impact the world of politics, social and human justice, and war and peace, more than any one person would dare to imagine. While it was through the political and military application of their discoveries that the atomic bomb came to wreck previously unimaginable swift destruction upon two cities of Japanese men, women, and children, Rhodes looks into the moral wrestling of these deep thinkers, and finds them not unaware of the havoc they were unleashing upon the world. Though the international physics community could not be said to have begun the Pacific War, the efforts of men and women physicists spanning back to the beginning of the century would conspire to end it, and thrust international politics and the prospect of world order into an entirely new arena.

Throughout Rhodes rich work, the international and collaborative nature of the scientific community is juxtaposed to the national, and therefore seemingly narrow, politics and conflicts between states. With the chaos of two world wars behind him, Rhodes looks to this same community as a potential paragon of hope for a world in which mutually assured destruction is replaced by the open exchange of our most important resource: ideas and knowledge. While he goes to great lengths to trace the political, material, and contextual intricacies of scientific discovery and application, Rhodes remains convinced that our deepening knowledge of reality, and the possible leveling effects of information diffusion, will be our saving grace. He is able to do this, while telling the story of the most terrible of human contrivances, specifically because he believes in the possible future the bomb has helped to create. Extending the logic of state-sponsored violence to the nth degree, atomic weapons demand a recalculation of human morality in light of international conflict. When no amount of armaments, wealth, or man-power can entirely protect a society from the threat of nuclear annihilation, the world must be thrust into a new paradigm of cooperation. Or so the argument goes. It the over-arching terror, the complete destruction, which these weapons assure, that forces us into a post-war world.

History would seem to suggest that Rhodes, and Bohr before him, are on to something. There has never been an atomic bomb dropped in anger since those fateful days in August, 1945. The Cold War shrank to an end, and the prospect of another world war seems remote indeed. Along the way the world has become more overtly interconnected, and seemingly smaller - perhaps we are moving closer to a truly international community. That the full realization of the depths of our man-made horrors might ensure a world in which such devastation is in retreat is certainly an inversion of the obvious lines of thought. In the balance, I wonder if we are truly saved by the development and application of human knowledge? Does such exploration necessarily breed the wisdom to use it? Must we have known our most terrible demons before we become acquainted with our better angels?