Saturday, December 14, 2019

Objective science and its human consequences - II

The reactions of the scientists were conflicted after the explosion of the atom bomb. There were “shouts of joy” at the success of the bombing.  There were simultaneous feelings of pride and shame.  As the radiation effects were learned, General Groves reassured a Congressional hearing that he’d heard that death from radiation was “very pleasant”. Robert Erode, one of the American physicists, tried to describe his own feelings and those of some of his companions at Los Alamos at that time in the following terms:
We were naturally shocked by the effect our weapon had produced, and in particular because the bomb had not been aimed, as we had assumed, specifically at the military establishments in Hiroshima, but dropped in the centre of the town. But if I am to tell the whole truth I must confess that our relief was really greater than our horror. For at last our families and friends in other cities and countries knew why we had disappeared for years on end. They had now realized that we, too, had been doing our duty. Finally we ourselves also learned that our work had not been in vain. Speaking for myself, I can say that I had no feelings of guilt. 
The sufferings and recovery of Hiroshima after a handful of scientists and technicians had vaporised 150,000 people in the blink of an eye (Fermi’s ‘superb physics') is detailed in Jungk’s Children of the Ashes. After the bomb was dropped, a wall of secrecy was clamped around Hiroshima, while the soldiers and the experts moved in uneasily to find out what they had wrought. The memory of the destruction has been erased from the  public mind to such an extent that the atoll where the atom bombs were tested, Bikini, has become the name years later of a beachwear of fun and frolic. The much-reproduced photographs usually depict Hiroshima after the disaster as a desert of ruins, without human beings. But, Jungk writes:
. . . it was no quick and total death, no heart attack of a whole city, no sudden, agonizing ending that struck Hiroshima. A mercifully quick release, such as is granted even to the vilest criminals, was denied to the men, women and children of Hiroshima. They were condemned to long-drawn-out agonies, to mutilation, to endless sickness. No, neither during the first hours nor the days that followed was Hiroshima a "silent graveyard", filled solely with the mute protest of the ruins, as the misleading photographs imply; rather it was the site of movements repeated a hundred thousand times, of a million agonies that filled morning, noon and night with groans, screams, whimpering, and crowds of cripples.
The irony was that the bomb was never required to defeat Germany. It was used instead to defeat Japan, when it was already well known that Japan was on the verge of collapse. And no attempt was made to show the Japanese what sort of weapon was going to be dropped.. It was then that Einstein, and many other scientists who had made this weapon possible, felt they had been betrayed. Einstein said, with deep regret, after the war: 'If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb, I would never have lifted a finger.'

Oppenheimer knew that the bombing was not the end of the nuclear project, but the start of a nuclear arms race between USA and Russia.  Now nuclear science came fully under military influence. Edward Teller now came into the picture, and the race for the hydrogen bomb was on. Still there were some that rebelled, but by 1947, these had lost out.  Einstein said, :“In the end, there beckons, more and more clearly, general annihilation”. When Oppenheimer was defeated in the struggle to control the hydrogen bomb, he mused:
I find myself in profound anguish over the fact that no ethical discussion of any weight or nobility has been addressed to the problem of atomic weapons.... What are we to think of such a civilization which has not been able to talk of the prospect of killing everyone except in game theoretic terms?
Edward Teller is often described as the ‘father’ of the hydrogen bomb. He was a good example of a highly educated and intelligent person who was not bothered by morals. He used politics to further his scientific research. He contended that hydrogen bombs keep the peace, or at least prevent thermonuclear war, because the consequences of warfare between nuclear powers are now too dangerous. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes of Teller's way of thinking:
Teller advocated exploding nuclear weapons from Alaska to South Africa, to dredge harbours and canals, to obliterate troublesome mountains, to do heavy earth-moving. When he proposed such a scheme to Queen Frederika of Greece, she is said to have responded, 'Thank you, Dr Teller, but Greece has enough quaint ruins already.' Want to test Einstein's general relativity? Then explode a nuclear weapon on the far side of the Sun, Teller proposed. Want to understand the chemical composition of the Moon? Then fly a hydrogen bomb to the Moon, explode it, and examine the spectrum of the flash and fireball.
The new instruments were naturally expensive. Funds had formerly been provided annually by wealthy individuals for the growing expenses of the laboratories but they were now insufficient. State intervention was found more and more necessary. Early on, it never occurred to the scientists that their new patron, the state, might one day say: 'He who pays the piper calls the tune. ‘ The universities during the war had found a new and extremely wealthy patron in the Armed Forces which continued their funding after the war. As early as the end of October 1946, Philip Morrison indicated his anxiety about the situation during the annual forum on public affairs conducted by the New York Herald Tribune:
At the last Berkeley meeting of the American Physical Society just half the delivered papers ... were supported in whole or in part by one of the services ... some schools derive 90 per cent of their research support from Navy funds ... the Navy contracts are catholic. They are written for all kinds of work ... some of the apprehension that workers in science feel about this war-born inflation comes from their fear of its collapse. They fear these things: the backers - Army and Navy - will go along for a while. Results, in the shape of new and fearful weapons, will not justify the expenses and their own funds will begin to dwindle. The now amicable contracts will tighten up and the fine print will start to contain talk about results and specific weapon problems. And science itself will have been bought by war on the instalment plan. 
The situation foreseen by Morrison came about more swiftly than expected with secrecy and safeguards being erected in areas which were formerly homes of free speech. Only a minority of American atomic scientists were perfectly free agents in deciding to resume participation in government-sponsored research. Most were compelled to take this step, because they would have had no choice, otherwise, but to change their profession. From 1947 on, the atmosphere in which the Western scientists lived became more and more oppressive. Even in the laboratories of the Western world people started whispering to one another anxiously on the watch for the state's long ears, as had been true before only in totalitarian countries.