Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter… ©

I have just finished Richard Rhodes’ THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB. [A Touchstone Book, 1986] It rightly won a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, and The National Book Critics Circle Award.

It was one of my page-a-day books, so it took me 788 days to read. It also has 98 pages of notes, bibliography, and index, but I didn’t read any of those.

I could have appreciated it more if I understood physics better, but even within the limits of my science knowledge, it is a fascinating story, told so well by Rhodes that both an expert physicist and a novice like myself can enjoy it.

The code name for making the bomb was The Manhattan Project. Rhodes book is, of course, as much the story of the scientists who worked on it as it is the story of the bomb. [1]

The scientists who worked on the bomb felt differently about it, one from another, especially after the fact. Was it a moral thing to do? Yes, said some, because it shortened the war and “saved American lives.” No, said others, because it wreaked horrible and often long deaths upon hundreds of thousands of people who were innocent civilians and created a world in which we are all constantly under the threat of a similar death.

It is a complicated issue. New weapons of greater destruction appear in every war. Despite attempts, like the Geneva Convention, to keep war confined to soldiers, the greatest number of casualties are usually innocent civilians. And the controlling Japanese military caste lived by an “honor” code. Better to let the nation and all its people be destroyed than to die dishonorably, even if the people disagreed. It is impossible to negotiate with people who are willing to die, and make others die, for the sake of “honor.”

The nuclear physicists, though, knew that their discovery of how to create fission was not just another step in the escalation of weapons. It was a whole new world, with the ability, unlike any other weapon, to destroy the world.  

Nils Bohr was against it from the first. Robert Oppenheimer regretted it after. Edward Teller felt it was the responsibility of scientists to discover how the world works, even if the world got blown up in the process. Enrico Fermi felt there were moral ambiguities, but basically agreed with Teller, calling it “excellent science.”

Bohr in particular felt that the only way to avoid a nuclear arms race following WWII, and the possible world destruction that would follow, was completely open science, where every nuclear scientist was totally open to every other one, sharing all knowledge, regardless of nation. No one would have an advantage, so there would be no reason to try to get ahead of the opposition.

Winston Churchill thought the nuclear secrets could be kept by the British and Americans alone, giving them a permanent advantage that would prevent other nations from starting wars against them. Churchill, for all his wisdom during the war, could not see clearly what lay ahead, and he persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to back him. Bohr could not convince him that scientific knowledge could not be bottled up, that science could not be confined behind national boundaries, that it was only a matter of time before Soviet scientists caught up, and then the race would be on.

Teller assumed there would be such an arms race, almost welcomed it, but thought that the assurance of mutual destruction would stop any national leader from using atomic weapons. He also was a backward thinker, not anticipating the time that would come, and is now, when not only nations but terrorist groups have nuclear weapons, and many of them are in the hands of crazy people who really don’t care if the world is blown up so long as they get to push the button.

I am pro-science. I don’t fear science. But I do not believe, as many scientists do, that they “owe” it to the world to find out everything they can about the world and then declare their work done and let engineers do anything that the new knowledge makes possible. “We should clone people because it is possible to do so.” “We should create robots to which we can transfer human consciousness because it is possible to do so.”

There is no such thing as “pure” science, morally neutral, divorced from ethical issues.
Politicians and despots will always co-opt scientists and theologians alike to obtain an edge, to possess the power to impose their will. We are all in this together. What all of us “owe” to the world is to think forward, to what the worldly powerful will do with the knowledge provided by the scientists and theologians. The evil among us cannot misuse knowledge they do not have.

What Rhodes does so well in this book is unlock the secrets of the minds of the scientists as they unlocked the secrets of the atom. They were not of one mind on how or what to do with their knowledge, but no one can put the genie back into the bottle.

John Robert McFarland

 1] A 2014 TV miniseries about the making of the bomb is called simply “Manhattan.”

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP], where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.]

I tweet as yooper1721.

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