by Shauna Gordon-McKeon
On August 6th, 1945, the White House put out a press release lauding “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.” That achievement was the atomic bomb, which that morning had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Between sixty and seventy thousand people were killed immediately, with tens of thousands more later succumbing to injuries and radiation sickness.
We can debate what it means for an achievement to be “great.” Surely many scientists would prefer to think of the discovery of penicillin or the moon landing as the best part of their legacy. But in one way, the White House was clearly correct: the atomic bomb was the most significant political achievement of organized science, and the achievement which had the biggest impact on world politics.
Many scientists prefer not to think about politics, but the work that scientists do has always had political consequences, from the quiet tragedy of an understudied disease to the undeniable horror of a city destroyed in an instant.
This, too, is the situation of many technologists. We’d like to think our work apolitical, even as the counterexamples pile up: corporations and governments surveilling citizens, black-box algorithms that tell us what news to read and which people to trust, world leaders threatening nuclear war on Twitter.
Why do we shy away from the political nature of our work? What happens when politics can no longer be ignored? The history of the atomic bomb may provide some answers.
In September of 1933, Ernest Rutherford—Nobel laureate, discoverer of the proton, sometimes called the father of nuclear physics—labeled the prospect of nuclear weapons “moonshine.” He was hardly alone in his opinion. Albert Einstein had described the pursuit of nuclear fission as “shooting birds in the dark in a country where there are few birds” and Niels Bohr, another luminary, repeatedly dismissed the possibility.
These men had seen—and led—multiple scientific revolutions. Why then were they so sure another revolution couldn’t happen?
It may have been wishful thinking. Much of the physics community had served during World War I: on the front lines, in the development of weapons, or, in the case of Marie Curie and her daughter Irene, by driving mobile X-ray machines from one medical tent to another. Some had died, and others were kept in internment camps. They understood the brutality of war and may have wanted to keep their beloved physics separate from it.
“I loved science,” said Edward Teller, a Manhattan Project scientist. “But also it offered a possibility for escaping this doomed society.” Theodore von Kármán agreed: “I felt I had had enough of politicians and government upheavals…Suddenly I was enveloped in the feeling that only science is lasting.” Before the bomb, Lise Meitner wrote, “one could love one’s work and not always be tormented by the fear of the ghastly and malevolent things that people might do with beautiful scientific findings.”
Meitner was a distinguished physicist who had been working in Berlin in partnership with chemist Otto Hahn for nearly thirty years when Hitler seized power. One of Hitler’s first acts was to ban Jews from public service. Although thousands of other Jews were forced to resign and many fled the country, Meitner stayed, protected by her Austrian citizenship.
In 1938 Meitner and Hahn were in the middle of new experiments bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons when Germany annexed Austria. Suddenly Meitner’s citizenship no longer protected her; she was forced to flee to Stockholm in the middle of the night. There, she received a letter from Hahn. The experiments had unexpectedly produced barium—did Meitner have any idea what was going on? On a hike with her nephew Otto Frisch, the answer came to her: the uranium was splitting apart.
It was this discovery, named nuclear fission by Frisch, that convinced many of the world’s physicists that atomic weapons were possible. People had speculated before about breaking apart atoms, but now they had proof it could be done. Meitner became known as “the mother of the bomb,” a title which pained her. She refused to join the Manhattan Project and harbored guilt both for her inadvertent contributions to the bomb and for staying in Germany as long as she had.
After the war, Meitner wrote a letter to Hahn, who had continued working for the Nazis:
Perhaps you remember that when I was still in Germany (and I know today that it was not only stupid, but a great injustice that I didn’t leave immediately), I often said to you, “As long as just we [the Jewish people] and not you have sleepless nights, it won’t get any better in Germany.” But you never had any sleepless nights; you didn’t want to see—it was too disturbing.
Meitner reckoned with what she’d done, but Hahn never did. Most of the scientists who stayed in Germany avoided consequences for their actions. Some even argued that their failure to build a bomb made them morally superior to allied scientists. The elderly Max Planck was one of the few who admitted wrongdoing, telling Meitner, “Terrible things must happen to us. We have done the most horrible things.” Denial is a comfort and a shield. It takes strength to let it go, and some people never do.
The American Project
In August of 1939, about six months after Hahn and Meitner’s work was published, a physicist showed up at Einstein’s summer home on Long Island and asked him to write a letter to the President of the United States. That physicist’s name was Leo Szilard.
Szilard had read about Rutherford’s dismissal of atomic energy back in 1933 and come to the opposite conclusion: that if nuclear reactions could produce neutrons, they could be combined into a nuclear chain reaction and used to create a bomb. Szilard may have been primed to believe this by his friend H.G. Wells, whose 1914 novel The World Set Free depicts a world torn apart by the use of atomic weapons.
For years, Szilard experimented with nuclear chain reactions, without success. When he heard about fission, he recognized it as a potential mechanism for inducing a chain reaction. With Einstein’s help, he alerted President Roosevelt to the prospects for an atomic bomb. Roosevelt authorized a committee, but progress was slow. Then, in late 1941, two things changed: representatives from the British atomic program began pushing hard for further development, and in December, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The war machine spun into action. Franklin Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Manhattan Project, and Robert Oppenheimer was asked to become the Scientific Director. Hundreds of scientists gave up university positions and put their careers on hold to join the project, swearing oaths to secrecy and moving to sites in Chicago, Tennessee, Washington State, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Glenn Seaborg, a physicist helped recruit for the Manhattan Project, wrote, “There is a statement of rather common currency around here and Berkeley that goes something like this: ‘No matter what you do with the rest of your life, nothing will be as important to the future of the World as your work on this Project right now.’”
The war was an effective motivator for many, but some scientists were still uncomfortable with building such a weapon. To soothe their consciences, they placed their work in a broader, astonishingly optimistic context. Eugene Wigner, who had helped Szilard and Einstein lobby Roosevelt, wrote: “We realized that, should atomic weapons be developed, no two nations would be able to live in peace with each other unless their military forces were controlled by a common higher authority. We expected that these controls, if they were effective enough to abolish atomic warfare, would be effective enough to abolish also all other forms of war.”
Across the Atlantic, the same hope was shared by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who worked, like Otto Hahn, on the Nazi’s nuclear program. “The atom bomb exists. It exists in the minds of some men. According to the historically known logic of armaments and power systems, it will soon make its physical appearance. If that is so, then the participating nations and ultimately mankind itself can only survive if war as an institution is abolished.”
In their words, we can hear the echo of Alfred Nobel, the man who created both dynamite and the Nobel Prize: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”
There is a kind of magical thinking in the words of these men: that a new technology could, just by existing and with no thought for politics, bring about world peace. The fact that the technology in question was a devastating weapon only added to the irony.
Some of the Manhattan Project scientists did want to influence how the bomb was used. Many of them were stationed at Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, including Leo Szilard and James Franck, a German Jewish scientist who had resigned his post in protest after the 1933 Civil Service act, despite being exempted. Alice Kimball Smith, historian and wife to one of the Manhattan Project scientists, documents how a group of young scientists “drew up a manifesto…Security officers confisticated the document and banned their meetings with mutterings about transfers to Guadalcanal” — that is, to the front lines. But it was difficult to communicate with the other scientists. The military structure of the Manhattan Project produced a “compartmentalization of information that prevented Met Lab ferment from spreading to other sites.”
Before joining the Manhattan Project, Franck had secured from Met Lab director Arthur Compton a promise that he would be allowed to advocate for how the bomb would be used. In early 1945 Compton asked Franck to chair a committee exploring that question. They produced the Franck Report, which recommended a peaceful demonstration of the atomic bomb at a test site. It also eloquently stated the duty the responsibility they felt as scientists:
“In the past, scientists could disclaim direct responsibility for the use to which mankind had put their disinterested discoveries. We cannot take the same attitude now because the success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past. All of us, familiar with the present state of nucleonics, live with the vision before our eyes of sudden destruction visited on our own country, of Pearl Harbor disaster, repeated in thousandfold magnification, in every one of our major cities. In the past, science has often been able to provide adequate protection against new weapons it has given into the hands of an aggressor, but it cannot promise such efficient protection against the destructive use of nuclear power. This protection can only come from the political organization of the world.”
But there was no response to the report. One member of the committee remarked: “We waited for some reaction and we waited and we waited and we had the feeling we could as well have dropped this report into Lake Michigan.” The scientists had already subordinated themselves within a military structure. Unless they were willing to break out of that structure—and none of them were—they would have to wait until after the war to influence nuclear politics.
In just twelve years, the atom bomb transformed from “moonshine” to reality, changing our world along with it. Despite the short time frame, the story of the bomb’s technical and political development is deeply complex. No essay of this length could do it justice. But even in this quick treatment there are lessons worth considering for technologists.
Most nuclear physicists dismissed the feasibility of the bomb even into the late 1930s. While individual scientists often get things wrong, the field’s collective failure to identify the bomb as a dangerous if unlikely outcome, and to address it, set the stage for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the Cold War.
Technologists, then, can ask themselves: What are the political consequences of my work? How might it affect people’s lives and and livelihoods? What are the worst-case scenarios that seem impossible? What would it really take for them to happen?
Even as physicists worked to build the bomb, many of them hoped it would somehow bring peace. But hope without action is an empty kind of hope, and the comfort the physicists drew from it false comfort. Technologists can ask: What outcomes do I want to see? Am I working to bring them about, or simply hoping for the best? What can I do to make my hopes a reality?
Some scientists, recognizing the political impact of their work, sought to take responsibility and influence its use. But the political structures they’d already committed to kept them isolated and ineffectual. Technologists can ask: Who governs the use of the technology I make? Do the people who bear the political consequences of my work have any say in how it’s built or used? Who are my allies in this effort? How can we act collectively?
Neils Bohr, once the center of the international physics community, spent much of World War II isolated in Nazi-occupied Denmark. When he finally learned of the Manhattan Project in late 1943, Bohr pushed for an open, internationalist approach to atomic development. Yet the wartime atmosphere compelled him to keep his political efforts a secret, and his meetings with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill went nowhere.
After the war, Bohr was able to advocate publicly. In 1950, he wrote a letter to the United Nations appealing for openness and cooperation rather than secrecy and militarization:
“The development of technology has now reached a stage where the facilities for communication have provided the means for making all mankind a co-operating unit, and where at the same time fatal consequences to civilization may ensue unless international divergences are considered as issues to be settled by consultation based on free access to all relevant information. […] Any widening of the borders of our knowledge imposes an increased responsibility on individuals and nations through the possibilities it gives for shaping the conditions of human life.”
Seventy years later, we have facilities for communication far beyond those Bohr spoke of. But no technology alone will make mankind “a co-operating unit,” any more than nuclear weapons alone could put an end to war. If that is our goal, we must work towards it: as scientists, as technologists, and as members of a global political community.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York u.a: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Print.
Sime, Ruth L. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Berkeley u.a.: Univ. of California Press, 2001. Print.
Aaserud, Finn. “The Scientist and the Statesmen: Niels Bohr’s Political Crusade during World War II.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, vol. 30, no. 1, 1999, pp. 1–47. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27757819.
Shauna Gordon-McKeon is a writer and web developer based out of Washington, DC. She works at the intersection of social and technological change.