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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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The Nuclear Burden

I had hoped to write about the nature of physics colloquia and how they vary from place to place, but instead, I’d like to write about the topic covered by today’s SLAC colloquium: Sidney Drell presented “Rekindling the Vision of President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at Reykjavik: Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Sidney Drell is one of many accomplished physicists who have also done work regarding policy and nuclear weapons. The late SLAC Director Emeritus W. K. H. Panofsky is another.

Drell focused on the plan at the Reykjavik meeting in 1986 for complete nuclear disarmament (see ‘Reykjavik Summit: The Legacy and a Lesson for the Future’ for more). While it didn’t work, it was a first step towards a reduction in nuclear arms that has occurred. Recently, conferences were organized to revisit the original goal of complete disarmament. The experts gathered authored recommendations that were published in 2007 (“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal) and 2008 (“Toward a Nuclear-Free World”, Wall Street Journal).

Half a century ago, many physicists were coping with the weapon that had been developed from their labor. The cold war triggered further policy work by physicists and brought the consequences of the atomic bomb to the populace, who were trained to “duck and cover.” The world has changed, both for physicists and the general public. I’m 24 – I don’t remember the Berlin Wall falling, and never had nuclear drills in school. As an American, I fear unattended luggage in airports more than a nuclear attack. As a physicist, the Manhattan project feels like a part of distant history, like the development of quantum mechanics or relativity.

Listening to Sidney Drell’s talk today made the nuclear threat much more real. While there is a risk of a mistake involving the management of nuclear weapons (like a bomber accidentally carrying warheads over the US), Drell believes there is a greater risk of terrorists gaining control. Disarmament is still as important as ever, yet the US has been slow to ratify and sign nuclear treaties. START expires this December, which was responsible for removing 80% of strategic nuclear weapons. Should my generation care? Of course. As voters and citizens, we can influence our leaders to prioritize disarmament, rather than believe this is only a concern of the past.

Finally, we have the responsibility to learn from our mistakes. Those of us who did not live during the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima or witness the cold war should still fear a future occurrence of these events. Drell and others have written many books on the development, use, and cold war legacy of the atomic bomb. One book stands out to me, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes by Henry Smyth, from 1945. It is a technical, dry book written about the Manhattan project before the Trinity test. Very little was unclassified at the time, but the book hoped to explain the project to a technical audience. As physicists, we have a lot to learn from this book. It shows how the scientists understood and justified the work they were doing, even before they witnessed the atomic blast. We should keep these lessons in mind during the development of future technologies.

The final chapter breaks from the formal tone and is a plea for the reader to understand – and take action regarding – the project. The final section, “The Questions before the People”, beautifully expresses the relationship between this new weapon, the scientists who created it, and the public as a whole:

Here is a new tool for mankind, a tool of unimaginable destructive power. Its development raises many questions … Because of the restrictions of military security there has been no chance for the Congress or the people to debate such questions. They have been seriously considered by all concerned and vigorously debated among the scientists, and the conclusions reached have been passed along to the highest authorities. These questions are not technical questions; they are political and social questions, and the answers given to them may affect all mankind for generations … In a free country like ours, such questions should be debated by the people and decisions must be made by the people through their representatives… The people of the country must be informed if they are to discharge their responsibilities wisely.

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