The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 16. When Scientists Know Sin

The mind of man - how far will it advance? Where will its daring impudence find limits? If human villainy and human life shall wax in due proportion, if the son shall always grow in wickedness past his father, the gods must add another world to this that all the sinners may have space enough.

Euripides, Hippolytus (428 BC)

In a post-war meeting with President Harry S Truman, J. Robert Oppenheimer - the scientific director of the Manhattan nuclear weapons project - mournfully commented that scientists had bloody hands; they had now known sin. Afterwards, Truman instructed his aides that he never wished to see Oppenheimer again. Sometimes scientists are castigated for doing evil, and sometimes for warning about the evil uses to which science may be put.

More often, science is taken to task because it and its products are said to be morally neutral, ethically ambiguous, as readily employed in the service of evil as of good. This is an old indictment. It goes back probably to the flaking of stone tools and the domestication of fire. Since technology has been with our ancestral line from before the first human, since we are a technological species, this problem is not so much one of science as of human nature. By this I don’t mean that science has no responsibility for the misuse of its findings. It has profound responsibility, and the more powerful its products the greater its responsibility.

Like assault weapons and market derivatives, the technologies that allow us to alter the global environment that sustains us should mandate caution and prudence. Yes, it’s the same old humans who have made it so far. Yes, we’re developing new technologies as we always have. But when the weaknesses we’ve always had join forces with a capacity to do harm on an unprecedented planetary scale, something more is required of us - an emerging ethic that also must be established on an unprecedented planetary scale.

Sometimes scientists try to have it both ways: to take credit for those applications of science that enrich our lives, but to distance themselves from the instruments of death, intentional and inadvertent, that also trace back to scientific research. The Australian philosopher John Passmore writes in his book Science and Its Critics:

The Spanish Inquisition sought to avoid direct responsibility for the burning of heretics by handing them over to the secular arm; to burn them itself, it piously explained, would be wholly inconsistent with its Christian principles. Few of us would allow the Inquisition thus easily to wipe its hands clean of bloodshed; it knew quite well what would happen. Equally, where the technological application of scientific discoveries is clear and obvious - as when a scientist works on nerve gases - he cannot properly claim that such applications are ‘none of his business’, merely on the grounds that it is the military forces, not scientists, who use the gases to disable or kill. This is even more obvious when the scientist deliberately offers help to governments, in exchange for funds. If a scientist, or a philosopher, accepts funds from some such body as an office of naval research, then he is cheating if he knows his work will be useless to them and must take some responsibility for the outcome if he knows that it will be useful. He is subject, properly subject, to praise or blame in relation to any innovations which flow from his work.

An important case history is provided by the career of the Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller. Teller was marked at a young age by the Bela Kuhn communist revolution in Hungary, in which the property of middle-class families like his was expropriated, and by losing part of his leg in a streetcar accident, leaving him in permanent pain. His early contributions ranged from quantum mechanical selection rules and solid state physics to cosmology. It was he who chauffeured the physicist Leo Szilard to the vacationing Albert Einstein on Long Island in July 1939 - a meeting that led to the historic letter from Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt urging, in view of both scientific and political events in Nazi Germany, that the United States develop a fission, or ‘atomic’ bomb. Recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, Teller arrived at Los Alamos and promptly refused to cooperate -not because he was dismayed at what an atomic bomb might do, but just the opposite: because he wanted to work on a much more destructive weapon, the fusion, or thermonuclear, or hydrogen bomb. (While there is a practical upper limit on the yield or destructive energy of an atomic bomb, there is no such limit for a hydrogen bomb. But a hydrogen bomb needs an atomic bomb as trigger.)

After the fission bomb was invented, after Germany and Japan surrendered, after the war was over, Teller remained a persistent advocate of what was called ‘the Super’, specifically intended to intimidate the Soviet Union. Concern about the rebuilding, toughened and militarized Soviet Union under Stalin and the national paranoia in America called McCarthyism, eased Teller’s path. A substantial obstacle was offered, though, in the person of Oppenheimer, who had become the chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the post-war Atomic Energy Commission. Teller provided critical testimony at a government hearing, questioning Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States. Teller’s involvement is generally thought to have played a major role in the aftermath: although Oppenheimer’s loyalty was not exactly impugned by the review board, somehow his security clearance was denied, he was retired from the AEC, and Teller’s way to the Super was greased.

The technique for making a thermonuclear weapon is generally attributed to Teller and the mathematician Stanislas Ulam. Hans Bethe, the Nobel laureate physicist who headed the Theoretical Division at the Manhattan Project and who played a major role in the development of both the atomic and the hydrogen bombs, attests that Teller’s original suggestion was flawed, and that the work of many people was necessary to bring the thermonuclear weapon to reality. With fundamental technical contributions from a young physicist named Richard Garwin, the first US thermonuclear ‘device’ was exploded in 1952. It was too unwieldy to be carried by a missile or bomber; it just sat there where it was assembled and blew up. The first true hydrogen bomb was a Soviet invention exploded one year later. There has been debate on whether the Soviet Union would have developed a thermonuclear weapon if the United States had not, and whether a US thermonuclear weapon was even needed to deter Soviet use of their hydrogen bomb, since the US by then possessed a substantial arsenal of fission weapons. The preponderance of current evidence is that the USSR, even before it exploded its first fission bomb, had a workable design for a thermonuclear weapon. It was ‘the next logical step’. But Soviet pursuit of fusion weapons was much aided by the knowledge, from espionage, that the Americans were working on them.

From my point of view, the consequences of global nuclear war became much more dangerous with the invention of the hydrogen bomb, because airbursts of thermonuclear weapons are much more capable of burning cities, generating vast amounts of smoke, cooling and darkening the Earth, and inducing global-scale nuclear winter. This was perhaps the most controversial scientific debate I’ve been involved in (from about 1983-90). Much of the debate was politically driven. The strategic implications of nuclear winter were disquieting to those wedded to a policy of massive retaliation to deter a nuclear attack, or to those wishing to preserve the option of a massive first strike. In either case, the environmental consequences work the self-destruction of any nation launching large numbers of thermonuclear weapons even with no retaliation from the adversary. A major segment of the strategic policy of decades, and the reason for accumulating tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, suddenly became much less credible.

The global temperature declines predicted in the original (1983) nuclear winter scientific paper were 15-20°C; current estimates are 10-15°C. The two values are in good agreement considering the irreducible uncertainties in the calculations. Both temperature declines are much greater than the difference between current global temperatures and those of the last Ice Age. The long-term consequences of global thermonuclear war have been estimated by an international team of 200 scientists, who concluded that through nuclear winter the global civilization and most of the people on Earth, including those far from the northern mid-latitude target zone, would be at risk, mainly from starvation. If large-scale nuclear war ever occurs, with cities targeted, the effort of Edward Teller and his colleagues in the United States (and the counterpart team headed by Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union) might be responsible for lowering the curtain on the human future. The hydrogen bomb is by far the most horrific weapon ever invented.

When nuclear winter was discovered in 1983, Teller was quick to argue both (1) that the physics was mistaken, and (2) that the discovery had been made years earlier under his tutelage at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There is in fact no evidence for such a prior discovery, and considerable evidence that those in every nation charged to inform their national leaders of the effects of nuclear weapons had consistently overlooked nuclear winter. But if Teller is right, then it was unconscionable of him not to have disclosed the purported discovery to the affected parties - the citizens and leaders of his nation and the world. As in the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr Strangelove, classifying the ultimate weapon - so no one knows that it exists or what it can do - is the ultimate absurdity.

It seems to me impossible for any normal human being to be untroubled by helping to make such an invention, even putting nuclear winter aside. The stresses, conscious or unconscious, on those who take credit for the contrivance must be considerable. Whatever his actual contributions, Edward Teller has been widely described as the ‘father’ of the hydrogen bomb. In an admiring 1954 article, Life magazine described his ‘almost fanatic determination’ to build the hydrogen bomb. Much of his subsequent career can, I think, be understood as an attempt to justify what he begat. Teller has contended, not implausibly, that hydrogen bombs keep the peace, or at least prevent thermonuclear war, because the consequences of warfare between nuclear powers are now too dangerous. We haven’t had a nuclear war yet, have we? But all such arguments assume that the nuclear-armed nations are and always will be, without exception, rational actors, and that bouts of anger and revenge and madness will never overtake their leaders (or military and secret police officers in charge of nuclear weapons). In the century of Hitler and Stalin, this seems ingenuous.

Teller has been a major force in preventing a comprehensive treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. He made it much more difficult to accomplish the 1963 Limited (above-ground) Test Ban Treaty. His argument that above-ground testing was essential to maintain and ‘improve’ the nuclear arsenals, that ratifying the treaty would ‘give away the future safety of our country’ has proven specious. He has also been a vigorous proponent of the safety and cost-effectiveness of fission power plants, claiming himself to be the only casualty of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979; he had a heart attack, he says, debating the issue.

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.

Also in the 1980s, Teller sold President Ronald Reagan the notion of Star Wars, called by them the ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’, SDI. Reagan seems to have believed a highly imaginative story of Teller’s that it was possible to build a desk-sized orbiting hydrogen-bomb-driven X-ray laser that would destroy 10,000 Soviet warheads in flight, and provide genuine protection for the citizens of the United States in case of global thermonuclear war.

It is claimed by apologists for the Reagan administration that, whatever the exaggerations in capability, some of it intentional, SDI was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no serious evidence in support of this contention. Andrei Sakharov, Yevgeny Velikhov, Roald Sagdeev, and other scientists who advised President Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that if the United States really went ahead with a Star Wars programme, the safest and cheapest Soviet response would be merely to augment its existing arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. In this way Star Wars could have increased, not decreased, the peril of thermonuclear war. At any rate, Soviet expenditures on space-based defences against American nuclear missiles were comparatively paltry, hardly of a magnitude to trigger a collapse of the Soviet economy. The fall of the USSR has much more to do with the failure of the command economy, growing awareness of the standard of living in the west, widespread disaffection from a moribund Communist ideology, and - although he did not intend such an outcome - Gorbachev’s promotion of glasnost, or openness.

Ten thousand American scientists and engineers publicly pledged they would not work on Star Wars or accept money from the SDI organization. This provides an example of widespread and courageous non-cooperation by scientists (at some conceivable personal cost) with a democratic government that had, temporarily at least, lost its way.

Teller has also advocated the development of burrowing nuclear warheads, so that underground command centres and deeply buried shelters for the leadership (and their families) of an adversary nation might be dug down to and wiped out; and 0.1-kiloton nuclear warheads that would saturate an enemy country, obliterating its infrastructure ‘without a single casualty’. Civilians would be alerted in advance. Nuclear war would be humane.

As I write, Edward Teller - still vigorous and retaining considerable intellectual powers into his late eighties - has mounted a campaign, with his counterpart in the former Soviet nuclear weapons establishment, to develop and explode new generations of high-yield thermonuclear weapons in space, in order to destroy or deflect asteroids that might be on collision trajectories with the Earth. I worry that premature experimentation with the orbits of nearby asteroids may involve extreme dangers for our species.

Dr Teller and I have met privately. We’ve debated at scientific meetings, in the national media, and in a closed rump session of Congress. We’ve had strong disagreements, especially on Star Wars, nuclear winter and asteroid defence. Perhaps all this has hopelessly coloured my view of him. Although he has always been a fervent anticommunist and technophile, as I look back over his life it seems to me I see something more in his desperate attempt to justify the hydrogen bomb: its effects aren’t as bad as you might think. It can be used to defend the world from other hydrogen bombs, for science, for civil engineering, to protect the population of the United States against an enemy’s thermonuclear weapons, to wage war humanely, to save the planet from random hazards from space. Somehow, somewhere, he wants to believe that thermonuclear weapons, and he, will be acknowledged by the human species as its saviour and not its destroyer.

When scientific research provides fallible nations and political leaders with formidable, indeed awesome powers, many dangers present themselves: one is that some of the scientists involved may lose all but a superficial semblance of objectivity. As always, power tends to corrupt. In this circumstance, the institution of secrecy is especially pernicious, and the checks and balances of a democracy become especially valuable. (Teller, who has flourished in the secrecy culture, has also repeatedly attacked it.) The CIA Inspector General commented in 1995 that ‘absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely’. The most open and vigorous debate is often the only protection against the most perilous misuse of technology. The critical piece of the counterargument may be something obvious that many scientists or even lay people could come up with provided there were no penalties for speaking out. Or it might be something more subtle, something that would be noted by an obscure graduate student in some locale remote from Washington, DC, who, if the arguments were closely held and highly secret, would never have the opportunity to address the issue.

What realm of human endeavour is not morally ambiguous? Even folk institutions that purport to give us advice on behaviour and ethics seem fraught with contradictions. Consider aphorisms -haste makes waste; yes, but a stitch in time saves nine. Better safe than sorry; but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire; but you can’t tell a book by its cover. A penny saved is a penny earned; but you can’t take it with you. He who hesitates is lost; but fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Two heads are better than one; but too many cooks spoil the broth. There was a time when people planned or justified their actions on the basis of such contradictory platitudes. What is the moral responsibility of the aphorist? Or the Sun-sign astrologer, the Tarot card reader, the tabloid prophet?

Or consider the mainstream religions. We are enjoined in Micah to do justly and love mercy; in Exodus we are forbidden to commit murder; in Leviticus we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves; and in the Gospels we are urged to love our enemies. Yet think of the rivers of blood spilled by fervent followers of the books in which these well-meaning exhortations are embedded.

In Joshua and in the second half of Numbers is celebrated the mass murder of men, women, children, down to the domestic animals in city after city across the whole land of Canaan. Jericho is obliterated in a kherem, a ‘holy war’. The only justification offered for this slaughter is the mass murderers’ claim that, in exchange for circumcising their sons and adopting a particular set of rituals, their ancestors were long before promised that this land was their land. Not a hint of self-reproach, not a muttering of patriarchal or divine disquiet at these campaigns of extermination can be dug out of holy scripture. Instead, Joshua ‘destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded’ (Joshua, x, 40). And these events are not incidental, but central to the main narrative thrust of the Old Testament. Similar stories of mass murder (and in the case of the Amalekites, genocide) can be found in the books of Saul, Esther, and elsewhere in the Bible, with hardly a pang of moral doubt. It was all, of course, troubling to liberal theologians of a later age.

It is properly said that the Devil can ‘quote Scripture to his purpose’. The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes, from incest, slavery and mass murder to the most refined love, courage and self-sacrifice. And this moral multiple personality disorder is hardly restricted to Judaism and Christianity. You can find it deep within Islam, the Hindu tradition, indeed nearly all the world’s religions. Perhaps then it is not so much scientists as people who are morally ambiguous.

It is the particular task of scientists, I believe, to alert the public to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or foreseeable through the use of science. Such a mission is, you might say, prophetic. Clearly the warnings need to be judicious and not more flamboyant than the dangers require; but if we must make errors, given the stakes, they should be on the side of safety.

Among the IKung San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, when two men, perhaps testosterone-inflamed, would begin to argue, the women would reach for their poison arrows and put the weapons out of harm’s way. Today our poison arrows can destroy the global civilization and just possibly annihilate our species. The price of moral ambiguity is now too high. For this reason - and not because of its approach to knowledge - the ethical responsibility of scientists must also be high, extraordinarily high, unprecedent-edly high. I wish graduate science programmes explicitly and systematically raised these questions with fledgling scientists and engineers. And sometimes I wonder whether in our society, too, the women - and the children - will eventually put the poison arrows out of harm’s way.