The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 77.0°F | A Few Clouds

MIT discusses atom bomb

By Ben Stanger

A series of discussions on what the world has learned in the past 40 years about averting nuclear holocaust was presented Wednesday as this year's Karl Taylor Compton lecture.

Ten members of the MIT faculty participating in the lecture were members of the Manhattan Project team which built the first atomic bombs 40 years ago at Los Alamos, NM. Two of those bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Aug. 1945.

The film, "The Day After Trinity," opened the symposium. Trinity was the code name for Alamagordo, NM, the site of the first detonation of a plutonium bomb. The movie contained interviews with many of the physicists who helped create the bomb. Included in the film were several anecdotes concerning the betting pool over the TNT equivalent of the blast. Enrico Fermi wagered that the state of New Mexico would be vaporized, while other physicists were unsure whether the Earth's atmosphere would explode.Prof. Bernard T. Feld moderated a discussion following the film.

Institute Professors Victor K. Weisskopf and Philip Morrison, and Indian Ambassador K.S. Bajpai spoke at the symposium. Weisskopf, a leader in the field of modern quantum theory, was the first speaker of the evening.

Weisskopf said he and the other scientists at Los Alamos believed "such powerful weapons would make war impossible. We meant well.

"At this moment in history," he added, "I do believe we are on a collision course.

"The threat of war has kept an uneasy peace," Weisskopf continued. "Being aware is not enough. You must recognize the roots of the problem. Why can't people in governments get their heads together and say `enough is enough' ? "

Weisskopf gave five reasons for the steady increase in the nuclear arsenals of the world since 1945:

O+ Fear of a first strike. This is an irrational fear, he claimed, because "both the United States and the Soviet Union have a large portion of their arsenals stocked in submarines, which are nearly impossible to locate."

O+ Fear of being weaker than the other side. "Both countries have approximately equal destructive power," Weisskopf said.

O+ Fear of being outnumbered in a certain type of armament, such as land-based or submarine-based missiles.

O+ The perception of the other side's actions as aggressive. "The United States considered the occupation of Afghanistan to be an offensive act, while the Soviet Union perceived it as a defensive move. Likewise, our government considers its involvement in South America necessary to stop the spread of Communism, while our involvement is viewed as agressive by the Soviets."

O+ Momentum of the military machine. The structure of the military is such that it is almost impossible to slow it down, according to Weisskopf. The film also emphasized this, showing that the main goal of many of the physicists at Los Alamos had been to develop the atomic bomb before the Germans did. When the Germans surrendered, however, research did not slow down.

"The last four decades have shown us one thing," he said. "Negotiations ... have very little chance of success."

The only solution to the arms race, he continued, will be through a mutual understanding of how all policies will be viewed by the other side. "It is not really the reality that counts, but the perception," Weisskopf added.

The most dangerous thing the United States could do would be to announce that we were so far ahead of the Soviets militarily that they could never catch up, he explained.

Weisskopf added that the purposes of human rights would be best served if the United States cooperated with the Soviet Union.

The next two speakers echoed Weisskopf's sentiments. Morrison discussed the evolution of scientific thought from the time when Danish physicist Niels Bohr first described nuclear fission in 1938. He said that the world is made up of two institutions, nations and science, and that the two are engaged in conflict.

The best way to avoid nuclear holocaust, according to Morrison, is to change the political climate from one of mututal hostility to one of mutual trust. "The real issue is that a defense system has always been and remains based on a marginal system," he said. "I believe the solution has got to be measures of restraint."

Other faculty members at Los Alamos who worked for the symposium included Professors Herbert S. Bridge PhD '50, Dean of Science Martin Deutsch '37, Anthony P. French, David H. Frisch PhD '47, Cyril S. Smith '26, Jerrold R. Zacharias, and President Emeritus Jerome B. Wiesner, who was unable to speak at the evening session. Professor Bruno B. Rossi also worked on the Manhattan Project but was unavailable.