Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Warning folks who don’t know what’s going on

Albert Einstein
     Chicago is not only the birthplace of deep dish pizza but atomic energy: the first man-made nuclear fission was achieved in 1942 at the University of Chicago.
     So it makes sense that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began here, too, 75 years ago Wednesday.
     “What?” you may ask. “Is this not about the clock?” The Bulletin suffers — whoops, benefits — from perhaps the most wag-the-dog publicity gimmick ever created, its “Doomsday Clock.” Originated in 1947 as a way to graphically convey just how close our world is to nuclear disaster, its hands seem to be forever marching closer and closer toward the midnight of Armageddon while, in classic Zeno's paradox fashion,  never actually getting there.
     An effective PR tool, but one so overpowering that you can be forgiven for not quite realizing there is a magazine behind the clock. I didn’t, and my father was an atomic scientist. 
(Though not the kind who read the Bulletin. We had stacks of Scientific Americans at home, and of course Science, which he once wrote for. But my dad was in the Naval Reserve, and designed nuclear reactors for the government, and I'm sure the Bulletin struck him as too Bolshie a publication to be seen reading). 
     The 75th anniversary issue is available online, and a delightful treat, showcasing past articles written by famous figures from Richard Nixon to Albert Einstein.
     Nixon pooh-poohs international cooperation as only an old Red-baiter can, writing in 1960, “The road to war is paved with agreements based solely on mutual trust.”
     While Einstein lurches the other way, putting more hope in global action in the face of crisis than might be seemly in a refugee from Nazi Germany. Writing in 1950, he’d like “a supra-national judicial and executive body ... set up empowered to decide questions of immediate concern to the security of the nations.”
     Don’t miss Hans Bethe’s 1946 “Can air or water be exploded?” Bethe was the guy, while the Manhattan Project was racing ahead, to clear his throat, raise a finger, and observe, “You know, one of us fellows should make double sure that we aren’t going to set fire to the atmosphere and destroy the planet when we try this.”

To continue reading, click here.


  1. The only thing I know about the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, other than that clock (which I always thought was a crying-wolf gimmick), was that for a long while, they seemed to have a hard time holding on to editors. Back when want ads were a thing and I had distressingly frequent reasons to scan them, the BAS was advertising for an editor every other month.

  2. In my own , very slight, connection with history, I stayed for a year in Snell-Hitchcock Hall, at 57th and Elis. My room overlooked the west end of Stagg Field, the site of the original atomic pile, although I believe that structure had by then been pulled down. Fermi was said to have roomed in S-H while the work was being done, although I don't recall a memorial plaque to that effect.


  3. Very interesting magazine. I enjoyed the articles even when the ideas and their exposition a ability to comprehend them. The global warming article was persuasive, all the more so in admitting that the scientific knowledge at the time (1978) was not equipped to address all the complexities inherent in discussing worldwide phenomena. I also found Jack Kennedy's contribution convincing and somewhat surprising in that my memories of the Nixon/Kennedy stances in that period, vague though they may be, were that they both competed in trying to appear more hawkish, more equipped to deal with an emerging China and a ever troublesome Soviet Union. Kennedy seemed downright dovish in countering Nixon's characterization of "mutual trust" as being a fool's game.



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