98 years of nuclear hope & nightmares

On December 26, 1898, Marie Curie announced the discovery of radium and observed that “radioactivity seems to be an atomic property.” A mere 47 years later, “Little Boy”exploded over Hiroshima.

The epic story of the exhilarating quest to unravel the secrets of the material world revealed how to destroy it, and an open, international, scientific adventure transmuted overnight into a wartime sprint for the bomb that forever changed our lives.

The early decades of the 20th century brought Einstein’s relativity theory, Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus, and Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics, and scientists of many nations worked together to tease out the secrets of the atom.

Only 12 years before Hiroshima, one leading physicist dismissed the idea of harnessing energy from atoms as “moonshine.”

Then, on the eve of World War II, the power of atomic fission was revealed, alliances were broken, friendships sundered, and science co-opted by a chain reaction of world events.

After Hitler assumed the Chancellorship in January 1933, the Nazis soon banned all Jews from working for the German state or in professional capacities such as university professors. This displaced more than a hundred German physicists of Jewish descent, including Einstein. An exodus of the world’s greatest scientific talent began to emigrate from Germany to receptive western nations.

From the scientists who were a part of this historic time, some offered insight into the fateful wartime meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who informed his former Jewish student that Hitler and the Germans were building an atomic bomb, others provided a fascinating glimpse of what might have happened had any number of events occurred differently. 

Many of the people who worked to create America’s atomic weapons wrote to the president asking him to resist the temptation to use the weapon, seeking a surrender instead. Now, the world’s newest nuclear state is making reckless threats that could give an unhinged leader a way to escape the cloud of suspicion that has made him vulnerable to a possible impeachment, in a formula that clearly justifies the worst fears of those who created the A-bomb.

Living in this situation makes one wonder if Barry McGuire was just a tad early in his grim prediction:

Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.


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