Imprimir Republish


Critique of pure reason

A book by the North American inventor of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, and a biography on the Russian Andrei Sakharov, discuss the limits of morality within scientific discoveries

In July of 1945, at Alamogordo in the State of New Mexico, all of the Manhattan Project scientists, who were gathered to watch the first test of an atomic explosion, received orders from the military to turn their backs to the impact. Only one man disobeyed this command and, proudly, faced the frightening mushroom cloud, willing to not miss out on a single item of the destructive potential of the new weapon. He was Edward Teller, a Hungarian, naturalized North American, and one of the first physicists to be called by the United States’ government to participate in the building of the atomic bomb.

“I had never interested myself in looking at photos of the impacts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My work was to build the bomb and to make advancement in science. What was done with my discoveries were no concern of mine”, Teller told the magazine Pesquisa FAPESP. At ninety four years of age, he is the honorary director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California.

Perhaps for only having had an interest in seeing the bomb work under test conditions and having no desire to understand its practical results, is the reason why the physicist thought little of what he and his colleagues (among them being Robert Oppenheimer) had managed in 1945 and, years later, when he was seen as the father figure of  “Mike”, the hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb of 10.4 megatons, one thousand times more powerful than that launched upon Japan at the end of World War II. In that same “courageous” manner in which he confronted the mushroom, on knowing of the success of the “Super bomb”,  in November of 1952, at Eniwetok (in the Pacific), Teller proudly declared: “Its born and it’s a boy”. Therefore there is nothing more natural than that the scientist should continue until today to defend his creation, as he does, as a matter of fact, in his recently published autobiography Memoirs: a 20th Century Journey in Science and Politics (Perseus Books, 628 pages, US$ 35).

Against the tide
Curiously enough, coming onto the market is the biography of another atomic “father-figure”, Andrei Sakharov, written by Richard Lourie (Brandeis, 453 pages, US$ 30), the creator of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, but who, contrary to the enthusiasm of Teller, after getting involved in science and in the discovery, saw that as well as progress without obstacles, there are ethical brakes to be put on physics. Sakharov, who died in 1989, was one of the main detractors of nuclear testing, a defender of human rights in the ex-Soviet Union who spent years exiled in Gorky for his views against the bomb and the Soviet dictatorship.

“If we had not made the ‘super’ I’m certain that, if we were to be alive, we would all be speaking Russian. I’m not repentant in any way for having done it, in spite of all of them having been against me and affirming that its invention was impossible”, said Teller. “The manufacture of the hydrogen bomb only brought peace to the world. Look at history and compare how, starting from the middle of the twentieth century, the world has lived with fewer wars and fewer dead”, the physicist defended. This was exactly the twisted rational of the personality named Dr. Strangelove in the film ‘Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, directed by Stanley Kubrick, an ex-Nazi scientist with a mechanical arm (from time to time raised in salute, as in the past, to the Fuehrer), who had preconceived the “Doomsday Machine” which, for being so deadly, could not itself be used. It is not without reason that it was commented that the model for Dr. Strangelove was Teller himself.

“I believe that the beauty of science should know no limits. We should not have to worry ourselves about politics, money or even ethical questions. Our duty as scientists is to discover more and more. However, I recognize that knowledge without morality is incomplete, the same as morality without science is of little value”, the physicist explained. It was for this “progressive” spirit that Teller frequented the White House of Truman and Reagan, passing through George Bush, the father of the current North American leader. For all of them he defended the need for having more weapons as a means of achieving peace on the planet. Reagan and especially Bush took the aged scientist seriously. Once again Teller was the father-figure of a dubious inclination: the Star Wars Project, the installation of an anti-missile shield in space, which could have led to yet another arms race. One detail worth noting: Bush, the son, again spoke of it with enthusiasm after the terrorist attacks on the 11th of September 2001.

It was in 1941 that Teller heard from Enrico Fermi, his friend of long standing, that it would be possible to construct a bomb capable of heating up deuterium sufficiently to provoke a thermonuclear reaction. The problem was the non-existence of computers capable of calculating the necessary variables in order to put the project into practice. With this advice in his head, Teller, on being asked to work alongside Oppenheimer, arrived disposed to create the “Super” and, simply looking upon the A-bomb as only a necessary means to achieving this goal (the Hiroshima bomb being the trigger for the thermonuclear device), that he then rolled up his sleeves and participated in the team. With the end of World War II, the other scientists no longer wanted to hear about explosives and ignored the appeals given out by Teller to continue with the production of the H-bomb.

The physicist appealed to politicians in Washington to speak with President Truman. “The democrats had demobilized the country and had no notion of the imminent danger, since the Russians had not demobilized”, the scientist tells. After leaving Los Alamos for Livermore, Teller found himself with the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, who made it possible to resolve the calculations, until that moment considered impossible problems. The Cold War brought with it the climate so necessary for him, and in 1950 the government of the United States gave the green light to the creation of “Mike”.

In 1949, the first Russian test of an atomic bomb (overseen by Stalin’s chief of secret police, Lavrenti Beria) gave even more enthusiasm to the Livermore group and won more financial support from the presidency. The atomic race had begun. And as well the witch hunting. In 1946, the FBI began to investigate Oppenheimer, considered to be a “pacifist” with “communist tendencies”. The end of Oppenheimer’s career occurred a little later in 1954, during a process of anti-American activities that was able to count upon the dubious deposition of Teller, who stated that he found the behavior of his ex-chief  “strange” in that he was not at all eager to construct the new weapon which would confront the Soviet advances.

In 1952, with a new design proposed by Ullam (Teller hardly mentioned this in his memoirs); “Mike” came into this world. “I fulfilled my mission. Now it was up to the democrats to decide whether we were going to use what we had created or not. My duty was with knowledge”, he said. Today, as it was some twenty years ago, the physicist still believes that one might use the “Super” for constructive activities such as alterations to the climate. Or as he proposed to John F. Kennedy during the 60s, to built “a second Panama Canal in less time than it would take to make a decision about using the bomb for doing this”.

“All of this silliness of nuclear balance and peace by way of bombs was disaccredited with the terrorism of last year, when it was seen that it is not necessary to have huge weapons for large destruction. What Teller did, in truth, was not to carry out science for science, but to give to the world a poisoned apple that transformed scientists into politicians”, says d Richard Rhodes, author of the best study on the nuclear armament race, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. On the other side of the planet, another physicist in a similar manner took a bite into the fruit.

Born in Moscow in 1921, the son of a scientist, Andrei Dmitrievitch Sakharov, in the same manner as Teller, had also believed in the necessity of having no limits on knowledge and understanding. A patriot just like his colleague in the United States, Sakharov had believed that Soviet socialism was the pathway to the future and had been delighted to see Stalin’s State invest in research and in the formation of new scientists.

For this reason, in spite of not associating himself with the Communist Party, in 1948 he accepted, without any problem, the order to join forces with a group of physicists and mathematicians who were carrying out research with nuclear devices, under the command of Beria. In the end, as he revealed in his autobiography: “On knowing about the devastating impact of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I almost fainted in the street on reading the newspaper. I knew then that it would be my duty to help my country to not get behind, subject to the threat of the growing nuclear power of the Americans”.

Hero of the Soviet Union
Working in the secret laboratory known as Arzamas 16, Sakharov got to know that his new research location was being built for political prisoners, who, upon rebelling were shot on the orders of Beria. This did not effect his creativity and he went on to design the Russian hydrogen bomb, based to a certain part on spying on the progress made by the Americans (for example, Klaus Fuchs who was working in Los Alamos). Through his studies he arrived at the same conclusions as Teller and the device was detonated a few months after the North American “Mike” in 1953. Sakharov did not like what he saw. For the first time the “purely theoretical” scientist gave way to the citizen which put in check the moral value of his inventions. He was thirty two years of age and had been elected to the Soviet Academy of Science and transformed into a Hero of the Soviet Union.

The consciousness of his acts grew steadily. In 1957, he began to investigate the biological damage done by nuclear tests and wrote an article drawing attention to the effects of radiation, even that of low level. According to him, the detonation of a bomb of one megaton would cause the death, by cancer, of 10,000 people who would not even be aware that this fatal illness had been brought upon them. Later, in 1968, he was even more challenging with the pamphlet Reflections on Progress, Pacific Co-existence and Intellectual Liberty, in which he harshly attacked the Soviet political system and demanded that science worry itself about the generations to come.

Also, in the opposite direction to Teller, that which would bring about Sakharov’s bad feeling was a poor joke from a Soviet military commander, Marshall Nedelin, the military director of the Russian H-bomb tests. On saying to the commander, after a successful explosion that the tests should continue to occur only in theory, he heard from the military gentleman the reprisal: “Your job is to create the bomb. Our job is to say when and how to use it”. In the same manner Sakharov disapproved of the theory that more bombs equaled more peace and recognized that the truth was the uninterrupted nuclear arms race between two countries in conflict during the Cold War.

During an era of constant technological advance, Sakharov preferred to use his personal success to advise the world that science was inseparable from conscience. “As a physicist, I learned that science is the force of rationality and that the laws of physics are unalterable. The same is true for certain of our values, such as freedom and respect for individual dignity. These are also unalterable and universal laws, the same as those of physics”, he later said. For a considerable time he attempted, without success, to persuade Khrushchev to stop nuclear tests during the 50s and 60s. “You are a crystal of dignity” the Russian Premier used to reply.

Even then, his civil rights and his career as a physicist were being interfered with. Sakharov, even then, again got in touch with the Premier shortly before a new nuclear test, asking him to reconsider the need for new nuclear explosions devoid of any reasoning. Khrushev swore to the scientist that he was going to put off the explosion, since he was in agreement with him, but on the following day the H-bomb was detonated in Cazaquistan. “After that I saw myself as totally free and without any doubts as to what I had been doing. I stopped being the academic worried only with theory and the beauty of scientific discoveries and perceived that it was my duty to fight against this false asepsis of physics”, Andrei Sakharov affirmed in his autobiography (written, as it was, under the watchful eye of his captors during his exile).

The man who would lament the death of Stalin now wanted to express his opinions more and more to the media of the outside world. Yuri Andropov, at that time head of the KGB, declared him to be “public enemy number one”. Sakharov responded applying principals of scientific contention and political questions, or that is to say, testing hypothesis and looking for trustworthy evidence on questions. During 1979, he protested vigorously against the military invasion by the Soviet Union into Afghanistan, something which profoundly irritated the Russian military. The secret police arrested him illegally and took him to Gorky, a town closed to foreigners. Sakharov, the dissident, remained in forced exile for six years along with his wife Yelena Bonner.

With the ascension into power of Gorbachov and glasnost, a telephone was installed in the scientist’s house and the first call that he received was from the president himself, who invited him to return to Moscow and to assume a position within the new Russian assembly. The physicist was indeed participating in the first drafts of a new constitution for the country when he died in 1989 of a heart attack. “He was a great scientist and really frightened us considerably. We had not expected the Russian H-bomb in such a short time. The merit is due to the talent of Sakharov”, praises Edward Teller.

“Today this is taken very seriously. However, what we can see are people who more and more have less confidence in science and are more and more horrified with its use. Could it be that this will be good for the progress of humanity?” Teller says. Albert Einstein (who sent a letter to the North American president Franklin Roosevelt alerting him to the possibility of a German nuclear bomb) even went as far as rehearsing a possible reply to this complex question on remembering that “the accident of acquiring authority by way of the study of the natural kingdom leads to a terrible and fascinating responsibility about the social kingdom”.