Pure science, no apologies

Peace and War

September 18, 1998

The detonation of atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an epoch-making event. It brought to an end the second world war, but it heralded the nuclear age, with its potential to bring the whole of humankind to an abrupt end. It also demonstrated the dominant role of science in modern society.

How did scientists react to this situation? What were their thoughts about the new role of science? Did they feel guilty, ashamed, dismal? Or did they feel virtuous, proud, elated? There is a great public interest in the attitudes and opinions of the scientists who made the bomb. Robert Serber, who died a year ago, was one of the chief scientists on the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer's right-hand man in Los Alamos, and one of the first to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. But if the readers of Serber's autobiography expect to learn about his thoughts and emotions over these events they will be sorely disappointed.

When I first came to England a friend tried to enlighten me about the English character. He told me the story of two Englishmen who climbed to the top of a mountain, from where there stretched a panorama of wonderful beauty. After contemplating it for a while in silence, one of them remarked: "It is a rather pretty sight," to which the other retorted: "Yes, it is quite nice, but there is no reason to wax so lyrical about it."

As I soon discovered, this was not the image of the average Englishman, but it perfectly fits the American Serber; in his reminiscences he is economical with his opinions and hardly ever shows emotion.

An example is his account of the Alamogordo test, the first time that man released nuclear energy in an explosion equivalent to the detonation of 20,000 tonnes of TNT. Serber's mentor, Oppenheimer, described the event in apocalyptic terms, quoting from the Bhagavadgita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Serber simply notes the physical effects he experienced, although in his report on the test, he did "wax lyrical": "The grandeur and magnitude of the phenomena were completely breathtaking."

He is similarly matter-of-fact in his description - in letters to his wife - of the visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately after the bombs. Apart from occasional references to physical damage, the letters contain banalities; only rarely does he mention human suffering. Oppenheimer noted this lack of compassion when after returning to Los Alamos, Serber gave a seminar on what he saw in Japan. "Oppie scolded me for giving the impression that the bomb was a benevolent weapon."

The genesis of the book is interesting. It is explained in the introduction by Robert Crease, a historian of science, who is listed as a co-author on the title page.

When invited to give the 1994 Pegram Lecture, Serber decided to make it into a recollection of his Los Alamos years and subsequent events. But when it came to the publishing, Serber's lecture notes were found to be "insufficiently developed for a book". Crease was then asked to make it into one by adding historical material previously published or from interviews and letters. As the text is written in the first-person singular, it is impossible to say how much is original Serber and how much is Crease. Unhappy about the absence in Serber's narrative of any moral justifications of his work, Crease drafted an outline of a suitable passage, but Serber rejected it. Subsequently, Crease tried desperately to find excuses for Serber's leaving out reasons and feelings. Thus he puts the question: "Do participants in an event with extraordinary human consequences have a social responsibility to air their consciences in public?" I believe everybody is entitled to privacy, but if one voluntarily exposes one's life to the public, then motivations for deeds have to be included. We must all be accountable for our actions.

The really important question, which Crease did not put, relates to the social responsibility of scientists: should scientists be concerned about the societal effects of their work, and if so, should they take action to prevent the misuse of science? The growing impact of science on society - the most striking example being the development of nuclear weapons - has convinced many scientists that they do have such an obligation. After Hiroshima this found expression in the setting up of pertinent organisations, eg the Federation of American Scientists in the United States, the Atomic Scientists Association in the United Kingdom, and, later, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In time even established academies of science incorporated such issues into their remits. However, there are still many scientists of the old school who believe that scientific research should be done for its own sake and that it is for others to deal with the consequences of such research. Serber belonged to this school of thought. He was a "pure" scientist who ironically found himself at the centre of a hot political issue. He was caught up in it again later when, as president of the American Physical Society, he strongly opposed the society's involvement in sociopolitical issues. For this he was strongly criticised and branded a reactionary.

From my own encounters with him, I think of Serber as a first-rate physicist and a thoroughly decent man, but not inspiring. He was a fount of knowledge in the particular branch of physics in which he worked, but he lacked wider horizons. It is characteristic of him that in his long academic career he never lectured to undergraduates. In his memoirs, he goes into great detail about specialised aspects of nuclear physics that only a few people, like me, will find absorbing. In matters in which a wider public would be interested he is rather dull.

Yet the book could have been made more engaging. Two years ago a biography was published of another great physicist, Sir James Chadwick, who was also deeply involved in making the atom bomb and shared other features with Serber. Chadwick truly fitted the image of the Englishman from the "waxing lyrical" story: utterly personal, taciturn, aloof, shy of publicity; publishing his autobiography would have been anathema to him. The author of the biography, Andrew Brown, never met Chadwick in person, but as a result of thorough research he brought him to life in his book, with all the soul-searching and pains of decision-making. A biography of Serber might have been more readable than his autobiography.

Joseph Rotblat, Nobel laureate, was a founder of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Peace and War: Reminiscences of a Life on the Frontiers of Science

Author - Robert Serber with Robert P. Crease
ISBN - 0 231 10546 0
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £23.95
Pages - 241

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