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Character before knowledge

By Noel Wauchope - posted Thursday, 10 January 2013

Brighter than a Thousand Suns,A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, by Robert Jungk, was first published in 1956.

"Why are we interested only in what scientists do, and not in what they are?"This opening question informs Jungk's entire book. Jungk conversed with many of the scientists of the early days of atomic research, and through until 1954. With the earliest conversations, Jungk was struck by "the arbitrary and unnatural separation of scientific research from the reality of the individual personality". To Jungk, it was this division that "allowed the creation of such monstrosities as the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb".

To this day, many nuclear scientists think of their work as purely mathematical and technical. The human results of nuclear weapons are none of their business. Others, especially after Hiroshima, suffered "their great crisis of conscience".


To today's readers, Jungk's detailed personal histories of so many scientists might prove tedious. Yet these form the source, the explanation, of the differing attitudes they held towards the projects that culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The earliest scientists in Germany were deeply affected by the traumas of World War 1, and the developing horror of the Nazi regime. Many were Jewish, and emigrated. The fear of Hitler acquiring and using the atomic bomb was in their minds. Those who stayed in Germany concentrated on uranium energy research, and were in fact relieved that Hitler dismissed the idea of developing the bomb.

Atomic research , along with the scientists, moved to Norway, France, Russia, Italy. It became an international collaboration then, in England. At Cambridge there was an atmosphere of youthful enthusiasm, as "Rutherford's boys" (and girls) worked on the technical complexity of atom, discovering the neutron in 1932. Jungk attributes the discovery of atomic fission to Enrico Fermi, in Italy 1934. Those were what Jungk calls "the beautiful years" – 1932 – 39.

In 1939 with the clouds of war hanging over them, the international scientists now faced the reality of what could be done with their research. Their colleagues in Germany were known to be on bad terms with Hitler – but no discussions could now be held between the two groups.

This was a turning point, a time when the scientists could have turned away from developing the bomb. Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, who both later fought against the bomb project, called on the USA to forward it, believing that USA would never actually use the bomb.

It was also a turning point in that the more light-hearted, youthful co-operation of scientists, gradually changed, in America, under the secretive and authoritarian regime of Manhattan Project in 1942


.From here, Jungk's book becomes something of a suspense thriller. The military authorities "erected invisible walls round every branch of research, so that no department ever knew what any other was doing." 150,000 were employed on the Manhattan Project, but only a few knew that they were working on a bomb at all. In the secret cities at Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos, scientists worked under rigid surveillance, and were encouraged to spy on each other. Colonel Leslie Groves was given the rank of General and put in charge of the project.

Most revealing is Yungk's study of the charismatic but flawed character of Robert Oppenheimer, Director at Los Alamos.. He was later most unfairly treated by USA, but Jungk outlines his behaviour as driven by ambition, and a willingness to kow tow to the military establishment.

General Groves' zeal for using the bomb in war was a factor in the schism that now developed among the scientists. From 1943 – 44, the scientists advised a demonstration bomb test, on unpopulated land. Szilard and Einstein now wrote to President Roosevelt urging against the atomic bombing of Japanese cities. But Roosevelt died suddenly. The new President Truman wasn't interested – setting up scientific panels, and an "Interim Committee" who would "play ball" with the military.

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. She is a long time anti-nuclear activist.

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