APS News


American Nuclear Weapons, and Vigilance, Promote Peace and Security

This physicist, and volunteer in WWII, disagrees totally with the letter by J. Eckerman in the August/September APS News, which claims that our use of two atomic bombs on Japan to end the war quickly, "brought about the feasibility of the predicted Apocalypse." As Andrei Sakharov emphasized, the Soviet Union would have pursued nuclear and thermonuclear weapons regardless of our actions or inaction.

President Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project and President Truman, remembering the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in peacetime, wisely chose not to sacrifice many millions of Japanese lives, along with the total destruction of Japan, by massive conventional air bombardment, and not to sacrifice a couple hundred thousand American men and women in the Allied invasion of Japan planned to begin November 1, 1945. The perhaps up to 150,000 Japanese lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are far less than what would have occurred without our use of nuclear weapons. Even when the two atomic blasts convinced the Emperor to order surrender, Japanese Army officers tried to prevent his surrender message from being broadcast. Fortunately some loyal aides managed to have his message broadcast.

The presence of our formidable nuclear weapons prevented the Soviet seizure of Berlin and all of Western Europe . Thanks to President Reagan's rearmament and vision, the Soviet Communist Empire no longer exists. Partly due to President Bush, for five years after 9/11, terrorists have not yet scored a similar surprise attack on American soil. Our major worldwide intelligence effort, along with allies, deserves credit for that.

Iranians should contemplate that if their fanatic leaders obtain nuclear weapons and use them for surprise attack as they proclaim and threaten, many millions of peaceful Iranians will lose their lives and their futures from the inevitable retaliation. It is in their own interest to overthrow their religious tyrants, and construct an Iranian government worthy of their great past which includes the reign of the emperor Cyrus, famous for his friendship toward the Jewish people.

The arguments by Jorge Hirsch, while much less strident, are also not correct. The fallacy is the persistent illusion that sweet reason with no nuclear weapons will persuade ruthless fanatics (like Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, and Bin Laden types who seek to destroy "the infidels") to cease efforts at the destruction of peaceful, democratic nations.

Howard D. Greyber
San Jose ,CA

Unnatural Causes Don't Exist

Lawrence Krauss' excellent Back Page article, "When Worldviews Collide: Science and Religion Face Off Again" [APS News, April 2006] has elicited some interesting responses in the June issue. Walter Schimmerling was quite right in his complaint that Krauss implies that the face-off involves religion in general. Only a small subset of religious thought, the fundamentalist believers in a personal God, active in human affairs, and their politically motivated hangers-on, is represented in the challenge to the theory of evolution, and we should be careful to maintain the distinction.

Kennell Touryan, on the other hand, finds there is a valid controversy about the theory of evolution because the nature of the origin of life is so much in doubt. The theory of evolution is about the origin of species, given the existence of life, and says nothing at all about the origin of life. Controversy about the origin of life does not equate with controversy about the theory of evolution.

I quite disagree with John Fletcher, who objects to Krauss equating methodological naturalism with the scientific method, stating that the latter does not limit the kinds of causes that can be invoked when arriving at a theory. The very essence of the scientific method is the checking of theory against experiment. Science must a priori assume that there are no unnatural causes at work in the natural world, for otherwise experiment could not be trusted to provide any test of the validity of the theory. This assumption, of course, is arbitrary, but without it we would have some other system of thought, not science. The battle with ID must be based on whose system of thought works to provide the most successful predictive power, but ID must be taught as something other than science. George Kuipers makes a related statement that if the existence of God is not a scientifically testable proposition then evolution and ID are on an equal footing as far as science is concerned. I think this reflects again an incomplete understanding of the nature of science.

The truly amazing success of science in creating coherent pictures of how the world works, and the way we can confidently use these pictures to guide great and complex enterprises, has convinced me that naturalism goes beyond the methodological to the philosophical. It seems to me to be true, to a high degree of confidence, that there are no unnatural causes in the natural world, saving perhaps only what got the whole thing started in the first place.

Alan D. Franklin
Newville , PA

Great Talk, Wrong Speaker

Just a quick correction to "Meeting Briefs" in the July APS News: Terry Oswalt of the Florida Institute of Technology gave the stellar archaeology talk, not David Bixler. Oswalt's talk was, as you say, "among the highlights" of the meeting. He covered a great deal of science in a manner that was highly accessible to high school physics teachers, many of whom were there for the joint meeting with Texas AAPT. It was one of the best talks for such an audience that I've ever heard.

David Hough
San Antonio , TX

Wrong Century

There is a typo in Jean Barrette's letter [APS News, July 2006], in the sentence, “...communicated by J.J. Thomson to the Philosophical Magazine ...”. You have the date 1998. I'm sure it was meant to be 1898.

Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego , CA

Why Quibble About Multiple Universes?

In response to Ronald Hodges's letter [APS News, July 2006] about insight into the religious community, perhaps we could use some insight into science as well.

For the religious Christian community, it is written “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matthew 4: 5 - 7). I believe this means that this religion is not really testable. Isn't it strange that a unified Theory of Everything may be based on some string theory, which is not directly testable either? Where is your distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism now?

As far as Intelligent Design is concerned, evolution is a natural process, meaning it follows from the laws of physics as they actually operate, not necessarily as we conceive them. In physics we call this the anthropic principle, where the natural process involves multiple universes with random laws of physics and physical constants and the only ones which seem to count for anything are the ones evolving intelligent life (note that we are solely responsible for the term intelligent). Maybe it's the hard way, but this is certainly one approach to getting the job done. Why quibble about the details, if you can't come up with any evidence of other universes? This is where the Intelligent Design question belongs, not in biology classes which are only attempting to teach a natural process based on carbon chemistry and the laws of physics as we know them.

Len Loker
Indianapolis , IN

Drell Hews to Mies's Line

I was disappointed to learn (APS News, Back Page, August 2006) that the same dangerous nuclear stance propounded by Admiral Mies (Back Page, June 2006) is being advocated (albeit less bluntly) by such an eminent physicist as Sidney Drell.

Making an ironclad commitment to unconditionally renounce the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries would have benefits to the US that far outweigh the losses. It would remove the possibility that a reckless President could single-handedly make a legal decision that would change the future of humanity in a disastrous way. We would gain moral authority, other nuclear countries would follow suit, the non-proliferation framework would be enormously strengthened, and we would create a real incentive for nuclear states with small arsenals to disarm.

It is high time that American physicists, who carry a heavy responsibility for the existence and only use so far of nuclear weapons, address this issue, and I would hope forcefully advocate such a stance for our country.

Jorge Hirsch
San Diego , CA

Science, Religion, and Pershing Square

  • Adlai Stevenson, accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, characterized the 20th century as "that portal to the golden age."
  • Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, says that within twenty years, technology will have developed to the point that, among other things, people can live as long as they want to.
  • Charles Dickens in the introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French revolution, said, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
  • Enrico Fermi is said to have remarked, in response to a question about extraterrestrial life: "Where is everybody?"
  • Fictional Charles Addams-type cartoon factory gate-keeper walking onto the laboratory floor swinging his bunch of keys: “Closing time, gentlemen.”

Science deals with reason; religion deals with faith. The people who wrote the Bible were the original high energy physicists (the book of Genesis was the first theory of everything). And considering the primitive nature of their observational tools and theoretical background, they didn't do such a bad job. The problems arose because their descendants refused to allow for the results of advancing knowledge, like the Hubble telescope, the standard model, and Saran wrap.

The tension between science and religion arises out of the fundamental inability of people to come to grips with the finiteness and vicissitudes of existence and the infinities of time and space. Because of this insoluble problem, they are driven to faith. Or, as Hippocrates and succeeding philosophers put it, more or less, “Art is long; life is short, so come to the tavern and have a snort.”

But times they are a-changin! Nanotechnology promises immortality. The Golden Age is coming, and it won't require the Second Coming. What could faith healers during the age of miracles do that a bottle of Viagra can't accomplish this afternoon? It's the best of times.

Not so fast. Nuclear proliferation is rampant. Religious extremism is on the march. Seventy-two virgins are waiting for the faithful. The earth is heating up, Bush couldn't care less, and GM killed the electric car. It's the worst of times.

I'm beginning to think that those wackos who used to march around Pershing Square carrying signs proclaiming that “The End is Coming” were right all along. Only it's not going to be the result of divine intervention–we are going to do it to ourselves, and maybe it's an inevitable consequence of the second law, because sooner or later some nut is going to be in a position to press the button. Evolution may contain a built-in self-destruct mechanism. In plain language, when they get too smart, they blow themselves up. This could be why no extraterrestrial civilizations have been discovered.

And the really weird part about it is that those who precipitate the destruction will probably say that it was divine intervention that did it.

Closing time, gentlemen?

Robert A. Levy
El Paso , TX

Trouble with Eratosthenes

I always wondered how Eratosthenes knew the distance from Alexandria to Syene, because I doubted accurate maps were available in those days. So I was delighted when your "This Month in History" piece on Eratosthenes [APS News, June 2006] explained how he learned the distance. Sort of.

Please finish the story. How did the accurate pacers know the direction to pace? If Syene were due south of Alexandria , they could pace at night directly from or to the North Star, depending on their direction. But Syene, or at least Aswan , is about three degrees off due south. And surely they couldn't have known that. The road between the cities, even over that unobstructed desert, surely was not straight. But somehow they managed.

So, please. How?

Paul Dickson
Aiken , SC

Ed. Note: Perhaps the following letter will answer your question. Then again, perhaps not.

I am most perplexed as to why you continue to advance the fallacious doctrine that it was Eratosthenes who had first determined the circumference of the Earth. The fact that none of his writing has survived poses no problem to those who propagate this falsehood. It never does for those whose agenda is to promote the fallacious doctrine. In fact it was the Greek philosopher and geometrician Sphericles (an enemy of the Pythagoreans) who first determined the circumference of the Earth, his method stolen by Eratosthenes, aided by the Proto-Pythagoreans.

Sphericles resided in Alexandria , a recent addition to the Egyptian landscape. He knew that a well near present-day Aswan was directly illuminated by the overhead sun on but one day of the year. Best of all the well was approximately at the latitude of Alexandria (actually off by about 3°) on the Tropic of Cancer. He sent his brother Hemisphicles, a professional walker (actually his half brother) to Aswan to measure the distance from the well (then called the Sacred Well of Dreams) to Alexandria . The rest is history, unfortunately distorted history.

I do hope that you will set the record straight, thought I do not really think it will in any way change the attitude of the propagators of this falsehood.

Moishe Garfinkle
Philadelphia , PA

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Editor: Alan Chodos
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