Report on POPA Meeting of January 9, 2005
Barbara Goss Levi
The APS Panel on Public Affairs continues to deal with a wide range of issues. Below are some of the issues that occupied the panel at its January meeting:
Revision of APS Statement
POPA reviewed existing APS public statements, which date back to 1981, to consider which have been superseded by later statements or overtaken by events and which may warrant revision. POPA decided to retire a number of them. It is consulting with the Committee on the Freedom of Scientists to consider issuing a more generic form of two statements that dealt with human rights of scientists in specific countries. POPA also decided to revise a statement on creationism, and to consider updating statements on the US helium reserve and on the possible health effects of power line fields. All retired APS public statements will remain on the APS website.
POPA approved a letter to be sent to Secretary of Commerce Evans regarding export control. The letter expresses the concern of APS about recently proposed changes that would require a university or national laboratory to get a license before they could allow a foreign national faculty member, staff member or student to use export-controlled scientific equipment.
Fraud Allegation at MIT’s Lincoln Lab
POPA discussed a recent issue at Lincoln Lab, the lab that MIT operates for the government. The issue involves an allegation that two scientists at Lincoln Lab behaved improperly in reviewing tests from the missile defense program. MIT’s attempt to investigate the allegations was stymied when the defense department classified the relevant data and declared that, because of previous federal reviews of the issue, a committee with the necessary clearances, which MIT had established to review the matter, had no “need to know that data.” POPA debated whether to get involved in this issue and in what way. One option was to look more broadly into the question of government-owned but university-operated laboratories. Another option involves finding out whether there is enough data already in the public domain to investigate the issues. By a narrow vote, POPA chose the latter option. A subcommittee is to report back to POPA for further possible action.
Science Advice to Congress
A subcommittee of POPA reported on three items concerned with enhancing science advice to government. One was the recommendation that the APS issue a statement supporting efforts to enhance the capabilities of Congressional support organization to carry out technically-based studies of policy options. POPA approved a statement that will go before the APS Council for approval in April.
The second proposed action was for APS to work with the recently established AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, headed by former State Department science advisor, Norman Neuriter. The idea would be for the Center to help assemble science and engineering society representatives to meet with congressional staff several times a year. Among the activities would be discussions of questions pending in Congress or sharing of information about ongoing science advice activities at the societies. The POPA subcommittee on Science Advice will continue to explore such collaboration with AAAS.
The subcommittee also proposed a possible mechanism for coming up with suggestions of topics worthy of greater exploration by POPA. POPA decided to form a subcommittee on study topics, to report back at the next meeting.
Nuclear Energy Study Group
POPA has a nuclear energy study group, which is examining how nuclear energy can be made more proliferation resistant. The study group and government nuclear experts met in mid-December 2004 and presented the outline of a report. They will continue to work on this vital topic.
Barbara Goss Levi
Consulting Editor, Physics Today
805 965 3483 (tel), 805 884 6121 (fax)
Thoughts on reading about the life of Theodore Taylor
The January/February 2005 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Volume 61, No. 1) has an obituary for Theodore Taylor, who died in October 2004. I knew nothing about Taylor before reading this very short piece in the Bulletin, but his story strongly impelled me to write this piece.
According to the Bulletin article, Taylor started making smaller and smaller designs for fission bombs in 1949 at Los Alamos, with great success. He gave his creations names such as “Scorpion”, “Wasp”, “Viper”, etc, with miniaturization culminating in his “Davy Crockett” weighing in at a mere 51 pounds. Taylor was obsessed with his work, poring over aerial photographs of target Moscow on the day of the birth of his second daughter. He drew circles of destruction from a 500-kiloton burst over Red Square on these photographs, and he once wrote in an earlier edition of the Bulletin, “I remember feeling disappointed because none of the circles included all of Moscow.” At some point, Taylor apparently swore off weapons work, and he subsequently visited Red Square. There, he cried at the thought that he had wanted to annihilate the place. He wrote, “Yes, my work at Los Alamos had been so intellectually stimulating, so compelling, but so insane.” According to the January/February 2005 issue of the Bulletin, “Taylor dedicated the remainder of his life to hastening arms control and denouncing all things nuclear.”
What is the nature of the “insanity” that Taylor claims gripped him during his weapons work? Throughout the world, there are many thousands of people working on the design of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and mankind consequently hovers at the brink of self-destruction. Any effort to enhance the security of our species against the threat of WMD is, in my view, insufficient if it does not include an effort to understand the individual and group psychology of the many people who, like Taylor, are obsessed with their technically fascinating work on WMD development. How can we make inroads to enhanced security from WMD if we do not understand the powerful psychological forces that drive people to create such weapons? So many people who worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War have remarked on how much fun they had working on the bomb, and on the intense pleasure that they had interacting with others during the pursuit of their goal. We need to understand the origin of that pleasure and fun if we are ever to gain any control over its role in WMD genesis.
I am not personally aware of studies concerning the topic of the psychology and organizational dynamics of people involved in WMD development, but I am sure that the Forum on Physics and Society (P&S) would be a superb venue for the dissemination, and discussion, of such studies. I can think of few subjects that are more important for discussion within P&S, as arms races could probably not exist without the “insanity” mentioned by Taylor. I invite any readers of P&S who are familiar with such studies to write about them in our newsletter.
Taylor is certainly not the first WMD designer to switch from fanatical design effort to trying to save the world from the fruits of those efforts. Oppenheimer and Sakharov are two of the most prominent figures who did the same thing. With all of the discussion now about ethics in science, one wonders if, in our graduate programs, raising the issue of the psychology of weapons work might be appropriate. At the very least, I believe that the presentation of papers on the topic belong in P&S sessions at our APS meetings, and in articles for our newsletter.
The great mathematician Stanislaw Ulam took up teaching at the University of Southern California after completing his role, at Los Alamos, in the Manhatten Project. In his autobiography, Adventures of a Mathematician, Ulam wrote, “At USC I found the academic atmosphere somewhat restricted, rather anticlimactic after the intensity and high level of science at Los Alamos. Everyone was full of good will, even if not terribly interested in ‘research’.” He then describes how he almost died there of encephalitis, of the recovery period from the neurosurgery that saved his life, and of his worries about what mental powers he may have lost on account of the illness. “What comforted me the most was the receipt of an invitation to attend a secret conference in Los Alamos in late April. This became for me a true sign of confidence in my mental recovery. I could not be told on the telephone or by letter what the conference was about…but I guessed correctly that it would be devoted to the problems of thermonuclear bombs.” Ulam soon left USC and returned to Los Alamos where, together with Edward Teller, he invented the hydrogen bomb. Reading Ulam’s autobiography, I have had the chilling thought that, for this brilliant man, living in LA and the mundane teaching of calculus almost killed him, whereas the very challenging work leading to the invention of the hydrogen bomb was his salvation. The locus of invention of the greatest weapons of mass destruction as the site of personal salvation for a great intellect: Can there be a greater irony, or more chilling suggestion of the problem of personal fulfillment (or salvation!) deriving from WMD development?
I believe that it was in Ladislas Farago’s book Aftermath: The Hunt for Martin Bormann that one can see a document from an engineering company in Nazi Germany, called Topf if I recall, giving specifications for ovens at extermination camps. On the bottom of the document is written a comment to the effect: “It is always a pleasure to do business with you.” The “insanity” that Taylor wrote about, and against which he devoted the latter part of his life, certainly did not start with nuclear weapons. It is high time that we at P&S delve into this dark recess of the human mind and do our best to understand it.
Jeffrey Marque is the Senior Staff Physicist at the Palo Alto site of Beckman Coulter Corporation and a co-editor of this newsletter. He thanks Dr. Lynn Eden, of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, for helpful comments, suggestions, and discussion.