Responsibility In a Nuclear Age

J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist best known for his role as the director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer lamented the weapon’s killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Famously, after the war he recounted his impressions of the bomb’s invention by quoting the Bhagavad Gita whilst trying to hold back tears on television.

In his book Heresies, John Gray reminds us that science is not the answer to mankind’s existential woes or spiritual shortcomings, nor an advance in its will to do good either; it merely amplifies our capacity to express these. Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at age 62 in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1967. The video above should remind us of the responsibility mankind has in handling the fruits of scientific enterprise. The 42nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coming up in August.



The picture above is a photograph taken of the first nuclear bomb test at The Manhattan Project. It was named Trinity by Oppenheimer.

In a 6-part series called Pandora’s Box, film-maker Adam Curtis has explored the continuing desire of mankind to fall for the illusion that scientific progress equates to progress for mankind on other levels. The theme of this unwarranted belief in science is explored in the last episode of the series, “A is for Atom”, in which Curtis examines mankind’s custody of nuclear capacity and the hope its discovery brought.


The Chairman Mao T-Shirt

We are blind if we don’t perceive that the greatest risks humanity might yet face may lie in the absent-minded consumer culture we are continually endorsing. (This is no radical anarchist’s plea, bear with me…)

To offer some support for this awesome indictment, and explain a little more, I remind you of George Santayana’s eerie observation: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The purist’s retort that history by definition cannot be repeated misses the point here, and I for one hope to learn Santayana’s line is not prescient in our civilization’s specific case.

I fear though, that it is. Mankind’s unsustainable decimation of natural resources (note: not “our” natural resources – we have no right of ownership here), was most obviously the reason for the fall of several preceding civilizations also – a point made eloquently by Jared Diamond in his fabulous book Collapse. It is a point incidentally, that is embarrassing to have to make in a rationalist “Age of Information”. Sadly, it is utterly necessary. Nonetheless, we plough on regardless, razing rain forests, raping the seas and testing the patience of nature in evermore obtuse ways. And we do this to fill the “widget-shaped hole” inside us all. “If only I could have the digital camera to capture humanity’s self-destruction, I would be complete.”

The 20th century’s massacre-laden narrative has also been, it would seem, consigned to collective unmemory. (There is, perhaps a subtle difference between not caring to remember something, and forgetting it outright.) Images of Stalin or Hitler’s demagoguery fade more rapidly with each passing day. They have been consigned to the televisual dustbin the History Channel’s sensationalist retrospectives rarely fail to be. The urgency of remembering what great horror mankind has cursed itself with in the past no longer exercises most minds even in fleeting seconds. We are ever keener to forget about all that. No, not to forget. Just not to remember if we can help it.

Even in remembering there is some effort necessary; registering a fact in the mind does not compare to meditating on it’s implications. But instead we turn our attention to the pleasures of retail therapy, consumerism, and through these accept the sale, unwittingly or otherwise, of personal and collective meaninglessness:

The zipper non-pocket marks wonderfully our “progress” down a cultural cul-de-sac. It is not only that we will find no way through, but that the end itself is perilous. For in it lie the unfathomable dangers of being surprised by a Mao, or Hitler or Stalin again. We are sacrificing the symbols humankind’s greatest struggles and learned lessons to the indifferent spirit of material gratification. We are trivialising hard-earned wisdom itself. I call for a reversal of this trend, not from the soap-box of some left-wing quack analysis, but from the genuine concern over our future. I am against us sleep-walking towards our cultural and perhaps evolutionary finale out of the lack of vision and will so many before us have been capable of. Such a thing might very well spell, as Noam Chomsky put it, be “the end of evolution’s experiment with intelligence.”

Please enjoy the following lecture by Jared Diamond, which turns intriguing after the gratuitously self-obsessed pre-amble. Will our civilization survive?