Mother, do you think they’ll drop the Bomb?

I thought in this post I would touch on science and morality by means of the Manhattan Project.

The picture at the head of the page is of the very early stages of an atomic bomb going off. The roughly spherical fireball is approximately 20 metres across at this point. It was taken using a “rapatronic” camera, invented by Harold Egerton for just this purpose.  The exposure time for this camera can be as short as 1/500,000th of a second (2 microseconds). Cameras were fired sequentially at periods less than 1/1000th of a second (1 millisecond) after detonation, to produce a sequence of images of which this is just one. The camera is triggered by a photocell, which picks up the x-ray flash as the bomb goes off, and a delay circuit. The shutter contains no moving parts, it is a “Kerr cell” placed between two polarizers arranged such that they let through no light. When a current flows through the Kerr cell the polarisation of light is rotated and so can make it through both polarizers – no current and no light gets through. This is all done electronically so can happen really fast.

The bomb was detonated on a gantry tower supported by guy wires, the bright spikes beneath the round explosion are known as “rope tricks“, they are where the metal guy wires have been vapourized by the light from the initial detonation. If you cover the guy wires in aluminium foil the rope tricks disappear because the light is reflected, paint them black and the spikes appear larger because more light is absorbed. The distorted shape of the fireball is a relic of irregularities in the bomb casing, and the small shed at the top of the gantry tower in which the bomb is placed.

To me the story of the making of the atomic bomb is fascinating and exciting. In the period of a few years from 1939-1945 methods were found to extract scarce isotopes of uranium in kilogram quantities; manufacture plutonium; the fundamental radioactive properties of the substance were discovered; calculations were done to work exactly how much uranium you needed for a bang, how quickly you had to get it together and the whole thing converted into a working device that could be carried in an aeroplane. And they did a lot of this work twice, since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are quite different in design.The story about the rapatronic camera shutter is just a relatively little-known footnote to the whole endeavour.

The Manhattan Project was served by a considerable number of scientists, including twenty Nobel Prize winners, amongst a staff of around 130,000. These scientists represent a large fraction of the most renowned scientists of the period. I think I can imagine how I would have felt to working on the bomb, I would have been keen to be part of the war effort, I’d have been thrilled by the intellectual firepower of my colleagues, I’d have been excited by the technical challenge of actually making a real thing.

And then there was the Trinity test firing, I think at this point I would have become really aware of the enormity of what I had been involved in. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Los Alamos site where the bomb was constructed, later said he thought of this line from the Bhagavad Gita:

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Which always struck me as being a bit pretentious, but maybe that’s a result of my ignorance. Whilst Kenneth Bainbridge, the director for the Trinity test, is reported to have said:

Now we are all sons of bitches

Which strikes me as a rather more plausible response. I have to say, with a little embarrassment, that I would have been thrilled by the size of the bang I had made.

Less than a month after the Trinity test an untried version of the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, instantly killing 80,000 people; then a few days later a second bomb, identical to the Trinity test bomb, was dropped on Nagasaki killing another 40,000. Subsequently many more people died of their injuries.

I’m not sure how I would have felt at this point I think I would have been a bit shocked, I struggle to conceive of that many people dying. The world was at war so I would have been familiar with the idea of people dying in, for example, the air raids in the UK. So maybe I would have thought this was justifiable, that the war against Japan couldn’t have been won in any other way or at least any other way would have led to just as many deaths. Maybe it would have been clear to me at the time that the atomic bomb was as much about the Soviet Union as it was about the war with Japan.

After the war many scientists returned to normal life. Some didn’t, Edward Teller enthusiastically promoted the thermonuclear bombs for just about any application imaginable. Joseph Rotblat left the Manhattan Project before the bomb was dropped, and whilst continuing scientific work, he helped found, and run, the Pugwash Organisation and spent the rest of his life campaigning for peaceful conflict resolution.

Do scientists have a special moral responsibility? They certainly took the initiative in terms of highlighting the potential of an atomic bomb before the war, but actually making the bomb and deploying it took far more than just a few scientists. As to the morality of killing people in war, then I don’t think scientists can claim any special moral insight here.

Finishing in this way seems a bit trite, and it feels in some ways an abdication of responsibility. I think the point I’m trying to make is that scientists are just people, and we bear the same moral responsibilities as anyone else. The only difference is that scientists have the potential to open up new moral questions: “Is it more wrong to kill 100,000 people with one bomb, as opposed to many bombs?”. Maybe we have the ability to close old moral questions through evidence.


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    • Clare Dudman on January 28, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Fascinating post, especially the resume of what the scientists did next. Have you read PD Smith's The Doomsday Men? I found this fascinating.

    Also did you know the Manhattan Project started near Mold in Rhydymwyn? It was called the Tubes Alloy project and ran alongside a vast complex making chemical weapons. It open to the public and atmospheric.

    • SomeBeans on January 28, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    @Clare – I hadn't seen the PD Smith book – added to my list because I think more records have been released since Richard Rhodes wrote "The Making of The Atomic Bomb" (which I have read). I've also read Richard Feynmann's books of anecdotes, and the Gleick biography.

    I'd heard of the Tube Alloy project, but didn't know it had a Welsh link!

    • Stephen Curry on January 29, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Thanks for that Ian – very interesting indeed. Rhodes' book is one of my all-time favourites: a fantastic run through the history of atomic physics and the Manhattan project.

    I didn't know that Edgerton was involved in photographing the Trinity blast, though that's hardly surprising since I only really became aware of his work last week!

    • SomeBeans on January 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

    @Stephen – Egerton was a busy chap, unlike your blog post on Muybridge I was unable to recreate his photos locally. I think there's a law about setting off nuclear explosions – bloody nanny state ;-)

    The post was in part stimulated by my stepmother's report on a visit to the Los Alamos museum, she said it was all very gungho which gave me pause for thought.

    • sfauthor on January 30, 2010 at 2:45 am

    Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

    • drop4three on January 30, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Intesting post, and interesting dilema. Your question on "kill with one bomb or many bombs" is the crux for me.
    As a non-scientific type, the moral angle is my first consideration, although I can see how developing something of this magnitutde or power would be attractive but they must have known the devices they created would be deployed.
    You could, though, put the same question to Barnes-Wallace and ask how many people died when the Ruhr dams were destroyed by his bouncing bombs. They were built for a specific purpose – destruction – as were the atomic bombs (I'll set aside all the other discoveries they made during the process).
    Me? I can't reconcile head and heart. I know the argument that by hitting Japan this way it would bring the war to an end earlier, but I can't bring myself to think of something that would cause that loss of life in one go.
    I'd never sleep again.

    • SomeBeans on January 30, 2010 at 10:17 am

    @drop4three – they were people living in a different time. World War I had only finish 20 years or so previously (i.e. it was as distant as 1990 is to us). The UK alone lost over 1 million people to WWI. The war in Europe had killed millions by 1945.

    I think they would have felt like part of a large enterprise, i.e. not individually responsible, and also what they were doing was right in the sense that the war was killing millions, and this could be a way to end it.

    Countering that Joseph Rotblat and no doubt un-reported others made the decision that they did not want to be involved. This may have been because the US was clearly seeing the atomic bomb as an anti-Soviet device as much as an anti-Japan device (and not the anti-Hitler device originally envisioned).

    Richard Feynmann, who worked on the bomb, was certainly deeply effected in the period after the war and I imagine many others would have been too.

    I think in summary I'm profoundly suspicious of the moral judgements we make of people working in a different time under different circumstances.

    • drop4three on January 30, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Sorry, I don't think I made myself clear. I was trying not to judge them, I was considering myself in their position. I know I couldn't be part of something like that knowing the results it would deliver. That said, there's a large chunk of me that can justify the actions as a way to stop the war – many for the few.
    I visited two of the D-Day landing beaches last summer and that and my research had a profound effect on me. The thought of what happened there and elsewhere in the war would lead me to try almost anything to bring a conflict like that to an end.
    And therein, for me, lies the conflict. I just know I'd have difficulty with the moral aspect later as I'm sure many of those involved in the Manhattan Project did.

    • Alexander crockett on January 31, 2010 at 7:28 am

    A really very interesting post. Much needed discussion. Although I found the personal angle compelling I'm not convinced that the one bomb vs. many is much of an argument. Fire doesn't put out fire after all. But then that would be a pacifist line I suppose. What was important in this post for me was that someone was asking a personal question about how they would respond. The experiments by Stanley Milgram certainly show the degree to which these kinds of searching questions are not asked by people enough.

    In Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century Jonathan Glover makes the interesting point that mass harm has become much easier with the development of technologies such as the A Bomb as we can render great disaster with greater distance. Certainly with Hiroshima one plane was enough.

    I agree with you; a scientist is a person. The moral responsibility of scientists is certainly a hard one indeed. I don't suppose it's any different to the responsibility we all bear. For me the fundamental question is, what kind of a world do we want to live in? But at the same time how often has scientific progress gone hand in hand with military effort? I am pro knowledge, just wish we didn't need to kill people in order to finance it.

    • SomeBeans on January 31, 2010 at 9:32 am

    @Alexander crockett, I think what you say about mass harm in distant lands becoming easier is correct, but mass media means we are much more concerned about deaths on our own side.

    I think war up's the level of effort in various fields but I think a lot of it is about engineering (getting workable devices) rather than pure discovery. No one funds science for
    the sake of it, they do it because it will provide economic or military advantage.

    • Belette on March 3, 2010 at 9:51 am

    You have to admit, morally it isn't so great but the sheer awesome factor of some of the photos is just mind blowing. That one you have is truely astonishing.

    If you didn't know it, there is an Asimov story which I suspect is based on seeing that or similar pics – a group of sci+mil folk are watching the first ultra-fast movie of a A-bomb and just after the start they are horror-struck as a grinning devils face emerges…

    Meanwhile, is fun. "At work in the fields of the bomb" is the source.

    • SomeBeans on March 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    That sounds rather Asimov!

    Your picture reminded me of a picture of the first true hydrogen bomb:
    Which looks like a mis-placed piece of chemical engineering plant.

  1. […] the Superweapon by P.D. Smith. I arrived at this book via the comments on my earlier post about the Manhattan Project, the Allied project to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the […]

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