2012-03-20 / Opinion

Just A Minute

Nick Albaugh

“A fact is a simple statement that everyone believes. It is innocent unless found guilty. A hypothesis is a novel suggestion that no one wants to believe. It is guilty until found effective.”

---Edward Teller, quoted in Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics, 1991

In this space last month we surveyed attempts to frack gas with nukes half a century ago, concluding with a reference to Edward Teller, father of the H Bomb and, subsequently, a leading exponent of peaceful uses of nuclear energy (often through fantastic schemes of nuclear detonation).

By way of a two-page ad taken out in the July 31, 1979 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Teller blamed Jane Fonda for the heart attack he suffered two months earlier:

“On May 7, a few weeks after the accident at Three-Mile Island, I was in Washington. I was there to refute some of that propaganda that Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and their kind are spewing to the news media in their attempt to frighten people away from nuclear power. I am 71 years old, and I was working 20 hours a day. The strain was too much. The next day, I suffered a heart attack. You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous.”

In a striking coincidence, Fonda’s movie about a meltdown in a nuclear plant, The China Syndrome, was released just days before the accident at Three Mile Island. There is little doubt that the film promoted a cautionary attitude toward further nuclear development.

Of course, Hollywood in 1979 offered ample support for almost any category of alarm---Apocalypse Now and Hair for the absurdities of war; Alien for extraterrestrial menace; Prophecy for pollution-created mutations; Meteor and the remake of Hurricane for natural disasters; Caligula for the excesses of empire; Mad Max for post-apocalyptic survivalism; and so on.

It was not a coincidence, however, that the cost of Teller’s two-page ad was picked up by Dresser Industries, manufacturers of the failed Electromatic Relief Valve at Three Mile Island.

Rarely do we glimpse such a clear confluence of an ego of the scientific community, industry interests, popular mythology, media imprimatur (Walter Cronkite intoned that “The world has never known a day quite like today…And the horror tonight is that it could get much worse”), social activism, and political retrenchment.

The second day of the accident Lt. Governor Scranton delivered the now-familiar obligatory that “everything is under control,” only to follow up with the equally familiar admission that things were “more complex than the company first led us to believe.” A nuclear engineer, then-president Jimmy Carter, who hastened to Harrisburg to oversee the crisis, had been a member of the Navy team that helped dismantle the damaged nuclear reactor at the Chalk River plant in Ontario in 1952.

I leave it to some Theseus to extricate us from this maze of conflicting interests and discover what could have been helpful to the welfare of the common citizen. On the other hand, we might see how we got to Three Mile Island---or any of the other energy quandaries produced by two centuries of resource exploitation.

No advanced technology is possible were its underlying principles not first born in the minds of theoretical physicists. Under what circumstances do those ideas (Teller’s hypotheses) escape the mind and find realization in the heat and explosions of nuclear devices?

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City to a wealthy textiles merchant who had emigrated from Germany in 1888, and an artist mother. His early years were devoted to theoretical physics and confined to academics. It was the 1942 invitation from James Bryant Conant, chemist, administrator, Harvard president, and representative of national defense that led him to apply his genius to atomic bomb theory, pursuant to Roosevelt’s decision the previous year to build the bomb. But it was the astute judgment of Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, Jr, head of the Manhattan Project, to appoint Oppenheimer to lead the work at Los Alamos---despite the physicist’s dubious profile featuring extensive communist affiliations, an adulterous love affair, and personality traits of depression and difficult personal relationships.

That Oppenheimer the esthete understood the nature of his applied work was evident in his later invocation of the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Teller, by contrast, fled the upheaval and oppression of his native Hungary and soon afterwards the threat of Hitler’s Germany, emigrating to the states in 1935 as a young man with a PhD in theoretical physics, a dysfunctional childhood, an irascible personality, and little interest in radical politics.

Even before his early recruitment at Los Alamos, he was concerned not so much with the atom bomb as obsessed with developing the H bomb. It is debatable whether his contentious relationship with Oppenheimer (most evident in his ambiguous testimony against the latter’s security clearance in 1953) reflected resentment of his superior’s rank or dismissal of his advocacy for the H bomb.

Much as Germany’s pursuit of the atom bomb is generally thought to have been subordinated to Hitler’s program of rocket development, the Manhattan Project favored the less complex quest for the atom bomb.

These are decisions of political contest, military advantage, and economic interest; the scientist, having argued his case in whatever tongues his personal saints and demons afford, as likely retires to the landscape of a paycheck and professional accommodation as reap the hubristic reward of theories proven in whatever experimental programs the funding authorities permit---however much he may later regret and rationalize those outcomes.

Science is the thought and practice of scientists. In both its form and functions---despite its popular reputation as the trumping authority in human affairs---it is an expression of the larger culture.

In the present pursuit of extreme fossil energy, forces arrayed for and against fracking are as often confused as distinct, including their uses of that quantum of science that is developed and disclosed. Recent months have revealed the “partnering” of big environmental organizations with industry and government. The Sierra Club took $26 million from Chesapeake Energy and $50 million from Mayor Bloomberg in their efforts to promote gas. The Environmental Defense Fund and Southwestern Energy are working with undisclosed other NGOs and corporations to develop “model” regulations for an industry that the grass roots wants banned.

To lift a line from Teller, none of this has been found effective, and none of it is innocent.

Return to top