“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”
From a passage in Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita
Those words were quoted by one of the 20th century’s most brilliant, most productive, most controversial physicists, the eminent J. Robert Oppenheimer in the television documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb. Oppenheimer is one of a number of individuals who are referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb” for his collaboration and leadership in the Manhattan project. He was a major proponent of and contributor to the development of atomic weapons and, in the end, realizing the terrible power he had helped to unlock, became a vocal opponent of their development.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima after the August 6th, 1945 atomic blast that leveled that city and instantly took the lives of over 140,000 people in a blinding flash of light.
The president is to be applauded for his visit to Hiroshima, for his courage and sensitivity. His actions should be properly viewed as the first baby steps on a very long road to a nuclear-weapons free world. The visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is consistent with his goal of leaving office in a nuclear-free world and, no doubt, his dream will remain unrealized given the likely prospects for his successor.
The visit is significant on many levels. He, as the pre-eminent representative of the United States, stands in solidarity with the survivors of the 1945 atomic blast, those who have long-suffered the outcome of that terrible day, all who have died slow, agonizing deaths from radiation poisoning, future generations who have been born with birth defects and grotesque disfigurements from mutations, those who suffer tumors and malignancies resulting from the fallout, and all who suffer in ways too numerous to count, the outcome of that fateful decision by then President Truman to unleash the energy that powers the stars upon on a civilian population. A monstrous evil was loosed upon the world that day by this country and it is only fitting and just that it be acknowledged and recognized at the highest levels of this government, a sitting president 71 years later.
The president’s actions also serve as a vindication of those who have fought the good fight for a nuclear-weapons free world. Those individuals include many scientists and physicists such as Albert Einstein, Leo Szliard and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”, initially supported nuclear-weapons development by this country as a response to their continued development by the Nazis, quickly realized that far more harm would come from their continued development than good and raised his voice in opposition to their deployment. These men and many others became vocal opponents of further nuclear weapons development and proliferation. In a famous petition drafted by Leo Szilard and circulated in July of 1945 opposing their use against an unarmed civilian population, 70 prominent signatories went on record opposing the direct use of the bomb but rather advocated for a demonstration of its terrible power to the world. The petition never made it up the chain of command to the president’s desk and it’s not clear if it would have mattered to President Truman.
Speaking with utmost decorum and sensitivity alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, addressing a very painful event in the lives of so many, President Obama spoke eloquently as a statesman of the highest caliber. The president reminded those present and the whole world that the memory of the Hiroshima Bombing ‘Must Never Fade’. Choosing his words carefully, so as not to offend his host and the honored guests and survivors, he spoke of reconciliation and the need to move forward on a path to a nuclear-weapons free world. Although it was deemed inappropriate to openly question the moral judgement of then President Truman, President Obama reached out to the survivors, physically comforting some, offering his condolences while recognizing the untold suffering and misery the actions of a predecessor had on those generations of Japanese since the close of the war.
“We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry.”
“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright and cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed”
“The flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”
“We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war. We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”
The president went on to Tweet
“It’s like a dream come true“ said 79-year-old Shigeaki Mori, one of two bombing survivors who briefly met the president. Mr. Mori created a memorial for U.S. prisoners of war killed in Hiroshima. As the president embraced Mr. Mori, the two spoke, “I suffered so much, so today was the best day that was given by America.”
The second survivor met by the president, 91-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, went on to say that President Obama will be remembered as the one who “listened to the voice of survivors like us.”
In a recent article describing the addition of 4 new synthetic elements to the Periodic Table, I discuss nuclear fusion, the energy source that powers the stars:
All stars derive their energy through nuclear fusion, the transmutation of four hydrogen nuclei (protons) into a helium nucleus. For lower-mass stars like our sun, after all but 12% of the star’s core hydrogen has been depleted, during the star’s helium burning phase, the process will continue through a series of core contractions, heating and expansions, with the transmutation of 3 helium nuclei to form a Carbon-12 nucleus. This process, by which the transmutation of helium into carbon occurs, is known as the Triple-Alpha process, a 2-step nuclear fusion process that ultimately combines 3 He4 nuclei (alpha particles) to form a stable Carbon-12 nucleus; this is the only way carbon is produced and is the nuclear dead-end for solar class stars.
In that article, I go on to describe how heavy metals and the remainder of the Periodic Table above Iron, Cobalt and Nickel are produced, something that speaks to the awesome potential contained even in one gram of Uranium (two million grams of oil or three million grams of coal have the same potential power yield as contained in one gram of Uranium).
Two Types of Nuclear Processes
The splitting (or fission) of a heavier nucleus (ex. Uranium or Plutonium) into lighter, daughter nuclei (Barium, Strontium, Cesium, etc) and, in the process, the release of the binding energy that held the heavier nuclei together. This energy, the energy that bound the nucleus together, had its origins in the immediate aftermath of a supernova! Whether this energy is used for peaceful purposes in the generation of clean, carbon-free energy to power our modern civilization or as the most terrible weapon ever invented by the mind of man, it had it’s origins in the terrible beauty of a supernova! To unleash this power as a weapon, the power of a supernova, on a human population is evil in its purest, most extreme, most deranged form.
The synthesis of heavier nuclei by the combination of lighter nuclei. This is the energy source that powers the sun and all stars and is described in detail in my recent article describing the addition of 4 new synthetic elements to the Periodic Table. The Proton-Proton chain is the principal reaction that powers the sun and solar-class stars and consists of 3 steps where 4 protons are ultimately combined to form a He4 nucleus. The mass loss in this process (the mass of the He4 nucleus is less than the combined mass of the 4 protons) is described by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc² and represents the energy released by the reaction in the form of gamma rays. In order to accomplish this, for the individual protons to get close enough to each other to combine thr0ugh the Strong Nuclear force, overcoming the electrostatic barrier that repels them, the plasma (ionized hydrogen consisting of free protons and electrons) temperature is measured in many millions of degrees. This requirement has been the technical barrier to the development of nuclear fusion as a viable energy source. However, this is not a barrier to the use of it in the production of a weapon.
The Use of Nuclear Energy as a Weapon
The use of either of these two nuclear processes as a weapon, either nuclear fission or nuclear fusion, is a malignant perversion of one the most elegant, beautiful and most powerful forces in all of nature, the transmutation of lighter elements into heavier elements; to use the same process, its elegance and beauty, this process by which nature builds the raw materials for new worlds and new life as a means to destroy that life is as perverse as it is extreme. It is through repeated nuclear burning cycles of heavier and heavier nuclei in high-mass stars that the raw materials for life are built and, in the spectacular death of that high-mass star in a Type-II supernova, those building blocks enrich the interstellar medium, providing the foundation for new worlds, new life and new civilizations. As we stand in awe of this nature, witness to the terrible beauty of a supernova, we observe that life is born of death; that we, in a perverse irony, in our ignorance and quest for self-destruction, invert that process and turn it on ourselves; this is evil in its purest form, that the energy that went into building these heavy elements in cores of high-mass stars is now unleashed on our own population.
As we begin our celebration of Memorial Day this weekend, honoring those who gave the last full measure of devotion in wars past, let us meditate on the significance of the president’s visit and its timing. May it serve as a reminder that we are better than this, that the only good outcome to war is its ending and that we should settle our differences in ways consistent with the highest values of an enlightened democracy.
Imagination is more important than knowledge
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.