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Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2000

What is the weight of a fractured atom?

ATOMIC FRAGMENTS: A Daughter's Questions, by Mary Palevsky. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 272 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

With the benefit of hindsight and a distant or nonexistent memory of World War II, we pass moral judgment on those who were directly involved with the invention and construction of the atomic bomb with relative ease. We voice opinions about whether or not the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified and freely debate the pros and cons of weapons of mass destruction as a means of achieving "peace."

We don't often stop to put ourselves in the position of those scientists who actually were responsible for making and testing the first atomic bomb or consider how they might feel today about the weapon they created.

In "Atomic Fragments," Mary Palevsky interviews some of the most prominent scientists involved in the Manhattan Project -- Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Joseph Rotblat, Herbert York, Philip Morrison, Robert Wilson and philosopher David Hawkins.

She asks each of them to re-examine their wartime decisions and take her through the ways in which they made choices about their involvement in the project, how they made sense of their work, and how they have reconciled the fate of those who fell victim to the bomb and their own consciences.

It is also a book in which Palevsky herself attempts to come to terms with the moral complexities of the atomic bomb. Palevsky's parents worked on the development of the bomb during World War II, and it had a profound impact on their lives.

In literature on the subject, a variety of approaches have considered whether the bomb should have been used to end the war, and about where and on whom it should have been used: In fact, these are well-documented.

But we read less about what went on behind the scenes and in the minds of those scientists who were directly involved in inventing and developing the weapon itself -- those we might think had the power to stop its development in its tracks.

The scientists Palevsky interviews were not only among the few who knew and understood the science of the bomb, but were also trusted advisers to the government on how it might be used and precisely what effect it might have.

Palevsky's interviews with them provide fascinating insight into the very different ways in which the development of the bomb can or cannot be "justified" as an instrument of war or, conversely, as a "retainer" of peace.

Some of the scientists are clearly more at peace with their involvement in the project to develop and build the bomb than others. In explaining or rationalizing their work, some draw a clear distinction between pure science and morality. Edward Teller, for example, disagrees with the idea that, in pursuing research, scientists should be responsible for how their science is used. It is, he argues, "I and you as citizens [who] are responsible for selecting the decision makers who will . . . use whatever can be used in the right way . . . My position is that knowledge is good and must be separated from the application of knowledge. And anything that can be applied can be used or misused."

In relation to the invention and development of the atomic bomb, this clearly situates Teller in the position of one who saw the role of the scientists in the Manhattan Project as wholly divorced from what the bomb was used for.

Hans Bethe agrees, arguing not only that science is very different from its applications, but further that "research should be unlimited. . . . one should try to understand as much as one can."

However, the idea that all knowledge is "good," irrespective of its applications, ignores the fact that knowledge is necessarily attached to "knowers" (in other words, to people) and is therefore inextricably linked to human motives.

Knowledge, as philosopher Michel Foucault (among others) has pointed out, is power, and the approach of Teller and Bethe to the question of responsibility attempts to downplay the sort of power that knowledge instills, both in themselves and in others.

David Hawkins makes the point in his interview that, historically, it is true to say that scientists have not had the burden of responsibility for the application of their science, precisely because the gap between discovery and application has been so lengthy.

He comments, "the argument is [that] as the gap gets shorter, the inevitable commitment to the consequences becomes more meaningful. But [at the end of World War II] it was considered a very debatable point."

Of those involved in the Manhattan Project, Hawkins says, "Everyone's life was being changed, changed radically I think, and irreversibly . . . We all did know we were involved in something which would alter the nature of the world. We understood less, perhaps, the reflex effect upon ourselves . . . A part of this reflex effect lay simply in the transformation of academic physicists, chemists and mathematicians into creators of a radically new weaponry."

In short, scientists were unable to predict the social shock waves that would be set off by their creation. They were not wholly aware of the consequences of their actions or the impact their scientific "success story" was to have on the world.

Although Joseph Rotblat played an active role in the bomb's development, he draws what he considers to be a clear and necessary connection between science and its applications.

He tells Palevsky, "I have always thought about science in humanitarian terms . . . science should have a purpose. The purpose is to serve mankind. I have always followed Francis Bacon's thoughts in 'Instauratio Magna' that science should not just be for the pleasure of the mind but also to improve the lot of man. To work on the bomb was completely against these principles."

His own rationale for working on the bomb was "to prevent Hitler from using his bomb." Rotblat is well-known today as a pioneer of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which promote nuclear disarmament. Together, Rotblat and the conferences were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Are scientists today more aware of the consequences of their work? Rotblat argues that they are, and the number of ethics committees vetting research proposals and new drugs suggests that more time and effort is put into attempting to predict the implications or ethics of science.

The public is also much more keenly aware of the effects scientific research may have on people -- the debates over genetically modified foods, fertility treatments and human cloning are a few contemporary examples.

In terms of the glimpse these interviews give us of the world of the Manhattan Project scientists, this book is insightful. However, Palevsky's own personal journey, her attempt to come to terms with her parents' involvement, is -- unsurprisingly -- somewhat sentimental and to a certain degree seems to prevent her from taking a more active role as a "synthesizer" or analyst of the arguments and themes that emerge in the book.

Although she attempts to bring the various arguments and opinions together in the book's epilogue, it remains a disappointing and fragmented end to an otherwise fascinating book.

Fiona Webster is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.

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