Friday, August 6, 2010



Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. ... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. . . . What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.

It happened on this date, this "greatest achievement."

New technology used to "solve" an old problem. We cannot help ourselves.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, suggested "we ought to stay out of the nuclei." Until we have a clue what we want, sounds like good advice.

You cannot separate tools from the critters who use them. Teaching science as some compartmentalized thought process without cultural context is a dangerous game.

What is our responsibility as teachers of science?
As citizens of the United States?
As human beings?


This morning I saw a wasp dragging paralyzed cricket along the edge of the driveway. The wasp was not much bigger than the cricket, and the wasp struggled. At one point she let go, stepped back a few inches, stroked her head a few times (much like a human facing a big task), and eventually dragged it down a hole by the driveway garden. The cricket was still alive, but paralyzed.

I did not intervene.

The wasp will lay her eggs in the cricket, and they will hatch in the cricket, still alive, and the cricket will, of course, suffer.

I did not intervene.

The larva wasp will use the the cricket, still alive, for food.

And still, I did not intervene.

Photo by Bruce Holderbaum


We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

Ken Allan is a blogger on the other side of the Earth. ( Kia ora e Ken.) He's quirky, bright, thoughtful, and well worth reading.

He sent me the this video:

And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.

(Yes, this is from older posts, timeless ones.)
The photo is by Bruce Holderbaum and can be found here--used with permission.


Unknown said...

At least the science was organized. I'll say that much. What a tidy, well-organized way to kill a million people.

The video is haunting.`I showed it to my class before and planned to have students debate whether we should have used the atomic bomb (the argument that it actually "saved lives in the long run," helped prevent the Russians from having power in Japan, etc.) but after the pictures and video, no one wanted to argue in favor of it. I couldn't blame them. I didn't want to. It was like arguing in favor of genocide.

doyle said...

Dear John,

At least you bring it up--you challenge your children with real problems.

I don't claim to hold the answers, but until we all learn to talk, nothing's going to change.

"Nobody talks, nothing changes" is how the folks at the Peace Museum phrase it.

SMiller said...

I think if you asked the soldiers and marines who fought on Manilla, Okinawa, and Guadalcanal whether we should have dropped the bomb, I believe they would be (and still would be) in favor of it. I'm sure the Chinese were definitely in favor of it (400,000 killed in Nanking compared to 70,000 to 80,000 at Hiroshima). The Japanese civilians had been instructed to seek death rather than surrender in case of invasion. It's easy for us to look back and assume that they would have surrendered, but I don't think any credible contemporary observers would have agreed.

Manila was destroyed almost as badly by the Japanese as Hiroshima was, and around 100,000 civilians (and POWs) were killed.

There are some other videos here.

doyle said...

Dear SMiller,

I spent my first few years on Marine bases; my Dad was a USMC Captain, flew off carriers. My grandfather fought in the First Great War.

I cannot claim the same, though I saw my share of trauma in the inner city.

In the end, the Japanese kept their Emperor--the resolution of WW2 is complicated (if indeed it is even resolved). It took Nagasaki for us here in the States to realize what needed to be done. The surrender was not unconditional.

Russia's declaration of war August 9th may have been equally unnerving to the Japanese. No way to tell.

I am aware of the firebombing of Tokyo, of Pearl Harbor, of atrocities on both sides. Reasonable people have argued that lives were saved by the atomic bombs dropped. Reasonable people have argued otherwise.

The focus of the post is on the event itself, and on Oppenheimer's haunting description. It's about what it means to be human, and about what humans are now capable of.

I thank you for your words, and I do not take them lightly. I, for one, have seen enough suffering in a lifetime, enough starvation, enough trauma, enough devastating illness.

The use of indiscriminate power of this magnitude cannot be justified by anyone who prays to anything resembling a loving or just being, yet we did it anyway.

And we'll do it again.

And that should give anyone pause.