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Moral Risk And Nuclear Weapons

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Moral Risk and Nuclear Weapons

See the Cat? See the Cradle?

"'See the cat?' asked Newt. 'See the cradle?'" (Vonnegut- 183).

The day the atomic bomb dropped, August 6, 1945, was the day in which Newt Hoenikker's father tried to play a game with him. Felix, one of the scientists who had helped create the weapon, wanted to play cat's cradle. It is a game played with string looped over the fingers. After a series of movements, one is supposed to be able to see what appears to be a cradle shape. To most, it simply looks like a tangled string. Newt’s constant reference to the game of Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut's way of symbolizing the search for meaning that people get caught up in all the time. In the scientific community, they have made a career out of this game.

Michael Polyani was known for being a physical chemist, economist, and philosopher. In the second chapter of Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, he discusses Polyani's concept of the "republic of science". It is used to explain accepted governing principles in the scientific community which have not been made clear to those outside of it. As said by American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, "If we know the rules, we consider that we 'understand' the world" (Rhodes- 32). This paper will discuss two of the three principles, the apprenticeship concept and the undesirablilty of strong, central leadrship, and how these concepts evolved in both pre and post World War II physics.

Polyani had always acknowledged the role played by inherited practices. The fact that we know more than we can clearly express contributes to the conclusion that much knowledge is passed on by other means, such as apprenticeship. When one is in an apprenticeship, one has "close, personal association with the intimate views and practices of a distinguished master" (Rhodes- 32). Science was actually more like an art, passed from master to apprentice. It could not be learned from books and classes alone, "...because nothing in science ever quite fits; no experiment is ever final proof; everything is simplified and approximate" (Rhodes- 32). One great example of a pre-World War II apprenticeship is J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. J.J Thomson was a British physicist, known for the discovery of the electron. One of his four Nobel prize-winning students was Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford was a chemist and physicist, now known as the father of nuclear physics for his discovery of the atom. Rutherford, however, did not have the same drive as other scientists at the time. He wanted his name in a spotlight somewhere and was not as concerned with how this occured. Thomson had to explain to Rutherford the real reason for being a scientist.

"It seems probable that J.J Thomson sat eager young Ernest Rutherford down in the darkly paneled rooms of the Gothic Revival Cavendish Laboratory...and kindly told him he could not serve God and Mammon [the director] at the same time...But if Rutherford gave up commercial wealth for holy science, he won the atom in exchange. He found its constituent parts and named them. With string and ceiling wax, he made the atom real." (Rhodes- 39).

Before World War II, this is what scientists were concerned about: pure science.

After World War II, it was all about the newly found fame and guilt. As CP Snow eloquently put it, "With the discovery of fission, ...physicists became, almost overnight, the most important military resource a nation-state could call upon" (Rhodes- 751). The concept of the apprentice came to not exist. Scientists wanted to be individuals, because then their names would be remembered- just as those of the members of the Manhattan Project.

According to Polyani, the best way for a scientific community to work "was to allow each worker to keep track of what every other worker was doing..." (Rhodes- 34). Even though each individual was acting separately, they were stil furthuring the success of the group. Scientific groups work independently together, and this has always seemed to be the most effiicient process. "...by the complete openness of their communication, an absolute and vital freedom of speech...the authority of scientifc opinion...is established between scientists, not above them" (Rhodes- 34). For example, this model of an "open republic" where each scientist judged the works of others against mutual standards was perfect for the discovery of the atom. It fit in with the atmosphere of 19th century physics because "it was plausable, it had considerable scientific value, especailly in systematic importance; but no one had yet made any suprising discoveries

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