The Bomb: Reflections on the Anniversary of the Hiroshima Attack

On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States from a solitary aircraft; one of the members of the crew was someone I didn’t know at the time but later discovered was a very distant cousin of mine.

I was somewhat annoyed that the Hiroshima bomb happened on my birthday (I was nineteen) because it was clear that from then on August 6 would be remembered for the devastation caused by “The Bomb.” It’s wrong for people who were not even alive in those days to assume that we didn’t realize many of the consequences. Aerial photographs of Hiroshima were soon in the newspapers, although it’s true that the long-lasting horrendous effects of radiation poisoning were not yet widely known (in spite of the fact that Marie Curie had died of it). Nevertheless, at the time I knew what World War II had done so far, how many casualties had resulting from firebombing in Europe and Asia, and how the deaths were increasing as we slogged from one Pacific island to the next. Furthermore, I had relatives and friends in the armed services. I hoped the atomic bomb meant that the war would soon end without the necessity of invading Japan. After another bomb was dropped, the war did end. The boys came home and many went to college on the G.I. bill. I could finally transfer to Stanford, the school I’d not been able to attend because the war made transcontinental travel difficult.  There, on the West Coast, I continued with my college education while wondering how much longer I’d have before the world died. Not quite two years later, in the spring of 1947, I was struggling through the end of the physics course that I had to take to get into medical school. The course had been in sections, all through my junior year. The end section was “atomic physics” (the word “nuclear” hadn’t been used yet). It was a lecture course (no laboratory work, of course), and I think it might be useful to copy some of the notes I made in a journal back then. (Before I throw them out, that is. One should get rid of the past, while remembering to learn from it.) To spare my readers, I am leaving out two pages of closely reasoned stuff (complete with equations!) on the Uncertainty Principle. I apparently copied them, no doubt in a spasm of masochism, from my physics class notes. The Uncertainty Principle (there are irrevocable limits to precision) has, however, affected my thinking and should affect any practicing humanist. Look it up. I think of the Uncertainty Principle (and it tends to be capitalized as if it were the Word of you-know-who) every time some religious fundamentalist maunders on about the perfection of the deity. Where was I? Ah, yes. The spring of 1947, and I was finishing my junior year at Stanford University. I worked hard because the veterans had first choice at medical school (women were third choice after non-veteran men) and the pre-med courses were difficult. Fortunately my two previous years at Wellesley College had taught me how to study and especially how to take good notes in class. Let me remind you that in those primitive days college students did take notes, in ink, on paper. No electronic gadgets to record anything. I still believe this antique way of going through college puts information into the brain better than anything else, unless you’re like my late husband, who could remember anything and do constructive thinking about it without notes. In the last physics class, the more than middle-aged professor (the head of the department) talked about “The Bomb” as much as he could in those days when secrecy was still necessary because we hoped to remain the only country that could make such bombs. After all, the Manhattan Project had occupied thousands of people around the clock so that the Nazis would not have it first. I listened to the professor (I was only a year away from medical school) and thought that he seemed pale, nervous, and possibly ill. I will now record what’s in my journal for May 13, 1947:

[A friend of mine, pretty and pushy] who was auditing the lecture went up after the 8 AM class and asked [the professor] about the atomic bomb. He took her outside and talked to her for twenty minutes! He said that they have bombs now that are 100 to 1,000 times as powerful as that dropped on Nagasaki, and they don’t really know what everybody’s got. Then she asked him, “Are you physicists afraid, and if not, why not?” He trembled and his face got white and he said they were terrified, that they used to be scornful of politicians and government but now they are afraid.

The amazing part of it all is that [another friend, equally intense] went up to the professor after the 12 o’clock class and asked him whether he was worried about the atomic bomb and if he’d heard about a new gas a cubic inch of which will kill all life—a rumor, she said. His face twitched and then he controlled himself and laughed, and the people standing around laughed. He said, “Have you got any gas that will destroy atomic bombs?” And that was that. She left, and we agreed that he was inhibiting himself because people were around, but why? The teachers at Wellesley were always letting themselves get carried away by ideas, but not here.

[In 1946, I think, I heard Lise Meitner give a special talk at Wellesley about her work in nuclear fission, which ultimately led to the bomb. I understood not a word of what she said, but I did understand the intensity of how she was saying it, and that fission could change the world.]

[In 1947] We were talking, and she said that some scientists she’d read give our civilization ten more years.

“Just think,” she said, “we’re at the height of our civilization.  Mighty low, isn’t it?”

And you can’t get the ‘masses’ worked up enough to do something cause a) they can’t conceive of it, b) they wouldn’t believe it, and c) if they could, they’d probably say might as well have a damn good time while we’re still alive.

I apologize for my twenty-year-old self—for my fears and my snottier opinions—but in a way, I was right. There’s a lot that is not taken seriously today. I won’t sully your vision by repeating what the far-right politicians are saying about the likes of global warming, equal rights, and other issues. The frightening thing is that some of these politicians talk as if strength in war is what counts, no matter what happens to the planet. Are these people ready and willing to use any weapon that would give them control over the world? To return to my journal of 1947:

According to 19th century science, on the basis of causality we are only mechanisms, along with everything else, and we cannot be free. But on the basis of uncertainty, our mental processes aren’t conditioned any better than [sorry, but I can’t read the equation I’ve written in smudged ink].

This seems like a small amount but as [the physics professor] said, extremely small events sometimes control large ones. An electron, “making up its mind” what it’s going to do, could set off an atomic bomb or not. Our individual freedom resides in some such uncertainty as this.

It is now 2015. We live in a very uncertain and dangerous world, of our own making, yet we should stop being so scared that it prevents us from thinking about what must be done to save ourselves and the planet. In the musical 1776 John Adams sings, “Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?” I hope I still see the consequences of the seventieth anniversary of Hiroshima. And since August 6, 2015, also means I am now eighty-nine, how much can I care? A lot. I hope you do, too.Tags: ,