Particle Beams

"Luminous Quanta of Divine Intelligence…" dispelling the nuclear delusion

Somebody had to do it

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The first annual Atomic Theater Festival just completed its run here, with three plays locally written and produced, dramas about the way the work of the Lab impacted people’s lives here.

Three plays about the Bomb? Really?

Well yes, of course. Well, not exactly. Not about the Bomb Itself. What can you say about the Bomb? Isn’t it Unspeakable?

Manhattan Glass, produced by Teatro Paraguas, focused on the lives of an elderly couple. The husband has become forgetful, but he cannot forget the Bomb. He tries to call the President of the United States every day, to express his feelings about the weapon that he helped produce at Los Alamos. His wife becomes frightened. She also worked at the Lab, but has put the experience firmly behind her. Their visiting grandson, a young artist, helps them unravel their story.

Body Burden examines another aspect of the nuclear age — the experimentation on the effects of radiation exposure that were conducted randomly, on uninformed subjects, all over the U.S. during the oblivious Fifties. The central character, a woman in her 40s, has returned to the family home in Los Alamos to regain her balance after treatments for thyroid cancer led to the stillbirth of her baby. She was given a radioactive drink by her physician father, part of experimentation to determine the effects of ingesting radioactive iodine that was conducted on 13 Girl Scouts just entering adolescence. This devastating drama is based on real life. Fathers actually performed these experiments on their own children, believing, or so they claimed when Secretary of the Environment Hazel O’Leary held an investigation of this buried history during the Clinton Administration, that there was no danger. Who would put his own daughter at risk?

The last play that I saw is “a work in progress” and was performed as a reading instead of a full production. The playwright, Robert Benjamin, is a retired nuclear physicist from the Lab who has lived and raised his family in Los Alamos, and the play, In the Footsteps of Galileo, was performed there, with the majority of the audience made up of lab employees. This play was purportedly about science — about whether computer simulation codes are sufficient to predict the efficacy of refurbished nuclear weapons designs under the Stockpile Stewardship Program in lieu of actual testing, which was banned in 1992 — and the audience found it possible to talk about the science question without talking about the significance of nuclear bomb production — just like the way they talk at the lab. But screaming to be released from the dull cloister in which it had been encased was the real story, the tragic story of what happens to a young weapons designer whose bomb is a dud.

Every play was followed by a “talk-back” and every one of these discussions revealed the clever ways the mind directs its attention, when required, to the awful subject of weapons research and production taking place every day up on “the Hill” and in many other places throughout the country without actually tackling the deeply disturbing issues at the heart of the drama. How sophisticated we are! We can talk about the way the characters in Manhattan Glass struggled with their own consciences, or the way bomb creation led to radiation experiments on innocent people, or even about the way scientists cope with the consequences of their own activity (or fail to cope), all the time evading the critical issue. Is building bombs good for people? Has nuclear weapons production been a good thing for this country, or has it taken its toll in the distortion of our sense of ethics and denial of our responsibility?

Was Arundhati Roy correct when she remarked, “The bomb will destroy us, whether we use it or not?”

In Body Burden, the ghost of Oppenheimer appears to help Katie, the heroine, cope with what has happened to her. It’s an implausible arrangement, for sure, but somehow we buy into it; it’s engaging and, well, radiation experiments were part of the man’s legacy, were they not?

During the talk-back, the actor who played Oppenheimer, after claiming to have done almost as much research as the playwright, said that the science for producing an atomic weapon had been discovered by the 1940s. “Somebody was going to do it. It just happened to be us.”

I have heard this statement before. It’s a completely unscientific statement in that it’s inherently unprovable, just like the theory of deterrence. We can’t know for certain what would have happened if the Manhattan Project had never occurred. The Nazis were working on the bomb, but they gave it up; Hitler was more interested in making missiles. He died, and the Third Reich fell, without creating an atomic bomb, and before ours was finished. We had created the bomb to stop Hitler; we went ahead and used it anyway. What the heck?

The Japanese also did some work on it; I don’t know what happened to their efforts, but they did not have a bomb when the war ended. The Russians did not have a bomb either. Would they have rushed to make one if we hadn’t preceded them?

It’s all speculation. One thing we do know. We made the bomb, and we are the only country that has used it, ever.

Oh well. The science was there. Somebody had to do it. And as Truman said in his radio broadcast to the nation after the bombing of Hiroshima, thank God it was us.


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