When Physics Faced the Darkest Part of Reality

The potentially world-destroying power of the atomic bomb moved many scientists to engage more directly with the public, an effort that continues to this day.
Ground Zero

Scientists and military personnel at ground zero of the Trinity test, the first explosion of a nuclear device.

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United States Army Signal Corps via Wikimedia Commons

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Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- As they sped toward the goal of completing the first atomic bomb in the early months of 1945, physicists, chemists and others among the thousands and thousands of individuals who contributed to the Manhattan Project finally accepted a terrible truth: They had helped to create a weapon of mass destruction that, if abused, had the potential of destroying the world. Historian Richard Rhodes quotes Victor Weisskopf, a member of the project’s theoretical division, as saying that “our beloved physics was pushed into the darkest part of reality.”

That push had occurred entirely out of the view of the broader public and all but a few policymakers.

Immediately after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II ended, several scientists from the project set out to engage the public, including lawmakers, in discussions about the implications of a nuclear-armed world. Their efforts had an immediate effect on postwar strategy and have continued to reverberate for the seven and a half decades since then.

“There is a continuity and a sense of carrying forward a legacy of responsibility and engagement,” explained Steven Aftergood, who follows government security issues for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), an organization formed within months of the war’s end. “We think our mission is more important than ever,” said Rachel Bronson, CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication founded by a group of Manhattan Project veterans in Chicago “to manage the many dangerous presents in Pandora’s box of modern science.”

Today, the threats that loom largest include climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The scientific community recognizes its responsibility to inform the public of the dangers of both, over the long and short terms. As they recognize and seek to continue the legacy of the atomic scientists, they are developing more inventive means of telling the public about the implications of their research.

Ruins of Hiroshima Museum

Remains of the Hiroshima Museum of Science and Industry after an atomic bomb exploded in the city on August 6, 1945. The structure now serves as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

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Everett Collection via Shutterstock

Environment of fear

Even before the Trinity test, the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, some of the atomic scientists called for a demonstration of the bomb’s power to the Japanese. They had hoped it would convince Japan to surrender, and perhaps preclude any need to use the terrible weapon. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, concern expanded to include more Manhattan Project scientists. They feared that atomic bombs could be controlled by the military, whom they regarded as trigger-happy. “There was a general sense that if they didn’t communicate the destructiveness of this weapon to the rest of the world, it was going to be used again,” Rhodes said.

That fear spurred the creation of two organizations. Scientists in the University of Chicago’s metallurgical laboratory, who had completed their work -- on plutonium -- earlier than other Manhattan Project labs, founded the Atomic Scientists of Chicago. Physicists, chemists and a few other scientists and engineers in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and other centers -- most of them relatively young -- created FAS, originally called the Federation of Atomic Scientists. Both groups intended to inform policymakers and the general public about the consequences of scientists’ work in the new atomic age.

“Scientists had largely been trained to think of themselves as being separate from social issues. But a group of leaders felt the need to speak up about the moral issues related to the development of the bomb,” said Bruce Lewenstein, professor of science communication at Cornell University. “Once they had done that, it opened up the possibility that they should remain publicly engaged.”

The concept of public engagement wasn’t entirely new. “Scientists had been involved in political activism in the 1930s,” explained Jessica Wang, associate professor of U.S. history at the University of British Columbia. On the other hand, she continued, “there was no specific model for scientists engaging publicly in 1945 -- and there still isn’t.”

In addition, the younger scientists most eager to communicate with the public faced some kickback from their seniors. “Some of the more elite thought that grassroots politics wasn’t appropriate, and might not be responsible professionally. They thought that working directly with policymakers was preferable,” Wang said. “The younger scientists saw themselves as citizens too, with the obligation to speak out like any other citizen.”

But Manhattan Project veterans young and old were united on the broad issue of engagement with policymakers and the general public. “They were doing so because things needed to be done,” Bronson said. “They foresaw an endless arms race that would waste money.”

Surge of activism

The effort to communicate the real dangers of nuclear weapons produced a notable early success. The U.S. government handed control of the country’s nuclear arsenal to the civilian-led Atomic Energy Commission, created in July 1946, rather than to the military. “That was a real victory for the ability of scientists to get through to Congress,” Rhodes said. The military didn’t gain control of the arsenal until the mid-1950s.

The two years immediately after the war’s end saw a surge of activism by FAS and the Atomic Scientists of Chicago on a variety of issues relevant to the atomic weaponry, best exemplified by the creation of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock. Designed for free by artist Martyl Langsdorf, wife of one of the Chicago physicists, it appeared on the cover of the publication’s July 1947 issue.

“It’s a way of boiling things down to one number regarding the world’s risk,” said Bulletin CEO Bronson. Initially set at seven minutes to midnight, the clock symbolizes the likelihood of a human-made global catastrophe. Its setting has been moved closer to and further from midnight ever since. “It engages the public at its core,” Bronson said.

The impact of a potential nuclear war remained the critical issue for the atomic scientist groups in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the atomic rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union heated up. The organizations also began to engage in other scientific fields that had emerged during WWII, such as radar, jet engines and the growing use of antibiotics.

At the same time, some critics began to question a basic understanding of the role of science. “The atomic scientists did not question that science provides benefits to society. They saw good science and the need for better policy,” Lewenstein explained. Three leading individuals began to change that view by pointing out that the apparent goodness of science can sometimes lead to negative outcomes.

“A public scientist”

Cell biologist Barry Commoner became what Lewenstein calls “a public scientist.” His research, performed at Washington University in St. Louis, revealed the dangers that radioactive fallout from atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons posed to humans. His lobbying led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Silent Spring cover

The cover of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring."

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Frank Hebbert via Flickr

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Meanwhile Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, highlighted the adverse impact of excessive use of pesticides on the environment. Around the same time journalist Daniel Greenberg took a skeptical view of science. Writing for Science magazine and a newsletter that he founded in 1971, he expanded on his view that the scientific community represented, in part, a lobbying organization similar to others seeking funds from Congress.

By the mid-1970s, the idea that scientists had an obligation to inform the public about the likely impact of their work had penetrated the biological community. Research on recombinant DNA technology created concern at the time about possible hazards to humans and the environment from projects that combined DNA from different species, such as animals, plants and bacteria.

To focus on the possible dangers and potential regulation of the field, researchers organized a conference at Northern California’s Asilomar Conference Center in February 1975. The event, attended by lawyers, politicians and journalists, as well as scientists, led to voluntary restrictions on certain lines of research. They included prohibitions on the cloning of DNA from highly pathogenic organisms and on large-scale experiments capable of making products potentially harmful to humans, animals or plants. Those restrictions continue to be in effect, even as the biotechnology industry that emerged from recombinant research has become integrated into much of daily life through pharmaceuticals, chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The conference opened to public view the workings of science policy that had previously been hidden. But by engaging that way, Lewenstein pointed out, scientists lost some influence over the narrative. Conference organizers “were conscious that their science should have a public presence,” he said. “But many of them were horrified later when Cambridge (Massachusetts) tried to regulate the use of recombinants. Once you let the public in, you let them have control.”

That issue has emerged publicly in reactions to the commercial development and sale of GMOs. Researchers generally believe that they carry minimal risk. But a proportion of the general public, particularly in Europe, has expressed concern about them, and today several countries regulate genetically modified crops and foods more strictly than they do non-GMO items. Lewenstein pins that rift in perception on a lack of effective public engagement. Researchers’ failure to engage with and understand the concerns of the public led to exaggerated fears, he said, “The public felt they weren’t being listened to.”

Connection, not data

Another key issue began to emerge in public a few years after the Asilomar conference. The February 1978 cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists asked the question: “Is mankind warming the Earth?” Meteorologist William Kellogg wrote that the increase of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere was leading to “as large a ‘climate change’ as we are likely to encounter in the foreseeable future.”

Forty-two years later, that message has resonated with much of the public. But many policymakers, particularly in the United States, remain lukewarm, if not skeptical, about it. “There is a broad international awareness that climate change is a serious challenge, but the response to it has been inadequate,” the FAS' Aftergood said. “It’s really a failure of political leadership and imagination. That’s not something that scientists alone can solve.”

Scientists have done their best to convince skeptics that anthropogenic climate change is real. But they increasingly realize that they have often used the wrong tactics. “When someone outside science disagrees with us, we come up with more data,” pointed out Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and professor of public policy at Texas Tech University. “It’s starting to sink in that more data won’t change minds. There’s a lot more to effective communication than defining the facts.”

Hayhoe personally focuses discussions of her belief in anthropogenic climate change on “people and organizations that share my interests -- Texas, where I live; Canada, where I’m from; and outdoor sports, which I enjoy.” Engagement is most effective, she continued, “when we begin the conversation with shared values. Personally, I find that the closer the connection we have with people and the more respectful we are, the better we can connect with them.”

Hayhoe still senses concern among some senior scientists that engaging in outreach provides “evidence that you’re not a serious scientist.” However, that attitude is less obvious than in past decades.

March for science

The March for Science in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 2017.

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Joseph Gruber via Shutterstock

Research by Lydia Messling, a doctoral student at Britain’s University of Reading, indicates that many scientists find it acceptable to speak about areas in which they have expertise but not about those in which they don’t. “The perception is that our expertise is not in policy,” Hayhoe added. “There’s a distinction between [a scientist] saying ‘we need to act’ versus ‘we should enact a carbon pricing policy’.”

Messling noted that scientists “are always allowed to voice their views as a citizen,” she said. “They just have to make it abundantly clear that it’s their citizen views, and what other sorts of political and ethical values they have that have led them to come to those views.”

Coronavirus puts science in the spotlight

Similar tensions face infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and public health physicians in a much faster-moving development: the spread of COVID-19. In this case, the scientific experts have to respond on the fly to new developments -- everything from fresh data on test results and deaths to the emergence of new candidates for vaccines and treatments. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, sees public engagement by specialists as essential. “I’ve spent enormous amounts of time on media interviews,” he said. “Is this the right use of my time? Yes. The public wants information. We absolutely have to hear from scientists.”

However, negotiating the line between information and advocacy in a heavily partisan political environment requires careful judgment. “My job is to communicate what we know and don’t know,” Jha said. In doing so, he added, “I try to stay in my expertise lane. But everybody has an opinion on how broad that lane is.”

Even in the public health community, Jha pointed out, he has heard warnings that he should be careful about appearing to take political positions. When Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts told local governments not to require people to wear masks, he felt the need to comment. “Science says people should wear masks. Is that getting into politics?” he asked. But he thought that an editorial’s assertion in the British medical journal The Lancet that if you care about health you should vote Donald Trump out of office “went a step too far.”

Overall, Jha said, “I think that the public health community has done a reasonably good job of explaining key concepts.”

Sharon Dunwoody, professor emerita of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin, agrees. “It’s really clear in the COVID-19 work that, populists aside, everybody wants to hear from [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony] Fauci.”

As they inform the public about the struggle to control the coronavirus, Jha, Fauci and other specialists in public health face a particular conundrum: Scientific understanding of a rapidly developing environment such as a pandemic can change rapidly, often in confusing ways.

Should scientists therefore hold back information that might soon be outdated? Not according to Lewenstein. “Fundamentally, the goal is to build trust, and trust comes only with long-term building of relationships,” he said. “So scientists should engage all the time -- during moments of quiet and moments of crisis.”

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock

On January 23, 2020, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight.

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Courtesy of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Used with permission.

The value of visibility

Dunwoody sees engagement with the public as a natural part of a modern scientific career. “There’s no doubt now that scientists are, if not eager to communicate, very willing to do so,” she observed. “Many scientists do public interaction as part of their portfolios.” Indeed, she continued, “there’s good evidence that scientists whose work gets public visibility get cited [in scientific papers] more than other scientists.”

Seventy-five years after Trinity, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and FAS, one a publication and the other an advocacy organization, continue to inform the public about the threats of climate change, the coronavirus and other emerging scientific, technological, and social problems.

The Doomsday Clock ticks ever closer to midnight. In January its overseers moved it to 100 seconds to midnight. That’s the closest it has ever approached global catastrophe. Its organizers reset the clock in light of “two simultaneous existential dangers -- nuclear war and climate change -- that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.” About 10 days later the novel coronavirus was detected outside China.

More positively, a new generation of scientists seems better able and willing to communicate with the public about their work and its implications. “Threats of biological or chemical weapons, the danger of computer-aided surveillance and the environmental impacts of new technologies have prompted a form of political activism among many scientists that didn’t exist half a century ago, and has strengthened over the years,” Aftergood said. According to Dunwoody, “most Americans still hold high confidence in scientists.”

As a result, Lewenstein said, “the legacy of the atomic scientists lives on. And it’s much richer and more diverse than they could ever have imagined.”


For more stories, videos and infographics related to Inside Science's coverage of the far-reaching ways that the Manhattan Project influenced science and society, visit our page: Seventy-Five Years After Trinity.

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Peter Gwynne is a freelance writer and editor based in Centerville, Massachusetts, who covers science, technology and medicine.