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     Should Scientists Be Responsible For What They Create, Featuring Dr. Victor
    Weisskopf, formerly of the Manhattan Project
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This program is made possible by a grant from Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. I'm Faith Middleton and this is one-on-one. Victor Weiskoff and his associates began work 43 years ago in a top-secret community called the Manhattan Engineer District. It was really Los Alamos, New Mexico and the workers created and exploded the first atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project drew the greatest physicists of the 20th century, including Dr. Weiskoff, Jay Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Taylor.
How do the people who created the bomb live with the memory of it today? How does scientists feel about being responsible for everything they create? These are some of the ideas I talked about with my guest, Victor Weiskoff. He's professor emeritus and former head of the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was director-general of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. His most popular work, though, is a book published in 1979 called Knowledge and Wonder. It appeals to scientists and non-scientists alike and it might have prompted one woman we know about to take out a personals ad in New York magazine some time ago. I asked Dr. Weiskoff about it because the woman's ad said, Ivy League Gao seeks sensitive scientists for friendship plus. If you are like Victor Weiskoff, send a note to my post office box.
I didn't find it, some friends send it to me, so I don't read things like that. It has, by the way, story. She found out some, I showed it around to friends, of course, to brag. And she, I said that's my greatest compliment I ever have gotten, including all the awards. And then she heard about it and she wrote me a very apologetic letter. She said she would never have thought that I would ever see it and it was done only that narration. I wrote her a very, also a pleasant letter that I have nothing against it. I hope you find a companion that you would like. Why was it such a compliment to you? Because you see, my main purpose, purpose, I mean, this is just my character, I didn't want to be, to bring out only my scientific activities, I thought I am not one of the absolutely first rank scientists, I haven't got a Nobel Prize. But I am, I like people.
I always like, for example, also to say that science is not the only way of looking at it. Today I gave a talk on the origin of the universe, you know, the Big Bang. And then I said, at the end, I would like to show you that I can express some of these ideas in a completely different way. And I played a fan's Joseph Haydn's creation, you know, an oratorio where it begins, you know, God said, there will be light and there was light and then there is a tremendous sea major chord, you know, which describes a sudden or blast of light. It was important for me to show people, especially laymen, but also scientists. The different ways you can describe our experience scientifically, artistically, and perhaps also religiously.
What's the big unanswered question about the universe now? They're mainly. I wish they were only one. Well, what's the important one for you? Well, all are all important. I mean, the question is what really, how the thing really started at the beginning, because it is very, it is certain that at the beginning, the temperatures were much higher, infinitely higher and hotter and high compression. And we just don't know today how matter behaves under these conditions. We have some hypotheses. We conclude from our accelerators, you know, how matter might have behaved at that time. So the whole beginning, I wouldn't say the beginning itself, which is also a riddle. I mean, how come that it suddenly started, you know, we don't know. But also what happens in the first milliseconds, it is very hard to know. We have only hypothesis. I have always, all my life, thought, what came before that? Yeah, that's, of course, a famous question, which science cannot answer. You see?
But what do you think about it? I don't know. I don't know. I'm not religious in the sense that I could say that God has created it at that time. But it was there we know, we know, we believe at present, the evidence seems to accumulate that there was really a beginning when the whole thing started. What was before is a very good question, I don't know, and it may be nothing before. Some of my colleagues made an interesting suggestion. He said, maybe the whole question was before the Big Bang is like a question, what is north of the North Pole? You know, north of the North Pole, it makes no sense. There is nothing north of the North Pole. And you go away from the North Pole in all directions, you go south. And maybe time has also that kind of structure, that is sort of a pole of time, you know, this beginning.
If we answer all the questions, what will we have, what will change from knowing? Well, that's a very good question, and it's a wide question. Because if you look at the past, you know, what came about sort of knowing? Well, you can divide this in many parts. First of all, it's an insight. I think it is a natural urge of any human being to know its environment, and you suddenly I put a child who's put it in a place you didn't know before it, we go around and investigate it. Now, in principle, that's what science does. Only the environment is a little larger and the instrument of investigating them more complicated. In principle, it's the same urge to know what are we, what does all that which we see come around? Why are the leaves green, you know, and why does the same flower come up every year? Now, one has some answers to that, you know, nowadays now biology and butter, and they
know something about this. So that is the first, you want to be oriented. And then, of course, there are applications, you know, science, knowledge is power. And that is there, we get into the problems, you know, because knowledge is power and power can be good or bad. And you can, I know, you know yourself, a lot of examples, where this power acquired through science has been used for the good and for the bad, for the good. We now live twice as long, we have much fewer diseases, epidemics are very rare. So these are good things that follow from scientific research. We can go on vacation quickly, and we have airplanes, and God knows what, and automobiles. These are all good things, but I don't need to tell you the bad things, you know, we can kill each other much more efficiently. That's one bad thing, but there's another bad thing too. And that is our industrial development based on science has been too fast.
And we are to some extent ruining our Earth if we don't watch, you know, we are polluting the oceans, we are polluting the air, we are probably changing the climate, we are eradicating the rainforests, all this need not be done, but it's done. And here again, science can be good and bad. Science is bad because science has developed those technologies which do that damage, but science is also the tool to avoid it. Are you initially proud to be selected for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos? Proud. It's perhaps not the right word. I mean, you see, I expected it that we at that time, very few people who had some knowledge in nuclear structure, I was one of them. And at that time, it was sort of clear to me that I'll be in and in that. I also knew of my my personality.
And so I expected it and it came of course above. And so you formed a circle? Yes. Yes, definitely. At the instruction of the president? No, I would say that came on our pressure, you know, because we came, a group of us, you know, I came over from Hitler Europe in 1937 and we were, of course, aware that Hitler is a tremendous danger to the world. And the efficient process has been discovered in Germany. And Germany had good physicists and it would have been a terrible idea that Hitler would acquire the bomb before anybody else. And so we did actually urge the government, you remember the famous letter that Einstein wrote to Roosevelt telling him about this clear and present danger. Now, this I happen to have been in that group that was discussing this with Einstein. So at that time, I was a pretty young man, you know, but anyway, in other words-
You mean before he wrote the letter? Before he wrote the letter, yes. We talked to Holesit because who else would want to go but Einstein, you know, to talk these things over. And then we convinced ourselves and Einstein that he should write this letter. And from then on, of course, Roosevelt took it very seriously and the whole development started. What did they tell you your mission was? Well, to construct a bomb, it's very simple. Did you think if it is hard at the time or did you all say to each other, we can do this? No, we had the opinion if it is possible at all we can do it, but maybe it's impossible. Maybe some law of nature, you know, prevents an explosion. Did it enter your mind at any point that you were about to make something that would destroy something else? Absolutely.
Absolutely. Right from the start? Did you know? Right from the start. We were very much aware about the tragic element in it. We were somewhat over-optimistic in naive, we thought that if this is really that terrible weapon it promises to be, that this may lead to an international understanding, you know, because nuclear war is just something so terrible. Now indeed, to some extent, it turned out to be true, not that we have international understanding, but we had no war for 40 years. But you saw evil and you saw Hitler and what happened in Germany and in other places in the world, and yet as a team, you were still optimistic that the evil forces in the world would not dare you something like this? Yes. That is correct. And that was perhaps too naive, but I still hope it's true. You know, I remember as a child in school seeing the film strips of the explosion and the
teachers and the narrator, you know, filling us with that sense of awe. I remember feeling it myself as I watched, as I watched it go off. Now I have, I'm not sure I gave you that piece, which I wrote about this. I had exactly that feeling. I was 10 miles away, I'm pleased that it's not the Japanese event. That is the test event, you know, July 16, 40 years ago. And I, with a few other colleagues, of course, were 10 miles away and saw it, so to speak with our own eyes, of course, protected eyes. And I think still this is one of the most tremendous impressions I've ever had in my life. And what was this sound like? Well it sounded, you know, we were 10 miles away, that means the sound came almost a minute later.
And, well, you know, the sound takes 45 seconds, I guess, something like that for 10 miles. But we saw a tremendous light, which was at our place about 20 times midday sun. And I looked a little across, you know, from my glasses to the mountains, there was fantastic impression. And then, of course, the light goes down. And about, after 45 seconds, there was a tremendous thunder, you know, there were mountains around, lasting for quite a long time. And very scared, at that moment was scary, you know, at that moment I had the combination of all tremendous awe, pride, I cannot deny, you know, that we have released that. It concerned by God, what will this do to this world? These three feelings were mixed. Did you say them to each other in the world?
Oh yeah, oh yes, oh yes, very much so. We discussed it a lot, you know. We were, as I said, we were somewhat optimistic. We hoped that this weapon will make wars impossible. After the explosion, who did you call first? No, no, we talked to each other, I mean, after all, there's a great secret, no, no, you couldn't call any, but we were just talking among themselves and then, of course, we had a lot to do afterwards, you know, to follow the radioactivity, to be sure that the radioactivity doesn't come to some inhabited Indian villages, which would have been evacuated in this case, and then we had to go there and look at the effect, so we were more than busy. Well, how do you keep something like that, a secret, though, an explosion like that? Well, that's a good question. When I pezote, I was like to tell you that they talked to her, I were reported that he drove at 3 o'clock or 4 o'clock in the morning when it was, and suddenly the sun went up one hour too early and found out about it and went down again and came up again at
the right time. And this is what that fellow believed, you know, and, of course, you must not forget, it's a very sparsely inhabited region, so there were not many people who saw it. So when did you first feel responsible for what you had done? Well, I would say right from beginning, we were aware that we were doing something that is necessary in the run of this war and may have, but consequences. Because we had also positive feelings, not only that it may prevent wars, but also that the actual application in Japan saved more lives than it destroyed, because you see, it brought the Japanese to give up the war. If not, there would have been an invasion which would have killed millions of Americans and Japanese. We killed about roughly speaking several 10,000, maybe 20,000 people a day with the fire shades.
And, of course, they all that stopped after this. However, I think many of us wanted to convince the government to throw it first over an uninhabited region, to scare the Japanese, and only if they do not, then to all the conclusion to apply to a city. And I forget that this wasn't done. And so feeling responsible as a scientist gets to be a very important thing, doesn't it? It's not as sure responsible, but responsible we do feel, but it is like, let me give a trivial example, a soldier who is drafted and is in the war and shoots 20 enemies. He is responsible for having murdered 20 people, right? And so we are responsible in this respect to have murdered several hundred thousand. But, well, in this life, we have to live with this. I don't feel guilty, in other words, if I had to do it again, like a murder, I would
say, I was stupid, I shouldn't have murdered that man, you know, and he feels guilty. I don't feel guilty in this sense, because I think if under the same circumstances, I suppose I would have done it again, it was necessary. It's been said that we live in a world where many scientists work involved in the immediacy of the task, almost in a childlike way, and, you know, following the trail of information wherever it leads, following the problems wherever they lead. Is that true? No, I mean, it's gone up still. I mean, here's the task you have to do. You are following your task of interviewing me also very concentratedly. I mean, of course, now, let me say one thing, when we talk about the responsibility of scientists, of course, scientists are not responsible for the application, the government, it's the people who elected the government.
What scientists however are responsible is they should express their knowledge and their ideas, for example, I felt since 1945, as my duty to tell the public about the dangers of nuclear war, and of dangers of certain measures, for example, I have recently tried to explain that the MX is destabilizing, you know, we'll make things worse by building the MX bomb, it makes me silent. So in other words, I feel this is the responsibility of scientists to use their knowledge to warn about certain consequences, that perhaps other people don't see as much because they haven't been so near to the actual problem. Well, should scientists be responsible for what they invent? Yes, and no, I would say they, first of all, sure, they are responsible in the sense that they should, as much as they can, say what could come out of it.
Now, the trouble is this, you know, science is a long development, I mean, Einstein began, you know, with a female of famous formula, he is equal MC squared, now you cannot make him responsible because when he found this formula, how could he ever, ever think of that this could be applied in a bomb or anywhere else? He just found an interesting connection. Now, science, especially basic science, is very far from applications. Only a slow development makes it more and more connected with human society. First, the first city is an insight the way we started our conversation and insight into the secrets of nature, you see. And that, of course, then you don't know what it will, you can't have any idea how it can be applied and only slowly these possibilities come out. And then I think it is always the duty of scientists, usually the engineer, you know, who works at the applied scientists
to watch and see what. And if he has an idea that this can be applied badly or well, he should say so. But usually you don't see it at the beginning. And you don't know whether it's good or bad, you know. Some science progresses. You don't know what's good or bad, you know, whether the, for example, the discovery of the DNA and all this, whether that leads to biological warfare or it leads to a much too eradication of cancer, it leads to both. Are the courses on science and technology that many universities have? Are they working? Are they giving students a sense of what responsibility means? Yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, they're good teachers, they're bad teachers. But I believe on the whole, they have definitely increased the awareness, not only the causes, you know, it's the causes, it's not everything. You don't learn on the bad causes. The whole,
the public is much more aware of these problems. And that would say that the causes are more in effect than the cause. You know, the general discussion today about pollution, about arms control and the Star Wars. And so it's much more lively than it was 20 years ago. And this, of course, makes them, and there are causes because students are interested in the professors are interested to do it. And so it is not directly a cause-effect relation here. Do you have a feeling that you have a mission right now, besides teaching? Certainly, well, teaching, of course, is one. And in particular, teaching in the sense I described it before, and they made to make clear the deeper values of science. I have a mission in, also, no, I'm too old, perhaps, to be very active in research, you know, in active research. But I'm very interested in it. I have a lot of people come to me for
advice, you see, and they'll like to go. And then I have the, I think, I suppose that's what you're really asking, that I feel I have a mission to say, to speak out about my opinion of certain developments in the nuclear war, in the nuclear war development. I think the answer is, is a mental disease. It is become more and more dangerous, that our relations with the Russians are confrontational and dangerous, and could and should be changed. And in the suspect, I feel I have a mission, and I did speak out, as you know, in many occasions. All right, but they come to you. Let's say they come to you, Dr. Weisskoff, and they say, but Dr. Weisskoff, you yourself know that if we have the knowledge and the power, as scientists, we must create these things, it's our duty, and then we'll see what the government and the politicians do with these things. Isn't that what you were saying before? Yeah, that's also true, but you have also another mission. They need to warn that of
the effects. I mean, what is the purpose of creating in the first place? So I created as long as the majority of the people and the government thinks they should be created, right? And to some extent, I think we need a certain amount of nuclear bombs in order to prevent the other side from using this, but we have made many more on that, you see. So I feel I have a mission to explain this in order to have some, unfortunately, not much, inference of changing the policy. And when I student come to me and ask me, should I go to a defense laboratory? I have a wonderful offer. You know, I have three kids, and they offer me a fantastic salary. I can't get any other job, which is I'm afraid often the case. Then I say, look, I am not against going there on the country. I think there should be intelligent people should be in the arms laboratories, because they may
perhaps be able to point out that certain things are senseless. So I'm not telling this, but I'm not telling people not to work on these things. I'm fairly only people think about the consequences. I think some of these things are counterproductive and destabilizing and making the probability of nuclear war greater instead of smaller. And that I think is my duty as a scientist to do so. The other people, well, the opinions, I mean, Edward Taylor, doesn't agree with me. And I think it's his duty to say his opinion. And it is for the public and for Congress and then for the government to establish the policy. What's the best part of your life right now? All these 50, 75 years, you mean? It's very hard to tell. I was very lucky. You know, I lived at a very bad time, politically speaking. My half of my family was killed by the Nazis. But somehow I and my direct family escaped. And I had a wonderful wife and our
family life is wonderful. And we have the best possible contacts with our children. So I must say we lived a very happy life. And of course, one of the high points of my life were, first of all, some of the contributions I could make to science. And as second, the Los Alamos episode, certainly in some ways, a great time. And not last, not least, the five years' directorship itself. Where I started something, you know, and not only if of scientific value, but of human value, because it is the first international laboratory, where Western European nations work together. Well, there were also Americans and even Soviet people who came. And here we had an atmosphere of a really truly international atmosphere. I always called Sam, it is the United States of Europe in science. And that is a very
an idea which I love. What's been the most difficult part of your life now? Well, the most difficult part is my mission as I define to avoid nuclear war. I personally think that the present policy of the world, not only ours, I blame the Soviets just as much. That the policy of these two superpowers is a very dangerous one. And it fills me at night with great fears for my children and grandchildren. But I am an optimist. And I sort of feel we will solve it, although I cannot tell you right now how, but I think we will get over it. Physicist Victor Weisskoff at MIT in Boston. One-on-one is a production of Connecticut Public Radio. The series is made possible by a grant from Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society. For a cassette copy of the conversation you just heard, call 203-527-0905, or this
member station of the Public Radio Network. The engineer of one-on-one is J. McDermott. On Michelle Press and I, co-produce the show, I'm Faith Middleton. Thanks for listening. We'll continue.
One On One, Part II
Episode Number
No. 5
Should Scientists Be Responsible For What They Create, Featuring Dr. Victor Weisskopf, formerly of the Manhattan Project
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Connecticut Public Radio
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The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia)
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Episode Description
This is Program 5. Dr. Victor Weisskopf is professor emeritus and former head of the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and past director-general of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. He discusses scientific ethics and his current mission, preventing nuclear war.
Series Description
"When Faith Middleton's science series, One on One, premiered 2 years ago, a survey by WGBH proved it was the most carried series of its kind nationwide. We're submitting the 2nd edition, a series of half-hour conversations with national scientists. They will amuse you, touch you, challenge you, and more. There's a lively use of sound; the conversations always take an unexpected turn; but most important, Faith specializes in making science understandable to everyone, including science-haters. We are swamped with mail about the series, which was aired via satellite, nationwide. Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, promoted the series with a unique strategy: Sigma Xi chapters lobbied local public stations to carry the series and then created a large built-in audience in communities in advance. "The series includes...(Program 1: Shooting stars & the drummer from outer space with astronomer Harry Shipman. Program 2: Will bees prove that animals think, featuring Dr. Donald Griffin. Program 3: Adventure on the [Serengeti] Plain with Dr. Patricia Moehlman. Program 4: Searching for lemurs in the Madagascar rain forest with Dr. Allison Jolly. Program 5: Should scientists be responsible for what they create, featuring Dr. Victor Weisskopf, formerly of The Manhattan Project. Program 6: A walking tour of dinosaurs in the Great Hall with Dr. Kevin Padian. Program 7: What makes bridges stay up and fall down, featuring Dr. David Billington. Program 8: Using Bob Newhart comedy to teach physics, with Dr. William Bennett.)"--1986 Peabody Awards entry form.
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Chicago: “One On One, Part II; No. 5; Should Scientists Be Responsible For What They Create, Featuring Dr. Victor Weisskopf, formerly of the Manhattan Project ,” 1986, The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 13, 2024,
MLA: “One On One, Part II; No. 5; Should Scientists Be Responsible For What They Create, Featuring Dr. Victor Weisskopf, formerly of the Manhattan Project .” 1986. The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 13, 2024. <>.
APA: One On One, Part II; No. 5; Should Scientists Be Responsible For What They Create, Featuring Dr. Victor Weisskopf, formerly of the Manhattan Project . Boston, MA: The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from