Thursday, February 5, 2009

Day 230: The universe disturbed

PLUMBBOB/BOLTZMANN, May 28, 1957, photographed 11 miles from ground zero
Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

I've just finished reading Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe. I was drawn to the book based on two quotes that I encountered over the course of the last year. These quotes have hung with me with their haunting eloquence. They signaled to me that a remarkably complex human existed at their root. I thought that Dyson's voice might offer a route to better grasping and connecting with what drives the minds, and in result the work, of atomic scientists. In this case, the book met my intuition. Though they often get lumped together, nuclear physicists and military officials came to their work from very different perspectives. It is unfortunate that scientific exploration and militarism have become so mutually and dangerously inter-tangled. I feel affirmed in my sense that many atomic scientists work(ed) while occupying many positions simultaneously. Dyson and his peers seemed filled with awe, creative passion, drive for experience, and were in seek of rich intellectual exchange and opportunity. Malicious acts were not blatantly prefigured. These traits afforded them a degree of detachment in the moment and throughout their collective processes that enabled the end result, and its consequences, to only be recognized later. I would describe this "later" as "too late". It seems a fascination with, and attraction towards, nuclear energy distanced them from literal the object of their work (the atomic bomb). In result, our planetary legacy is forever re-shaped.

Freeman Dyson literally dreams and aspires towards the stars. The complex nature of his work with atomic energy are mused upon in the first half of the book, but Dyson seems to have never resided just on planet earth. Physics, including atomic energy, was always for him a means and fuel for leaving the earth. The bulk of his book alludes to his dreams of space exploration and inter-galactic travel, infinitely reaching beyond. It from this perspective that I now read these quotations newly, and held in tension with one another. One reaches towards the stars, the other pauses just long enough to realize that the earth might inspire awe enough.

"I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it's there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles - this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds." -quote from Dyson's appearance in the film The Day After Trinity

"Only once in my life have I experienced absolute silence. That was Jackass Flat under the midday sun. Long ago I read in Herbert Ponting's The Great White South of the silence of a windless day in Antarctica. Jackass Flat was as silent as Antarctica. It is a soul-shattering silence. You hold your breath and hear absolutely nothing. No rustling of leaves in the wind, no rumbling of distant traffic, no chatter of birds or insects or children. you are along with God in that silence. There in the white flat silence I began for the first time to feel a slight sense of shame for what we were proposing to do. Did we really intend to invade this silence with our trucks and bulldozers, and after a few years leave it a radioactive junkyard?" -from Dyson's own Disturbing the Universe. I came across the quote first as it was reproduced in John McPhee's Annals of a Former World.

Read my original post referencing Dyson back on Day 50: Attractive Force: The Curve of Binding Energy

Learn more about Freeman Dyson, in Dancing with the Stars, New York Times, 2007.

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