Posts Tagged ‘1960s’


Dogs in space

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Confession: I once told my students something I knew wasn’t true. It was during a lecture on the Space Race, on Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika into space in November 1957. I told them about how the Soviets initially said she had lived a week before expiring (it was always intended to be a one-way trip), but that after the USSR had collapsed the Russians admitted that she had died almost immediately because their cooling systems had failed. All true so far.

But then one bright, sensitive sophomore, with a sheen on her eyes and a tremble in her voice, asked, “But did they at least learn something from her death?” And I said, “oh, um, well, uh… yes, yes — they learned a lot.”

Which I knew was false — they learned almost nothing. But what can you do, confronted with someone who is taking in the full reality of the fact that the Soviets sent a dog in space with the full knowledge it would die? It’s a heavy thing to admit that Laika gave her life in vain. (In subsequent classes, whenever I bring up Sputnik, I always preempt this situation by telling the above story, which relieves a little of the pressure.)

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: "First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika." Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: “First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika.” Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

I’m a dog person. I’ve had cats, but really, it’s dogs for me. I just believe that they connect with people on a deeper level than really any other animal. They’ve been bred to do just that, of course, and for a long time. There is evidence of human-dog cohabitation going back tens of thousands of years. (Cats are a lot more recently domesticated… and it shows.) There are many theories about the co-evolution of humans and dogs, and it has been said (in a generalization whose broadness I wince at, but whose message I endorse) that there have been many great civilizations without the wheel, but no great civilizations without the dog.

So I’ve always been kind of attracted to the idea of dogs in space. The “Mutniks,” as they were dubbed by punny American wags, were a key, distinguishing factor about the Soviet space program. And, Laika aside, a lot of them went up and came back down again, providing actually useful information about how organisms make do while in space, and allowing us to have more than just relentlessly sad stories about them. The kitsch factor is high, of course.

A friend of mine gave me a wonderfully quirky and beautiful little book last holiday season, Soviet Space Dogs, written by Olesya Turkina, published by FUEL Design and Publishing. According to its page, the idea for the book was hatched up by a co-founder of the press, who was apparently an aficionado of Mutnikiana (yes, I just invented that word). He collected a huge mass of odd Soviet (and some non-Soviet) pop culture references to the Soviet space dogs, and they commissioned Turkina, a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum, to write the text to accompany it. We had this book on our coffee table for several months before I decided to give it a spin, and I really enjoyed it — it’s much more than a lot of pretty pictures, though it is that, in spades, too. The narrative doesn’t completely cohere towards the end, and there are aspects of it that have a “translated from Russian” feel (and it was translated), but if you overlook those, it is both a beautiful and insightful book.

Soviet Space Dogs cover

First off, let’s start with the easy question: Why dogs? The American program primarily used apes and monkeys, as they were far better proxies for human physiology than even other mammals. Why didn’t the Soviets? According to one participant in the program, one of the leading scientists had looked into using monkeys, talking with a circus trainer, and found out that monkeys were terribly finicky: the training regimes were harder, they were prone to diseases, they were just harder in general to care for than dogs. “The Americans are welcome to their flying monkeys,” he supposedly said, “we’re more partial to dogs.” And, indeed, when they did use some monkeys later, they found that they were tough — one of them managed to worm his way out of his restraints and disable his telemetric equipment while in flight.

The Soviet dogs were all Moscow strays, picked for their size and their hardiness. The Soviet scientists reasoned that a dog that could survive on the streets was probably inherently tougher than purebred dogs that had only lived a domesticated life. (As the owner of a mutty little rescue dog, I of course am prone to see this as a logical conclusion.)

The Soviet dog program was more extensive than I had realized. Laika was the first in orbit, but she was not the first Soviet dog to be put onto a rocket. Turkina counts at least 29 dogs prior to Laika who were attached to R-1 and R-2 rockets (both direct descendants of the German V-2 rockets), sent up on flights hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth starting in 1951. An appendix at the back of the book lists some of these dogs and their flights.

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this "the proudest moment of his life."

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a TASS press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this “the proudest moment of his life.”

Many of them died. Turkina talks of the sorrow and guilt of their handlers, who (naturally) developed close bonds with the animals, and felt personally responsible when something went wrong. Some of the surviving dogs got to live with these handlers when they retired from space service. But when the surviving dogs eventually expired, they would sometimes end up stuffed and in a museum.

I had thought I had heard everything there was to hear about Laika, but I was surprised by how much I learned. Laika wasn’t really meant to be the first dog in space — she was the understudy of another dog who had gotten pregnant just before. Laika’s death was a direct result of political pressures to accelerate the launch before they were ready, in an effort to “Sputnik” the United States once again. The head of the dog medical program, when revealing Laika’s true fate in 2002, remarked that, “Working with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

The Soviets did not initially focus on the identity of Laika. Laika was just listed as an experimental animal in the Sputnik 2 satellite. Rather, it was the Western press, specifically American and British journalists, that got interested in the identity, and fate, of the dog. The Soviet officials appear to have been caught by surprise; I can’t help but wonder if they’d had a little less secrecy, and maybe ran this by a few Americans, they’d have realized that of course the American public and press would end up focusing on the dog. It was only after discussion began in the West that Soviet press releases about Laika came out, giving her a name, a story, a narrative. And a fate: they talked about her as a martyr to science, who would be kept alive for a week before being painlessly euthanized.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

In reality, Laika was already dead. They had, too late, realized that their cooling mechanisms were inadequate and she quickly, painfully expired. The fact that Laika was never meant to come back, Turkina argues, shaped the narrative: Laika had to be turned into a saintly hero, a noble and necessary sacrifice. One sees this very clearly in most of the Soviet depictions of Laika — proud, facing the stars, serious.

The next dogs, Belka and Strelka, came back down again. Belka was in fact an experienced veteran of other rocket flights. But it was Strelka’s first mission. Once again, Belka and Strelka were not meant to be the dogs for that mission: an earlier version of the rocket, kept secret at the time, exploded during launch a few weeks earlier, killing the dogs Lisichka and Chaika. These two dogs were apparently beloved by their handlers, and this was a tough blow. The secrecy of the program, of course, pervades the entire story of the Soviet side of the Space Race, and serves as a marked contrast with the much more public-facing US program (the consequences of which are explored in The Right Stuff, among other places).

When Belka and Strelka came back safely, Turkina argues, they became the first real Soviet “pop stars.” Soviet socialism didn’t really allow valorization of individual people other than Stakhanovite-style exhortations. The achievements of one were the achievements of all, which doesn’t really lend itself to pop culture. But dogs were fair game, which is one reason there is so much Soviet-era Mutnikiana to begin with: you could put Laika, Belka, and Strelka on cigarettes, matches, tea pots, commemorative plates, and so on, and nobody would complain. Plus, Belka and Strelka were cute. They could be trotted out at press conferences, on talk shows, and were the subjects of a million adorable pictures and drawings. When Strelka had puppies, they were cheered as evidence that biological reproduction could survive the rigors of space, and were both shown off and given as prized gifts to Soviet officials. So it’s not just that the Soviet space dogs are cool or cute — they’re also responsible for the development of a “safe” popular culture in a repressive society that didn’t really allow for accessible human heroes. Turkina also argues that Belka and Strelka in particular were seen as paradoxically “humanizing” space. By coming back alive, they fed dreams of an interstellar existence for mankind that were particularly powerful in the Soviet context.

Yuri Gagarin reported to have joked: “Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?” It wasn’t such a stretch — the same satellite that Belka and Strelka rode in could be used for human beings, and gave them no more space. A friend of mine, Slava Gerovitch, has written a lot about the Soviet philosophy of space rocket design, and on the low regard the engineers who ran the program had for human passengers and their propensity for messing things up. Gagarin had about as much control over his satellite as Belka and Strelka did over theirs, because neither were trusted to actually fly a satellite. The contrast between the engineering attitudes of the Soviet Vostok and the American Mercury program is evident when you compare their instrument panels. The Mercury pilots were expected to be able to fly, while poor Gagarin was expected to be flown. 

Soviet Space Dogs is a pretty interesting read. It’s a hard read for a dog lover. But seeing the Soviet space dogs in the context of the broader Soviet Space Race, and seeing them as more than just “biological cargo,” raises them from kitsch and trivia. There is also just something so emblematic of the space age about the idea of putting dogs into satellites — taking a literally pre-historic human technology, one of the earliest and most successful results of millennia of artificial breeding, and putting it atop a space-faring rocket, the most futuristic technology we had at the time.


The lost IAEA logo

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Last year I wrote a post on here about the story behind the emblem of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To quote from it:

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has, without much competition, the coolest logo of any part of the UN. Heck, I’ll go so far as to say that they have the coolest logo of any atomic-energy organization in history. I mean, check this thing out:

IAEA flag

It’s not only an atom, it’s an atom with style. It’s got a classic late-1950s/early-1960s asymmetrical, jaunty swagger. Those electrons are swinging, baby! This is an atom for love, not war, if you dig what I’m saying. An atom that knows how to have fun, even when it’s doing serious business, like investigating your nuclear program. The James Bond of atoms.

The summary version of the post is that the IAEA started informally using the atom with jaunty electron orbits as its emblem in 1957, realized that it was using a symbol for lithium, realized that lithium was fuel for H-bombs, and decided to add an electron to make it beryllium (which is still an important component of nuclear weapons but whatever). While they were sprucing it up a bit, they decided it might be fun to add on a bunch of other things as well:

Once the process of altering the emblem had started, further suggestions were made and soon a design evolved in which the central circle had been expanded into a global map of the world and five of the eight loops formed by the ellipses contained respectively: a dove of peace with an olive branch; a factory with smoking chimneys and surcharged with a train of three gear wheels; a microscope; two spears of grain; and finally a caduceus, to symbolise respectively the peaceful, industrial, research, agricultural and medicinal uses of atomic energy.

This monstrosity got made into a crazy gold-on-blue flag and hoisted up above the United Nations flag at the Third General Conference of the IAEA in 1958. As I wrote then,

Apparently in UN-world, this was seen as a major scandal. A representative of the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, saw it, flipped out, and had it immediately removed. And it was never seen again. 

After that they formalized the procedure for approving the emblem of the IAEA and we got the relatively conservative emblem seen above on the current IAEA flag.

My only regret about that post is that I couldn’t find a picture of the monstrous flag. I even contacted the IAEA and everything. No luck. The best I could do was an artist’s interpretation:

IAEA 1958 logo (artist's interpretation)

Which seemed a bit ridiculous but I thought it matched the description pretty well.

Well, guess what: the monstrous emblem has been found. Eric Reber, a radiation safety specialist at the IAEA,had read my previous blog post on this topic and then noticed framed documents on the walls at IAEA Headquarters regarding the evolution of the IAEA emblem. Among them were two different versions of the monstrous emblem, along with text noting that they had apparently been missing from the IAEA Archives until fairly recently, when copies were given as donations. Eric very helpfully took some photos of them and sent them to me in an e-mail.

They were designed by one Manfred Sollinger, about whom I know very little. Anyway, here they are. First, the one described in the passage above:

Sollinger's IAEA emblem

Which is not too far off from what I had guessed it to look like — the most striking difference between the size of the earth at the center. The other one had just a dove, but added another Earth:

Sollinger IAEA emblem 2

Both of which are impressively ugly compared to the actual emblem the IAEA adopted. The first one has a cluttered, cheesy quality that would not have reproduced well at small sizes at all; the second one has unfortunately testicular overtones.

Anyway, it’s great that they were actually found. As someone who dabbles in graphic design, I am impressed with how something beautiful and brilliant almost turned out to be something terrible and tacky. The Sollinger designs overlaid so much symbolism onto the IAEA’s emblem that the whole thing almost tipped over. For once, sending the thing to committee seems to have improved the outcome, and we got a sleek, stylish atom for the ages instead.


Would nukes have helped in Vietnam?

Friday, July 25th, 2014

That night I listened while a colonel explained the war in terms of protein. We were a nation of high-protein, meat-eating hunters, while the other guy just ate rice and a few grungy fish heads. We were going to club him to death with our meat; what could you say except, “Colonel, you’re insane”? … Doomsday celebs, technomaniac projectionists; chemicals, gases, lasers, sonic-electric ballbreakers that were still on the boards; and for back-up, deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, “right here in-country.” Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.1

So wrote Michael Herr in his masterful and classic book of Vietnam War journalism, Dispatches. I recently re-read Herr’s book, and this passage stuck out to me today more than it did when I first read the book a decade ago. “There were always the Nukes…” is an attitude that one sometimes sees expressed in other contexts as well, the idea that if it came to it, the USA could, of course, “glassify” any enemy it so chose to. The bomb in this view is the ultimate guarantor of security and strength. But of course Vietnam, among other conflicts, showed very clearly that being a nuclear state didn’t guarantee victory.2

A napalm attack in the Vietnam War. Source.</a

Napalm in Vietnam. Source.

Would nukes have helped with the Vietnam War? It is a somewhat ghastly idea, to add more slaughter to an already terrible, bloody war, but worth contemplating if only to consider in very tangible terms what nuclear weapons can and can’t do, could and couldn’t do. It was a question that was studied seriously at the time, too. In early 1967, a JASON committee consisting of Freeman Dyson, Robert Gomer, Steven Weinberg, and S. Courtney Wright wrote a 60 page report on “Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia,” considering what could and couldn’t be done with the bomb. The whole thing has been obtained (with redactions) under the Freedom of Information Act by the Nautilus Institute, who have put together a very nice website on the subject under the title “Essentially Annihilated.”3

The motivation for the report, according to Ann Finkbeiner, came from a few of the JASON consultants hearing off-hand comments from military men about the appeal of using a nuke or two:

“We were scared about the possible use in Vietnam,” said Robert Gomer, a chemist from the University of Chicago who was probably Jason’s first nonphysicist. During the 1966 spring meeting Freeman Dyson was “at some Jason party,” he said, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was also close to President Johnson “just remarked in an offhand way, ‘Well, it might be a good idea to throw in a nuke once in a while just to keep the other side guessing.'”4

Gomer took initiative on the report, but it is Dyson’s name that is most closely associated it, in part because he (alphabetically) is listed as the first author, in part because Dyson is much more famous. Finkbeiner, who interviewed the authors of the report, says that it was not a report that was specifically requested by the military or government, and that it hewed closely to analytical/tactical questions as opposed to ethical ones.

Which is to say, as you probably have figured out, they set out to show from the start that tactical nuclear weapons would not be a good thing to introduce into the Vietnam War. So they weren’t exactly neutral on the question, but neutrality and objectivity are not the same thing.

1967 - Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia

The report is a fascinating read. It serves as a wonderful lens into how strategic thinking about tactical weapons worked at the time, because the authors, perhaps in an attempt to make sure it was taken seriously, couch all of their reasoning in the language of other, official studies on the issue. So it offers insights into the kinds of issues that were popping up in war-gaming scenarios, and assumptions that were apparently taken as valid about what a tactical nuclear weapon could and couldn’t do. And by deliberately avoiding any discussions of politics and morality (and with that, strategic nuclear weapons use), it does allow them to get into the nitty gritty of the tactical questions without getting overwhelmed by larger and often more nebulous debates about the propriety of nuclear arms.

The basic conclusions are pretty simple. The main one is that even if the US did use tactical nuclear weapons, and such use was entirely unilateral, it wouldn’t get very useful results. Tactical nuclear weapons were thought to be most useful against large massed troops or columns of armor, such as an invading Red Army moving into Western Europe. The problem is, that didn’t describe the situation in Vietnam very well at all, where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army typically operated in smaller groups under forest cover. You could use nukes to destroy their bases, but you’d have to locate their bases first — and by the time you’ve done that, you could have just bombed them conventionally. In general, in a war like Vietnam, tactical nuclear weapons appeared to offer little advantage over conventional arms in most situations. The one special addition of the nukes — the fallout — was too difficult to predict and control, and fallout that would be a useful barrier to troops would necessarily become a problem for civilians as well.

There are some interesting numbers in the report. One is a citation of a conclusion from a RAND study that in a complex war environment, a tactical nuclear weapon is “on the average, equivalent to about 12 nonnuclear attack sorties.” The JASON authors conclude that if you wanted to do something like the Rolling Thunder campaign using nuclear weapons, under this rubric it would require 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons per year. They also note another war-gaming conclusion, that even in the presumedly “Soviet” tactical nuclear weapons environment — large, massed troop and armor concentrations —  “the average number of enemy casualties per strike was about 100.” This probably assumes that some strikes are outright misses while others are very effective, but that’s an impressively low number. The JASON authors note that this would be considerably less in a Vietnam-style environment, because the ability to locate targets of interest would probably be much lower.

There are, they acknowledge, a few cases where specific uses of tactical nuclear weapons might be advantageous. Bridges, headquarters, and underground tunnel complexes could be more easily taken out with tactical nukes than conventional weapons. Such conclusions are somewhat underwhelming, and maybe that is the point: when you do figure out what good the weapons might do, it seems much less impressive than the fantasies.

Map of the Tet Offensive, 1968; the JASON authors would perhaps have us consider what this would have looked like if the North Vietnamese had been supplied tactical weapons from the Soviets or Chinese. Source.

Map of the Tet Offensive, 1968; the JASON authors would perhaps have us consider what this would have looked like if the North Vietnamese had been supplied tactical weapons from the Soviets or Chinese. Source.

The strongest argument they make against using the weapons, though, is not so much that they would be ineffective against the Vietnamese. Rather, it is that the weapons would be really effective against American troops in Vietnam:

If about 100 weapons of 10-KT yield each could be delivered from the base perimeters onto all 70 target areas in a coordinate strike, the U.S. fighting capability in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated. In the more likely contingency that only a few weapons could be delivered intermittently, U.S. casualties would still be extremely high and the degradation of U.S. capabilities would be considerable.

This is often the argument made today whenever the idea of using nuclear weapons — tactical or otherwise — re-raises its head. Since World War II, the US has the strongest interest in not breaking the “nuclear taboo” because once nukes start becoming normalized, the US usually stands to lose the most, or at least a lot. Massed troops, heavy armor, and fixed bases? That’s how we prefer to fight wars. Massive urban cities conveniently located on coasts? Check. Economy highly reliant on communications, transportation, and other infrastructure? Yeah. Which is probably one of the deep reasons that the US, for all of its lack of willingness to commit to a no-first use policy, has always managed to find a way so far to avoid using the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons it produced in the years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The report convincingly concludes:

The use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Southeast Asia would be highly damaging to the U.S. whether or not the use remains unilateral. The overall result of our study is to confirm the generally held opinion that the use of TNW in Southeast Asia would offer the U.S. no decisive military advantage if the use remained unilateral, and it would have strongly adverse military effects if the enemy were able to use TNW in reply. The military advantages of unilateral use are not overwhelming enough to ensure termination of the war, and they are therefore heavily outweighed by the disadvantages of eventual bilateral use.

When I teach to students, I try to emphasize that there are some deep paradoxes at the core of nuclear weapons policies. Deterrence is a tricky-enough strategic issue, a mixture of  military logic and raw fear. Tactical nuclear weapons add complicated wrinkles. Were they merely a means of making deterrence more credible, by showing the Soviets (and whomever else) that we were not willing to let the threat of nuclear annihilation become paralyzing? Or were they really intended to be military weapons that could be usefully employed, regarded as a sort of scaling up of conventional capabilities? In terms of their doctrine and literature, it isn’t clear: they are spoken of as both, in part because a stated willingness to use them is core to their deterrent value. (That is, if you are going to be convincing in your statements that you are willing to use them, you have to look like you are willing to use them, even if you don’t want to use them.)

How much of tactical nuclear weapons was just swagger? Above, the Davy Crockett weapons system, in full-swagger mode.

How much of tactical nuclear weapons was just swagger? Above, the Davy Crockett weapons system, in full-swagger mode.

Thinking through, in a concrete way, what would happen if nuclear weapons are used, and what the long-term consequences would be (politically, tactically, environmentally, economically, etc.) is an important exercise, even if it is sometimes labeled as morbid. Too often, I think, we close our minds to the very possibility. But “thinking the unthinkable” is valuable — not because it will make us more willing to use them, but because it highlights the limitations of their use, and helps us come to grips with what the actual consequences would be.

So would nuke have been useful in the Vietnam War? I think the JASON authors do a good job of showing that the answer is, “almost certainly not very useful, and possibly completely disastrous.” And knowing, as we do now and they did not in 1967, how much of a long-term blot Vietnam would be to US domestic and foreign policy in the years that followed, consider how much of a danger it would have posed if we had started letting little nukes fly on top of everything else.

  1. Michael Herr, Dispatches (Vintage, 1991 [1977]), 60-61. []
  2. Were they actually “right here in-country”? Apparently not, except on aircraft carriers nearby. Of course moving them into the war theatre would not have likely been very difficult. Still, it is an interesting wrinkle to Herr’s account — the colonels bragging to the journalists, assuming it occurred, was in part just bravado. []
  3. F. Dyson, R. Gomer, S. Weinberg, S.C. Wright, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia,” JASON Study S-266 (March 1967), originally posted online at []
  4. Ann Finkbeiner, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite (New York: Viking, 2006), 93. []

Oppenheimer and the Gita

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

What was going through J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head when he saw the great fireball of the Trinity test looming above him? According to his brother, Frank, he only said, “it worked.” But most people know a more poetic account, one in which Oppenheimer says (or at least thinks) the following famous lines:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

This particular version, with a haggard Oppenheimer, was originally filmed for NBC’s 1965 The Decision to Drop the Bomb. I first saw it in Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity (1980), and thanks to YouTube it is now available pretty much anywhere at any time. There are other versions of the quote around — “shatter of worlds” is a common variant — though it did not begin to circulate as part of Los Alamos lore until the late 1940s and especially the 1950s.

It’s a chilling delivery and an evocative quote. The problem is that most of the time when it is invoked, it is done purely for its evocativeness and without any understanding as to what it actually supposed to mean. That’s what I want to talk about: what was Oppenheimer trying to say, presuming he was not just trying to be gnomic? What was he actually alluding to in the Gita?

An Indian greeting card for Diwali from 1998, celebrating India's nuclear tests. Source.

An Indian greeting card for Diwali from 1998, celebrating India’s nuclear tests. Source.

I should say first that I’m no scholar of Hindu theology. Fortunately, many years back, James A. Hijiya of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth wrote a wonderful article on “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer” that covers all of this topic as well as one might ever want it to be covered.1 Everything I know about the Gita comes from Hijiya’s article — so read it if you want much more discussion of this than I have here. I am particularly fond of Hijiya’s opening line, that Oppenheimer’s paraphrase of the Gita is “one of the most-cited and least-interpreted quotations” of the atomic age.

Oppenheimer was not a Hindu. He was not much of anything, religiously — he was born into a fairly secular Jewish family, embraced the Ethical Culture of Felix Adler, and saw philosophy as more of a boon to his soul than any particular creed. He enjoyed the ideas of the Gita, but he was not religious about it. Hijiya thinks, however, that much can be understood about Oppenheimer’s life through the lens of the Gita as a philosophical and moral code, something necessary in part because Oppenheimer rarely discussed his own internal motivations and feelings about making the bomb. It helps explain, Hijiya argues, that a man who could utter so many public statements about the “sin” and “terror” and “inhumanity” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could also have been the one who pushed for their use against Japan and who never, ever said that he actually regretted having built the bomb or recommending its use. It helps resolve one of the crucial contradictions, in other words, at the heart of the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

It’s not clear when Oppenheimer was first exposed to the Gita. I have seen accounts, in oral histories, that suggested that he was spouting Gita lines even while he was a young graduate student studying in Europe. What is definitely known is that he didn’t start studying Sanskrit seriously until 1933, when he started studying with the renown Sanskrit scholar Arthur W. Ryder while he was a professor at Berkeley. In letters, he wrote gushingly about the book to his brother, and much later he quoted from it at the service held at Los Alamos in April 1945 upon the death of President Roosevelt.

The story of the Gita is that of Arjuna, a human prince who has been summoned to a war between princely cousins. Arjuna doesn’t want to fight — not because he lacks courage, or skill, but because it is a war of succession, so his enemies are his own cousins, his friends, his teachers. Arjuna does not want to kill them. He confides in his charioteer, who turns out to be the god Krishna2 in a human form. The text of the Gita is mostly Krishna telling Arjuna why Arjuna must go to war, even if Arjuna does not want to do it.

Krishna’s argument hinges on three points: 1. Arjuna is a soldier, and so it is his job — his duty — to wage war; 2. It is Krishna’s job, not Arjuna’s, to determine Arjuna’s fate; 3. Arjuna must ultimately have faith in Krishna if he is going to preserve his soul.

Arjuna eventually starts to become convinced. He asks Krishna if he will show him his godlike, multi-armed form. Krishna obliges, showing Arjuna an incredible sight:

Krishna revealing himself to Arjuna. Source.

Krishna revealing himself to Arjuna. Source.

A thousand simultaneous suns
     Arising in the sky
Might equal that great radiance,
     With that great glory vie.

Arjuna is awestruck and spellbound:

Amazement entered him; his hair
     Rose up; he bowed his head;
He humbly lifted folded hands,
     And worshipped God. . . .

And then, in his most amazing and terrible form, Krishna tells Arjuna what he, Krishna, is there to do:

Death am I, and my present task

Arjuna, suitably impressed and humbled, then agrees to join in the battle.

The above quotes are from Ryder’s translation of the Gita. You can see that Oppenheimer’s is not especially different from that, even if it is somewhat changed. Personally I find Ryder’s version of the last part more impressive — it is more poetic, more stark. Ryder’s translation, Hijiya explains, is a somewhat idiosyncratic but defensible one. What Ryder (and Oppenheimer) translate as “Death,” others have translated as “Time,” but Hijiya says that Ryder is not alone for calling attention to the fact that in this context the expanse of time was meant to be a deadly one.

If you would like to see the famous “death” verse in the original, it is chapter 11, verse 32 of the Gita, and looks like this:

Gita verse 11:32

This website (from which I got the above) translates it as:

Lord Krsna said: I am terrible time the destroyer of all beings in all worlds, engaged to destroy all beings in this world; of those heroic soldiers presently situated in the opposing army, even without you none will be spared.

While I find Ryder’s more poignant, the longer translation makes it extremely clear what Krishna has in mind. All will perish, eventually. In war, many will perish whether you participate or not. For Oppenheimer and the bomb, this may have seemed especially true. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and others on the target list) were on it not because they were necessarily the most important, but because they had so far been spared from firebombing. They were being actively preserved as atomic bomb targets. Had the bomb not been used or made, they probably would have been firebombed anyway. Even if the physicists had refused to make nuclear weapons, the death toll of World War II would hardly have been altered.

Trinity long exposure

“A thousand simultaneous suns”: a long-exposure shot of the Trinity test.

So let’s step back and ask who Oppenheimer is meant to be in this situation. Oppenheimer is not Krishna/Vishnu, not the terrible god, not the “destroyer of worlds” — he is Arjuna, the human prince! He is the one who didn’t really want to kill his brothers, his fellow people. But he has been enjoined to battle by something bigger than himself — physics, fission, the atomic bomb, World War II, what have you — and only at the moment when it truly reveals its nature, the Trinity test, does he fully see why he, a man who hates war, is compelled to battle. It is the bomb that is here for destruction. Oppenheimer is merely the man who is witnessing it. 

Hijiya argues that Oppenheimer’s sense of Gita-inspired “duty” pervades his life and his government service. I’m not sure I am 100% convinced of that. It seems like a heavyweight philosophical solution to the relatively lightweight problem of a life of inconsistency. But it’s an interesting idea. It is perhaps a useful way to think about why Oppenheimer got involved with so many projects that he, at times, seemed ambivalent about. Though ambivalence seemed readily available in those days — nobody seems to be searching for deep scriptural/philosophical justifications for Kenneth Bainbridge’s less eloquent, but equally ambivalent post-Trinity quote: “Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.”

A rare color photograph of Oppenheimer from October 1945, with General Groves and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy "E" Award ceremony. Source.

A rare color photograph of Oppenheimer from October 1945, with General Groves and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy “E” Award ceremony. Source.

One last issue that I find nagging me. We have no recording of Oppenheimer saying this except the 1965 one above. By this time, Oppenheimer is old, stripped of his security clearance, and dying of throat cancer. It is easy to see the clip as especially chilling in this light, given that is being spoken by a fading man. How would it sound, though, if it was coming from a younger, more chipper Oppenheimer, the one we see in photographs from the immediate postwar period? Would it be able to preserve its gravity?

Either way, I think the actual context of the quote within the Gita is far deeper, far more interesting, than the popular understanding of it. It isn’t a case of the “father” of the bomb declaring himself “death, the destroyer of worlds” in a fit of grandiosity or hubris. Rather, it is him being awed by what is being displayed in front of him, confronted with the spectacle of death itself unveiled in front of him, in the world’s most impressive memento mori, and realizing how little and inconsequential he is as a result. Compelled by something cosmic and terrifying, Oppenheimer then reconciles himself to his duty as a prince of physics, and that duty is war.

  1. James A. Hijiya, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 144, no. 2 (June 2000), 123-167. []
  2. Oppenheimer, in his 1965 interview, identifies the god as Vishnu, perhaps in error. Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu, however, so maybe it is technically correct along some line of thinking. []

Accidents and the bomb

Friday, April 18th, 2014

When I first heard that Eric Schlosser, the investigative journalist was writing a book on nuclear weapons accidents, I have to admit that I was pretty suspicious. I really enjoyed Fast Food Nation when it came out a decade ago. It was one of those books that never quite leaves you. The fact that the smell of McDonald’s French fries was deliberately engineered by food chemists to be maximally appealing, something I learned from Schlosser’s book, comes to mind whenever I smell any French fries. But nuclear weapons are not French fries. When writing about them, it is extremely easy to fall into either an exaggerated alarmism or a naïve acceptance of reassuring official accounts. In my own work, I’m always trying to sort out the truth of the matter, which is usually somewhere in between these two extremes.

Schlosser - Command and Control book

This is especially the case when talking about nuclear weapons accidents — the many times during the Cold War when nuclear weapons were subjected to potentially dangerous circumstances, such as being set on fire, being accidentally dropped from a bomber, crashing with a bomber, having the missile they were attached to explode, and so on. The alarmist accounts generally inflate the danger of the accidents achieving a nuclear yield; the official accounts usually dismiss such danger entirely. There are also often contradictory official accounts — sometimes even the people with clearances can’t agree on whether the weapons in question were “armed” (that is, had intact fissile pits in them), whether the chance of detonation was low or high, and so on. I’ve always been pretty wary about the topic myself for this reason. Sorting out the truth seemed like it would require a lot of work that I wasn’t interested in doing.

Well, I’m happy to report that in his new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of SafetySchlosser has done that work. I reviewed the book recently for Physics Today. You can read my PT review here, but the long and short of it is that I was really, really impressed with the book. And I’m not easily impressed by most works of nuclear weapons history, popular or academic. I’m not surprised it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, either.

Titan II silo complex. There's a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson's wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

Titan II silo complex. There’s a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson’s wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

What I ask out of a new book is that it teach me something new — either novel facts or novel spins on things I already knew about. Schlosser’s book does both. He clearly did his homework when it came to doing the work, and it’s not really surprising it took him about a dissertation’s worth of time to write it. It’s not just a document dump of FOIA’d material, though. He really shines when contextualizing his new information, writing a very rich, synthetic history of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. So the new and the old are woven together in a really spectacular, unusually compelling fashion.

The book has two main threads. One is a very specific, moment-by-moment account of one accident. This is the so-called Damascus Accident, which is when a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas, exploded in its silo in 1980, resulting in one fatality. It’s not one of the “standard” accidents one hears about, like the 1961 Goldsboro bomb, the 1958 Tybee bomb, the 1968 Thule crash, or the 1966 Palomares accident. But Schlosser’s journalist chops here really came through, as he tracked down a huge number of the people involved in the accident and used their memories, along with documentary records, to reconstruct exactly how one dropped spanner — itself just an apparently innocuous, everyday sort of mistake — could lead to such explosive outcomes.

The other thread is a more historical one, looking at the history of nuclear weapons and particular how the problem of command and control runs through it from the beginning. “Command and control” is one of those areas whose vastness I didn’t really appreciate until reading this book. Nominally it is just about making sure that you can use the weapons when you want to, but that also includes making sure that nobody is going to use the weapons when you don’t want them to, and that the weapons themselves aren’t going to do anything terrible accidentally. And this makes it mind-bogglingly complex. It gets into details about communication systems, weapons designs, delivery system designs, nuclear strategy, screening procedures, security procedures, accident avoidance, and so much more.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

Schlosser weaves this all together wonderfully. I found very few statements, technical or otherwise, that struck me as genuine outright errors.1 Of course, there are places where there can be differences of interpretation, but there always are. This is pretty good for any book of this length and scope — there are many academic books that I’ve read that had more technical errors than this one.

What I found really wonderful, though, is that Schlosser also managed to give a compelling explanation for the contradictory official accident accounts that I mentioned before. It’s so simple that I don’t know why it never occurred to me before: the people concerned with nuclear weapon safety were not the same people who were in charge of the weapons. That is, the engineers at Sandia who were charged with nuclear safety and surety were institutionally quite remote from the Air Force people who handled the weapons. The Air Force brass believed the weapons were safe and that to suggest otherwise was just civilian hogwash. The engineers who got into the guts of the weapons knew that it was a more complicated story. And they didn’t communicate well — sometimes by design. After awhile the Air Force stopped telling the Sandia engineers about all of the accidents, and so misinformation became rampant even within the classified system.

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: "Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today's standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work."

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: “Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today’s standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work.”

We usually talk about nuclear weapons safety as a question of whether they are “one-point safe.” That is, will the weapon have a chance of a nuclear yield if one point on the chemical explosives surrounding the fission pit detonated inadvertently? Most of the time the answer is no, of course not. Implosion requires a very high degree of detonation symmetry — that’s why it’s hard to make work. So a one-point detonation of the explosive lenses will produce a fizzle, spreading plutonium or uranium like a “dirty bomb” but not producing a supercritical chain reaction.

But some of the time, answer is, “well, maybe.” We usually think of implosions as complex affairs but some weapons only require two-point implosion to begin with. So now you’re no longer talking about the possibility that one out of 36 explosive lenses will go off; you’re talking about one out of two. This isn’t to say that such weapons aren’t one-point safe, just to point out that weapons design isn’t limited to the sorts of things present in the first implosion weapons.

But even this doesn’t really get at the real problem here. “One-point safe” is indeed an important part of the safety question, but not the only one. Consider, for example, what would happen if the firing signal was only a simple amount of DC electrical current. Now imagine that during a fire, the firing circuit board soldering melts and a short-circuit is formed between the batteries and the firing switch. Now the bomb is actually trying to truly set itself off as if it had been deliberately dropped — and full implosion, with nuclear yield, is totally possible.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

How likely is this kind of electrically-activated nuke scenario? What the Sandia engineers discovered was that in some weapons it was really not implausible at all. Under the “abnormal environment” of a weapons accident (such as a crashing or burning B-52), all sorts of crazy things could happen with electronic circuits. And unless they were really carefully designed for the possibility of this kind of accident, they could arm themselves and fire themselves. Which is the kind of thing you’d expect an engineer who is deeply connected with the electrical technology of the bomb to conclude.

And of course, as Schlosser (and his engineer sources) point out — this kind of thing is only one small detail in the broad, broad question of nuclear safety. These systems are big, complex, and non-linear. And so much hinges on them working correctly.

The sociologist of science Donald MacKenzie has proposed (in a slightly different context — nuclear weapons accuracy, not safety) that a “certainty trough” exists with regards to complex questions of technological uncertainty. He draws it somewhat like this:2

MacKenzie's Certainty Trough

So this divides people into three groups. On the left are the people who actually build the technology and the knowledge. These people have reasonably high levels of uncertainty about the technology in question — they know the nuts and bolts of how it works and how it could go wrong. (I’ve added “confidence” as a label because I find it more straightforward than “uncertainty” at times.) They also know what kinds of failure situations are not likely as well. In the middle, you have people who are completely committed to the technology in question. These people aren’t completely divorced from solid knowledge about it, but they are just consumers of knowledge. They look at the final data, but they don’t really know how the data was made (and all of the uncertainty that gets screened out to make the final version of the data). They have very low uncertainty, and so very high confidence in the technology. At far right you have the people who are either total outsiders, or people who are totally committed to another approach. These have the highest levels of uncertainty and the lowest levels of confidence.

So if we were mapping Schlosser’s actors onto these categories, we’d have the Sandia engineers and other weapons scientists on the far left. They know what can go wrong, they know the limits of their knowledge. They also know which accident situations are outlandish. In the middle we have the military brass and even the military handlers of the weapons. They are committed to the weapons. They have data saying the weapons are safe — but they don’t know how the data was made, or how it was filtered. They think the weapons are totally safe and that anyone who suggests otherwise is just ignorant or foolish. And lastly, at far right, we have total outsiders (the activists, perhaps, or sometimes even politicians), or people who really are looking to amplify the uncertainty for their own purposes.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

The disconnect between the far left group and the middle group is the one that disturbs me the most in Schlosser’s account. It also reflects what I’ve seen in online discussions of weapons accidents. People with a little bit of knowledge — e.g. they know about one-point safety, or they once handled nukes in the military — have very high confidence in the safety issues. But they don’t know enough to realize that under the hood, things are more complicated and have been, in the past at least, much more dangerous. Not, perhaps, as dangerous as some of the more alarmist, outsider, activist accounts have stressed. But dangerous enough to seriously concern people whose jobs it is to design the weapons — people who know about the nuts and bolts of them.

Anyway. Schlosser’s book is a great read, as well. Which it needs to be, because it is long. But it’s also segregable. Don’t care much of the details of the Damascus accident? You can skip those sections and still get a lot out of the book (even though the Damascus accident is really a perfect account of all of the little things that can go wrong with complex, non-linear systems). But part of that length is a copious amount of endnotes, which I applaud him and his publisher for including. For a book like this, you can’t skimp on the documentation, and Schlosser doesn’t. The only thing he did skimp on was illustration, which I — as a pretty visual guy — thought was too bad. So much of the Damascus story takes place inside of a Titan II silo, and while the inner flap of the cover did have a simplified illustration of one, I still felt like I didn’t really know what was happening where at times. (I wonder if this was a trade-off with the publisher in having so many notes and pages.)

Chuck Penson's Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) for scale.

Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) included for scale.

Fortunately, there is a solution for this. If it were up to me, every copy of Schlosser’s book would be accompanied by a copy of Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook: A civilian’s guide to the most powerful ICBM America ever built. Penson’s book is a richly illustrated history of this particular missile, and contains lots of detailed photographs and accounts of daily life on a Titan II base (such as those seen above) It’s utterly fascinating and it gives so much visual life to what Schlosser describes. It also includes giant fold-out diagrams of the missiles themselves — the printing quality is really impressive all around. It includes fascinating technical details as well. For example, in the early days of the Titan II silos they had large motor-generators that constantly ran in case they needed to convert DC power into AC in the event of a failure of commercial power. Penson then notes that:

The motor-generator ran with a loud, monotonous high-pitched whine… noise in the [Launch Control Center] turned into a serious issue. Crew members complained of temporary hearing loss due not only the incessant buzz of the motor-generator, but also to the constant drone of the air conditions, fans and blowers in equipment. Eventually the Air Force covered the tile floor with carpeting, and acoustic batting was hung in the in the area of the stairway leading up to level 1 and down to level 3. … These changes made a tremendous improvement, but one that came too late for many of the crew, a significant number of whom now need hearing aids.

This kind of detail fits in perfectly with Schlosser’s approach to the facility, which itself seems strongly influenced by the sociologist Charles Perrow’s notion of “Normal Accidents.” That the devices in the facility would affect the hearing of the crew was certainly not something that anybody thought of ahead of time; it’s one of those little details that gets lost in the overall planning, but (at least for those who suffered the hearing loss) had real consequences. Ultimately this is the thesis of Schlosser’s book: that the infrastructure of nuclear command and control is much larger, much more complex, much more problematic than most people realize, and is one of those high-complexity, high-risk systems that human beings are notoriously pretty bad at managing.

If you’re the kind of person who geeks out on nuke history, both Schlosser’s and Penson’s books are must-reads, must-buys.

  1. The two biggest mistakes I noted, which I’ve told Schlosser about and may be fixed in the paperback, are that he misstates the size of the neutron initiator in the Fat Man bomb — he confuses the diameter for the radius — and he got the story of Szilard’s 1933 chain reaction work wrong, which lots of people do. Szilard’s patent is such a common source of misunderstanding even amongst scholars that I will be writing a blog post about it soon. Neither of these are terribly important to his argument or narrative. []
  2. Adapted from Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), figure 7.2. []