Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Thoughts on the First Nuclear Bomb Test

Destruction Testing

Trinity Test: July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m. (Mountain War Time)
Trinity Site:  Alamogordo Test Range, Jornada del Muerto (“Journey of Death”) desert. 
Yield: 19–21 Kilotons
Image Credit: Berlyn Brixner, LANL.
Source: Atomic Archives

It was 74 years ago today in the southwestern part of the United States, in a remote desert in New Mexico in the early morning hours of July 16th, 1945, that the United States successfully tested a fission or atomic bomb. Code-named “Trinity,” this was the fruit of the Manhattan Project [1942–1946], which at its peak employed 133,000 people (mostly construction people, plant operators and military personnel) and cost $2 billion, or about $23 billion in 2018 dollars. Perhaps it’s more; it is hard to really know, other than to say that it is a lot of money earmarked for destructive use.

It was directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer [1904–1967], a theoretical physicist who led a core team of scientists, including many well-known and distinguished theoretical physicists. Notably absent was Albert Einstein [1879–1955], who was denied security clearance, likely because of his vocal pacifism. Yet, it was Einstein’s name at the bottom of the letter, written by fellow physicist Leó Szilárd, which Einstein soon sent to President  Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, warning that Germany might develop atomic weapons.

While primarily an American initiative, Canada and Britain were also involved in the research and the supplying of materials for producing a fission bomb. After the successful test in New Mexico, it would be a few weeks later when the U.S. would drop two atomic bombs on Japan, first on Hiroshima (with an estimated population 350,000) on August 6th; and then on Nagasaki (with an estimated population 263,000) on August 9th.

The result was an estimated 200,000 dead and injured, which is a conservative estimate. It might be closer to 400,000 dead and wounded. Precise figures are not easily determined, given the chaos in the aftermath of such a destructive event. Needless to say, it was a great loss to Japan. Five days later, Japan surrenders. and the Second World War is over. It is the only time one nation has used atomic weapons on another; let’s hope that this remains the only singular case.

Oppenheimer soon regretted what he had helped unleash on the world, a scientist who had held high ethical standards (after all, he studied for 10 years at Ethical Culture School in Manhattan’s upper west side (the private school still exists today); and yet who had become a scientist who had served human cruelty. In an article (“The Agony of Atomic Genius;” Number 14, Fall 2006, pp. 85-104.) in The New Atlantis, Algis Valiunas writes the following:
As Life magazine proclaimed the Los Alamos physicists superheroes of scientific intelligence, Oppenheimer was lamenting the subservience of science to innate human cruelty in an address to the American Philosophical Society: “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world ... a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing ... we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.” This public admission of personal despair at the moral collapse of the modern world’s leading intellectual enterprise could not be more nakedly penitent. The heartbreak of everlasting loss is unmistakable here: with the creation of the atomic bomb, the world will never again be what it once was. Modern science had permanently altered the nature of moral and political life.
As we have seen it has, with the start and continuation of the nuclear arms race. As for Einstein’s participation, it was only in sending the letter to the president. Even so, he was put on the cover of Time magazine for its issue of July 1, 1946, perhaps in recognition of getting the whole ball rolling. Although he later voiced regrets for doing so, given what he knew, it seemed like the wise thing to do at the time. Einstein, however, remained as he always was, “a convinced pacifist,” which is what he wrote in a letter (“On My Participation in the Atom Bomb Project;” September 20, 1952) to Kaizo (“Reconstruction”), a Japanese publication:
As long however, as nations are ready to abolish war by common action and to solve their conflicts in a peaceful way on a legal basis. they feel compelled to prepare for war. They feel moreover compelled to prepare the most abominable means, in order not to be left behind in the general armaments race. Such procedure leads inevitable to war, which, in turn, under today’s conditions, spells universal destruction.
Under such circumstances there is no hope in combating the production of specific weapons or means of destruction. Only radical abolition of war and of danger of war can help. Toward this goal one should strive; in fact nobody should allow himself to be forced into actions contrary to this goal. This is a harsh demand for anyone who is aware of his social inter-relatedness; but it can be followed.
I agree; social pressures to conform in many matters are always present, but in  matters of conscience,  and it is always better to think about such questions beforehand, these social pressures and the need to conform to them, ought be resisted, and without much hesitation. Again, this can only happen if you have had the time to think about such ethical and moral matters and see how they fit into your over-all moral thought life.

For more of my thoughts on this subject, go [here].

Monday, July 15, 2019

Fritz Haber: The Amoral Scientist

Lack of Morality

I remember hearing about Fritz Haber [1868–1934] when watching a documentary a few years ago about him and his wife. A chemist of great promise and prominence, Haber was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. He is credited with two important scientific discoveries: one good for humanity; the other bad for humanity. For Haber, it seems, that he considered both in the same way—as some sort of scientific puzzle to solve.

This thinking, combined with a blind arrogance, led to his downfall. If history judges Haber in this way, it is justified by his actions. It is easy to say that science is amoral, but it is another thing to say that a scientist is amoral. Fritz Haber was such a man.

An article (“The Amoral Scientist;” July 8, 2019), by Matthew Wills, in JStor Daily says the following:
Fritz Haber was the chemist who figured out how to synthesize ammonia out of atmospheric nitrogen. Once chemist/engineer Carl Bosch applied this to an industrial process, it allowed for the virtually limitless production of fertilizer. This was an unparalleled boon to agriculture, which had previously depended on guano and other substances to replenish soil. For this, undoubtedly one of the most important discoveries in chemistry, Haber was awarded the Nobel in 1918.
Then, there is the other side of Haber:
Fritz Haber was the driving force behind the German use of chemical weapons during WWI. His wife, Clara Immerwahr, a noted chemist in her own right, “pleaded with Haber repeatedly not to work on techniques of chemical warfare,” writes S. Ramaseshan in his short biography of the “amoral scientist.” But under Haber’s enthusiastic leadership, Germany initiated the modern era of chemical warfare by deploying chlorine gas in Belgium in April 1915. By some reports, 5,000 people died.
Clara Immerwahr was the first woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Breslau, in 1900. In 1901 she had married Fritz Haber; it was not a happy marriage. Soon after hearing this, and perhaps noting her husband’s amorality and his lack of concern for human life, Immerwahr shot herself with his pistol; she died in the arms of her 12-year-old son, Hermann, in the garden of their mansion in Dahlem, a borough in southwestern Berlin; she was 45. Thirty years later, in 1946, Hermann killed himself.

The next day after her death, Haber, ever the German patriot, left for the Eastern front to continue his war efforts on behalf of Germany, as a 2012 Smithsonian article on Haber puts it, “to initiate another gas attack, against the Russians." But Germany’s defeat, the need to pay reparations and the resulting financial crisis took the tarnish off his fame. This, and the rise of racial nationalism and fascism, forced Haber, the German-Jew, to leave Germany shortly after Hitler and the Nazis came to power, leaving in August 1933.

He worked briefly in Cambridge, England, and while there, Wikipedia writes, “Chaim Weizmann offered him the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute (now the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot, in Mandatory Palestine.” On his way there, Haber died of a heart attack, at a hotel in Basel, Switzerland, on January 29, 1934; he was 65.

For more on Fritz Haber, go to [JSTOR Daily].

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Howard Zinn’s ‘Three Holy Wars’ (2009)


“Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate Tuesdays, between three and four) I lift my spirits by remembering: The artists are on our side! I mean those poets and painters, singers and musicians, novelists and playwrights who speak to the world in a way that is impervious to assault because they wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.

“The billionaire mandarins of our culture can show us the horrors of war on a movie screen and pretend they are making an important statement (‘War is hell,’ says the general as he orders his troops forward into no man's land). But the artists go beyond that, to resistance, defiance.”

Howard Zinn, The Progressive, July 2001

Howard Zinn’s “Three Holy Wars” (2009) discusses three wars that America considers sacrosanct: U.S. Revolutionary War [1775–1783]; the U.S. Civil War [1861–1865]; the Second World War [1939–1945], which America joined on December 7, 1941.
Via: Youtube & The Progressive

By holy, Howard Zinn [1922–2010; a native of Brooklyn, NY] is not here referring to any religious aspect, but, rather, how wars are given sacrosanct status. In much the same way that religious dogma and ideology creates an accepted view of history, wars also create  the idea of a people and a nationalist narrative to support it. In other words, wars are used for nation-building, and all such wars toward this effort are “just,” because the cause itself is “just.”

Such narratives, however, run contrary to greater human ones, the inviolability and dignity of human life. The basic premise of war is contrary to the basic premise of human life—survival. Wars are destructive and kill people; and wars benefit the few, who are primarily often the wealthy business interests. Who gets what? Who does war chiefly benefit? Has anything changed since then? Zinn says: “We try to pretend in this country that we are all a big happy family.” This is hardly the case, except for those who deny the reality by pretending otherwise, by conjuring up a fake narrative to justify acts of aggression and violence, often in the pursuit of profit.

It is pretense of the worst sort, because it ends up with people being killed for no good or just reason.  Did even the Second World War achieve its ultimate aim, with 50 million dead? Have we gotten rid of fascism? of racism? of further wars? Zinn says something that I agree with: “War cannot be accepted, no matter what. […]. In between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.” The problem is that political leaders often lack the imagination to think in other ways.

This idea sounds strange, because it is not today common; it is rare, it is true. But not so rare among thoughtful people like Howard Zinn and other left wing intellectuals and progressives. Doing something the same way it has been done will only lead to the same results. War will always lead to deaths; expecting something different is insanity. Well, it’s time that we elect leaders who do think differently, who are not committed to wars.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Noam Chomsky Speaks in Boston (2019)

Just Thinking Out Loud

“One of the great achievements of the doctrinal system has been to divert anger from the corporate sector to the government that implements the programs that the corporate sector designs, such as the highly protectionist corporate/investor rights agreements that are uniformly mis-described as “free trade agreements” in the media and commentary. With all its flaws, the government is, to some extent, under popular influence and control, unlike the corporate sector. It is highly advantageous for the business world to foster hatred for pointy-headed government bureaucrats and to drive out of people’s minds the subversive idea that the government might become an instrument of popular will, a government of, by and for the people.”

Noam Chomsky, Optimism over Despair (2017), p. 125

Noam Chomsky Speaks in Boston: Chomsky [born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Pa] is considered the founder of modern linguistics. After spending 62 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Chomsky joined the University of Arizona in fall 2017. He is currently a laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. In addition, he is the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice.
ViaYoutube & Democracy Now

Democracy Now writes: “On April 12, 2019, hundreds of people packed into the Old South Church in Boston to hear the world-renowned dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky speak. In this hour-long special, we air an excerpt of Chomsky’s speech and his on-stage interview with Amy Goodman.”

This man speaks well on many areas, including on fascism, ultra-nationalism, corporatism, and on America’s great shift to the right, economically and politically. Chomsky says something important about how the working class has had no real representation in Washington the last 40 years: “Since the 1970s, since this neoliberal period, both of the political parties have shifted to the right. The Democrats, by the 1970s, have pretty much abandoned the working class.…The Republicans have shifted so far to the right, that they went completely off the spectrum.”

Is this not true? Yet, many try to find fault with Chomsky for one reason or another, focusing on his mistakes. Well, to be blunt, we all have made mistakes; and we have changed our minds as a result. If you are a public intellectual, as Chomsky is, you will get some things wrong in what is a long and distinguished career. No one is immune from it; it is just that Chomsky’s mistakes will be scrutinized more harshly, particularly by those who fear what he has to say. Such a list is long.

No matter. Chomsky's strengths are many, most notably his sharp analytical mind, one that questions the status quo, an independent and original thinker far ahead of his time. He also believes what he says, and that counts for a lot. Such people are rare. It is hard to ignore what he says, because what he says makes sense to people like me. Chomsky makes it intellectually acceptable to be skeptical of the status quo, which is a good position to find oneself in, especially if one is unhappy with it. Change never comes from happy people.

All in all, I find Chomsky a breath of fresh air in a world populated by politicians, business people and other public speakers, insufferable windbags who spout nonsense and other fabrications, making illusions and building deceptions. By doing so, they feign interest, but are not saying anything of any importance to the common people. Watch this video and find out what this man has to say. He comes  as close to the truth as one can get, and yet makes it accessible. This is not easy to do.

For more on Noam Chomsky, you can go to [Chomsky.info]

Friday, July 12, 2019

Art & The Artististic Vision

Art for Thought

Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VII, 1913. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Painted in 1913 when Kandinsky lived with Gabriela Munter in Munich, Germany. Kandinsky said this was the most complex piece he painted.
An article (“Art is Good for Your Brain;” June 28, 2019), by Jessica Jacolbe, in JSTOR Daily, reports on the finding that art is good for your brain. In the field of neuroaesthetics, neuroscience is put to work to better understand how art affects our brains, not only when artists are creating it, such as the painting by Kandinsky above, but also when we are viewing this wonderful work of art.

Jacolbe writes:
Noted neurobiologist Semir Zeki documents how art can stimulate “conceptual relations” in our mind, and not just reactions to the visual art in front of us. According to Zeki’s findings, experiencing any sort of beauty, visual or musical, literally impacts the decision-making areas of our brain.
Experientially we know this as true; now neuroscience and the scientific field of neuroaesthetics is confirming what humans have felt all along. That the mind enjoys, craves beauty, however and wherever it might be seen. Related to beauty is truth, although this is not easy to prove. Art might not be the truth but it brings us close to it. Not everyone wants truth. Bearing witness to beauty ought not mean one cannot denounce horror. In my mind, both are linked; both are possible. The horror is the absence of beauty; the horror is never abstract. It is always real. It is always cruel.

When beauty breaks through the gray walls of horror, in comes the possibility of truth. This is where art raises the possibility of truth that facts alone cannot create, that literalists and fundamentalists find difficult to appreciate. That when we view art, we ourselves are engaged in the artistic process, that it shapes our brains, opening new ways of seeing, ways that are far different than when we are doing something else. Perhaps anything else. Artists are rare, and original artists even rarer; and it is equally true that the artistic vision is unfortunately rare, because so few develop it.

For more on this subject, go to [JSTOR Daily].

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Big Yellow Butterfly at Lake Wilcox


Big Yellow Butterfly at Lake Wilcox: It looks like the eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), which, Wikipedia says, is quite common in our geographic area. Lake Wilcox is a half an hour from where we reside. This yellow beauty is also common to the eastern United States, where it is a familiar sighting, Wikipedia writes: “It flies from spring to fall, during which it produces two to three broods. Adults feed on the nectar of many species of flowers, mostly from those of the Apocynaceae, Asteraceae, and Fabaceae families. P. glaucus has a wingspan measuring 7.9 to 14 cm (3.1 to 5.5 in). The male is yellow with four black "tiger stripes" on each forewing. Females may be either yellow or black, making them dimorphic. The yellow morph is similar to the male, but with a conspicuous band of blue spots along the hindwing, while the dark morph is almost completely black.”
Photo Credit: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Fowl Play at Mill Pond

Urban Wildlife

Mill Pond is close to our house, in Richmond Hill, a short drive by car; and only 30 minutes by foot. It is a beautiful green space in the midst of a nice suburb; one of the attractions for us are the ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), geese  and two swans (Cygnus olor), who we have named George and Georgina. It is the Canada geese (Branta canadensis), however, that are in largest abundance. We have befriended them, and they are not fearful of us or our presence.

All Photos: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Our Backyard Raspberry Bushes (2019)

Fruit of the Bush

Much to our surprise and delight, our backyard has a number of raspberry bushes (Rubus idaeus). They are in various stages of being ready to pick. This is wonderful, since this year we do not have to make our annual trek to a farm nearby, a family ritual, to pick raspberries. We can do it in our backyard. Let’s call it “Greenbaum Farms,” a tiny urban farm, home to bees, butterflies, birds, hares, yellow irises and raspberries. Perhaps even some fresh milkweed.

All Photos: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, July 8, 2019

What Darwin Never Knew (2009)


What Darwin Never Knew, is a 2009 documentary (almost 2 hours long) produced by NOVA, a PBS-TV show, originally aired on December 29, 2009, 150 years after Darwin’s original theory on natural selection shook the scientific world; it is narrated by Lance Lewman.  
Via: Youtube

NOVA’s website describes this documentary as follows about Charles Darwin [1809–1882], the English naturalist, famous for his important contribution to the theory of evolution, and particularly how natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution—an idea that we now take for granted, but which was earth-shattering 150 years ago; NOVA writes:
Earth teems with a staggering variety of animals, including 9,000 kinds of birds, 28,000 types of fish, and more than 350,000 species of beetles. What explains this explosion of living creatures—1.4 million different species discovered so far, with perhaps another 50 million to go? The source of life’s endless forms was a profound mystery until Charles Darwin brought forth his revolutionary idea of natural selection. But Darwin's radical insights raised as many questions as they answered. What actually drives evolution and turns one species into another? To what degree do different animals rely on the same genetic toolkit? And how did we evolve?
     “What Darwin Never Knew” offers answers to riddles that Darwin couldn't explain. Breakthroughs in a brand-new science—nicknamed “evo devo”—are linking the enigmas of evolution to another of nature's great mysteries, the development of the embryo. NOVA takes viewers on a journey from the Galapagos Islands to the Arctic, and from the explosion of animal forms half a billion years ago to the research labs of today. Scientists are finally beginning to crack nature's biggest secrets at the genetic level. The results are confirming the brilliance of Darwin's insights while revealing clues to life’s breathtaking diversity in ways the great naturalist could scarcely have imagined.
Without a doubt, Darwin started a revolution in science, and it continues today, increasing our knowledge and understanding of our world and the species, including humans, that populate it. Today there are numerable branches of science that have developed over the years as a result of Darwin's original ground-breaking theory, On the Origins of Species (1859), including evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology and evolutionary sociology and biosociology.

For the full transcript of this NOVA show, go to [PBS-TV].

To read a copy of the original 1859 edition of  On the Origins of Species, go to [Gutenberg].

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sometimes We Have to Carry Others

Human Lives

An article (“Carrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation;” July 5, 2019) in The New York Review of Books, by Teju Cole, summons forth the idea how writers of literature can help raise the value of a human life—all human lives in our shared humanity, “our fellow citizens”—by having the courage to voice their conscience about injustices, about not viewing as important physical differences, by understanding that we cannot do it alone; that we are not alone, even if and when we feel alone.

By doing so, by risking persecution in their host nations, such writers help move the readers of such literature from indifference to making a difference. It might take some time for the action to take place, but take place it will, when it is necessary to save a life, when it is necessary to carry someone across deadly waters, if not literally, then figuratively, or financially. Cole, novelist, photographer, critic, curator, and the author of five books and currently the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard University, writes:
I offer this: literature can save a life. Just one life at a time. Perhaps at 4 AM when you get out of bed and pull a book of poetry from the shelf. Perhaps over a week in summer when you’re absorbed in a great novel. Something deeply personal happens there, something both tonic and sustaining.
How much I agree with this passage; I, like many, have had such personal experiences when reading a great novel. It has moved me in a certain direction with particular insights that were not known or thought of before reading a particular novel. Perhaps it takes a certain temperament, but many I know would not care, have not changed at all. They have remained in the same place for decades, certain in their views. It sounds troubling. Such persons are closed, walled off from human experiences. Fear and complacency go together. People are tired; people are stressed; people are depleted. People are bored.

Perhaps I could suggest that they should read more good literary fiction. Great literary fiction that stirs the heart and mind. It can make you understand thousands of different persons, who are unlike you, but at the same time very much like you. There is a shared common humanity, if you are looking for it. That being said, I agree, up to a point; a novel can move individuals, singular people—joined with others—into doing good and making sacrificial offers for humanity, for others.

Cole, an American born to Nigerian parents, writes about a current example of such persons taking personal risks and defying the laws of the land:
A young woman from Bonn named Pia Klemp is currently facing a long-drawn-out legal battle in Italy. Klemp, a former marine biologist, is accused of rescuing people in the Mediterranean in 2017. If the case comes to trial, as seems likely, she and nine others in the humanitarian group she works with face enormous fines or even up to twenty years in prison for aiding illegal immigration. (Klemp’s plight is strikingly similar to that of another young German woman, Carola Rackete, who was arrested in Italy this week for captaining another rescue boat.) Klemp is unrepentant. She knows that the law is not the highest calling. As captain of a converted fishing boat named Iuventa, she had rescued endangered vessels carrying migrants that had been launched from Libya. The precious human lives were ferried over to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The question Klemp and her colleagues pose is this: Do we believe that the people on those endangered boats on the Mediterranean are human in precisely the same way we are human?
Cruelty is the adversary of love. I would think that the answer is as clear as clear as can be, and we ought to applaud their efforts to save human lives. But not for everyone; not everyone thinks as I do, even when I think they should, because this is clearly a moral cause. And, yet, there are many cases of people acting morally without having read any literary fiction. They acted as they did, because they were likely taught at a young age that no human is superior to another. When this is stripped of politics, we can more easily see each human as a human being.

That each life, in the end, does matter. This might sound strange in this day and age, when differences are highlighted and politically exploited; when nations tightly control their borders; and when the wealthy live in grand gated communities and in large exclusive condos; and the poor, many immigrants or newcomers, if they are lucky, crowded in shabby subsidized housing and in rundown low-rent units. Such is the way it is; cruelty is the adversary of love.

In love, sometimes we have to carry others; sometimes others have to carry us.

For more, go to [New York Review of Books].