Why Einstein thought Nuclear Weapons Impossible
You often know Albert Einstein. He was the one who gave us the theory of relativity. Many of the elders of science call him the unmatched genius and the world’s largest scientist. Many of Einstein’s ideas and studies have brought about major changes in the world of science progression and have brought lasting effects . His service is praiseworthy in science. But, unlike now, we’re going to look at Einstein from another perspective.
“The New York Times”, 1946
The cruelty of Einstein’s fate lies in the fact that history forever linked his image with a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb explosion. The story of his participation in the creation of these weapons and his further struggle for arms control is nothing more than an instructive parable of our days.
The invention of the bomb is rooted in the most famous formula of Einstein:
E = mc 2
According to this particular equation, if the nucleus of an atom is split, a huge amount of (potentially destructive) energy can be released. In 1938, the news reached Einstein that Otto Gan and Fritz Strassmann in Berlin had succeeded in such an experiment. Einstein considered this achievement almost impossible three years ago, stating: “It’s like trying to shoot partridges in total darkness, where there are only a few.” But even now, having learned about the success of the experiment in his Princeton office, he did not attach too much importance to this news.
However, in the summer of 1939, after the start of the Second World War, Leo Sillard, a longtime colleague from Hungary, came to him. Recently, Leo worked on the decay of uranium and found that this element can be used in creating weapons of indescribable destructive power. Most of all, he feared that Germany could begin a large-scale purchase of uranium in the Belgian Congo, and hoped that Einstein could prevent this by warning the Queen of Belgium about this. However, by mature reflection, they decided that it would be more appropriate to send a warning letter to US President Franklin Roosevelt. A letter dated August 2, 1939, drawn up by Silard and signed by Einstein, began:
Some of the recent works by Fermi and Silard, which were reported to me in a manuscript, lead me to expect that uranium can be turned into a new and important source of energy in the near future. Some aspects of the situation that arose seem to require vigilance and, if necessary, prompt action by the government. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.
In the course of the last four months it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America–that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable–though much less certain–that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove too heavy for transportation by air.
The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo.
In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust the task with a person who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an unofficial capacity. His task might comprise the following:
- a) to approach Government Departments, keep them informed of the further development, and put forward recommendations for Government action, giving particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of uranium ore for the United States.
I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsacker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.
- b) to speed up the experimental work, which is at present being carried on within the limits of the budgets of University laboratories, by providing funds, if such funds be required, through his contacts with private persons who are willing to make contributions for this cause, and perhaps also by obtaining co-operation of industrial laboratories which have necessary equipment.
Yours very truly,
Warned of the danger of the emergence of “exceptionally powerful new type bombs”, they continued:
In view of this, would you consider it desirable to establish permanent contact between the government and a group of physicists who are investigating the chain reaction problems in America?
The main “chain reaction” of this letter was established. The Roosevelt administration, pretty perplexed, entered into a correspondence with Einstein – and at the end of 1941 launched the Manhattan project. Under the leadership of Julius Oppenheimer, he crowned the creation of the atomic bomb, which was used twice at the end of World War II.
Einstein himself was not involved in this, except for a few secondary studies taken into account during the development. Moreover, he was not even officially informed about the existence of the project itself: the FBI director John Hoover presented an extremely vague report to the US government, in which Einstein was practically excluded from participation in the work for reasons of national security. But even if he had been invited, he would hardly have agreed to participate in what was so contrary to his life principles.
“The connection of my scientific work with the atomic bomb is very, very remote,” he assured the son of Hans Albert in a letter from 1945.
However, already in 1944, he knew that the bomb was about to be created. In the full conviction that the authorities are losing control of the situation, he began with a new force to promote his idea of creating a world government and to call on his colleagues to participate in the campaign on international arms control. In 1945, when his secretary, Helen Dukas, told him that the United States had dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, he said only one thing in reply: “Lord God …” The second bomb incinerated Nagasaki several days later.
Einstein reacted instantly to this tragedy – in the coming days, the world heard his call for international rallying against a new danger threatening all of humanity. At the end of the same year, at the next Nobel anniversary in the New York Hotel Astoria, he made almost the greatest speech in his life. In it, he drew a parallel between the scientists who created the atomic bomb and Alfred Nobel, who established his famous prize in an attempt to clear the conscience after the invention of dynamite. And in extremely dark tones described the delicate balance into which humanity drives itself:
War is won, but not peace. The great powers, united in battle, try to settle in different ways in peacetime. They promised to free the planet from fear – but in reality, fear only grew at the end of this war.
There is no doubt: Einstein felt guilty even for indirect participation in the creation of such a terrible weapon. In November 1954, he admitted: “In my life I made one big mistake – I signed a letter to President Roosevelt with a proposal to create an atomic bomb.” Justifying this act, probably, only one thing: the thought that Hitler would receive such a bomb frightened him even more. In fact, the development of Germany in the nuclear field at that time was very ridiculous. And this is not surprising, considering that as a result of its anti-Semitic policy, fourteen Nobel laureates and almost half of the theoretical physicists who inhabited it left the country. “If I’m sure that Germany is not able to develop an atomic bomb,” Einstein admitted to Newsweek magazine in 1947, “I wouldn’t lift a finger to sign that letter.”
He saw particular danger in the fact that after the war mankind would become complacent. “As long as independent states have weapons and secrets connected with it, the next world wars are inevitable,” he said at a press conference in 1945. And in a letter to the Emergency Committee of Nuclear Scientists in 1946, he wrote: “The released energy of the atomic bomb changed everything except our model of consciousness, which is why we quietly slip into an unprecedented disaster. This committee itself was established by Einstein to promote the idea that the energy of the atom is used exclusively for peaceful purposes.
He weakly believed that the newly established United Nations would keep all its members under control, and fiercely argued with supporters of unilateral disarmament, believing that only those who really wanted to arm would benefit from such a policy. And the alignment of rivals in the coming cold war only added him pessimism. In February 1951, he spoke on the NBC television channel in the program “Today with Mrs. Roosevelt” (which was held by the wife of the former president) on the arms race. “Our every step is the inevitable result of the previous step,” he said. “And it’s already more obvious than ever that all these steps lead to total self-destruction.”
Still, pessimism in his soul never eclipsed last hope. A few days before his death, he signed a document, now known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. This great text, the brainchild of the British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, highlighted the main dangers facing the world in the nuclear age. He formed the basis of the Pugwash movement of scientists for peace established two years later and uniting scientific and public figures of the planet to discuss the most important problems of world security. Perhaps the most famous quotation from this manifesto are the words: “Remember that you are a man, and forget about everything else.”
A devoted fan of Einstein, Russell wrote about him ten years later:
Einstein was not only a great scientist, but also a great man. He defended peace on a planet that was slipping into war. He remained in his right mind among the insane – and a freedom fighter among fanatics.