Monday, October 17, 2005

Doctors Atomic

I went to see the new John Adams/Peter Sellars opera Doctor Atomic about Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos, and the Trinity test. Review to follow. At the same time (more or less) I was reading this depressing article about A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and purveyor to the trade.

Put these two figures side-by-side and what does it reveal? Well, Oppenheimer is by far the more attractive figure, an incredibly intelligent, dynamic, and cultured guy, as opposed to the egotistical and sleazy Khan (or maybe he just had better press agents). Both served their country as they felt called to do, both ended up more-or-less disgraced. Oppenheimer's bomb was used on population centers; Khan's hasn't yet, but it may be only a matter of time.

Aside from the character of the chief scientists, what's interesting to me is the networks of people, technology, money, and resources that went into the respective bomb projects. The Manhattan Project was an incredible mobilization of resources, involving some $25 billion dollars (in today's money) and tens of thousands of people including many of the best scientists of the time. The Pakistani bomb was assembled by a fourth-rate power through an international network of shady deals and borrowed expertise. although it certainly wasn't trivial to do (a good thing).

I've noticed for a while that it takes big concentrations of power to achieve serious technological breakthroughs (in practice, this means governments or monoplistic corporations like the pre-breakup AT&T). The Internet, that paradigm of decentralized power, was only built the way it was due to the resources and oversight of the military. Once the big breakthrough is achieved though, smaller actors and networks can take over the results and repurpose it. That's happened with the Internet, and it happened with nuclear weapons technology.

Until just now, I always thought that this was an argument for concentration of power, which I grudgingly accepted despite my leftist leanings. But maybe it's an argument against. A decentralized society might not have made the internet but they wouldn't have made thermonuclear weapons either.

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