Friday, March 08, 2013

WWHD? (What would Harry do?)

I have been reading David McCullough's massive Pulitzer-prizewinning biography of Harry Truman. The first third, about the future president's childhood and young adulthood in western Missouri is a bit of a slog. Not much excitement; not much that would hint at future greatness, a story not of big events but of character, family, earthy virtues. Harry, the farmer; Harry the soldier with thick eyeglasses, who discovers he is braver than he thought he was; Harry, the failed haberdasher.

Then, in the middle third of the book, two great currents combine into a tsunami of historic proportions: one scientific, one political. A bunch of brilliant geeks figure out how to harness the power of E=mc2; and a couple of psychopaths have designs on ruling the world.

Through a large measure of happenstance, Truman finds himself at the focus where these two great currents come together. He is nearly overwhelmed by the force of events, but grit, humility and common sense triumph over looming Armageddon.

This is the period when I came of age, in the sense of being aware and reflective on the course of human events. Growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we knew something dramatic was going on at Oak Ridge, but had no idea what (that’s a bit of the story Dan and I tell in Chattanooga). The news of the atomic bomb was the defining punctuation of my childhood.

My first school science project was a model of the atom, made with wires and colored beads. Then for years I and my schoolmates lived under the terrible shadow of that model and what it represented –- the moral ambivalence of knowledge.

McCullough, of course, gives due attention to the debates over using the bomb on Japanese cities. He recounts a poignant episode after the war when Robert Oppenheimer ("the father of the bomb") came to see Truman at the White House, agitated that he –- Oppenheimer -- had blood on his hands because of his work on the bomb. Truman found the physicist's self-pitying "cry-baby" attitude abhorrent. "The blood is on my hands," he told Oppenheimer. "Let me worry about that." He hoped he would never see the man again. Later, however, when other voices argued for the use of atomic weapons in the Korean conflict, Truman held firm against and set a precedent that endured.

All knowledge has potential use for good or evil. The only application I am aware of for my doctoral thesis research –- this long after the fact –- had something to do with making missiles less vulnerable to defense. Did my four happy years in the university physics lab serve for nothing but killing a few women and children in some faraway land? I don't know. I do believe that knowledge is better than ignorance. I'm glad I didn't have to confront any moral dilemmas while I was gleefully ensconced in that dark lab elucidating the reflective properties of molybdenum films.