On October 25, 2023, Dr. Ivana Hughes, NAPF President and Senior Lecturer at Columbia University, joined other Columbia Professors Carol Gluck (History), Heather Radke (School of the Arts and Radiolab), and Michael Gerrard (Law School), to discuss questions of ethics in science, history, storytelling, and energy policy through the lens of the film Oppenheimer.
The Moral Compass
Ivana introduced the profound ethical and moral challenges that surround nuclear weapons, highlighting I.I. Rabi’s pivotal role in Oppenheimer (and in reality!) in opposing them from even before their development. Rabi, a figure sometimes overshadowed in the annals of history, emerged as a steadfast critic of nuclear weapons from the earliest days of the Manhattan Project. During their formative years, Rabi and J. Robert Oppenheimer, as young students students in Europe, developed a deep friendship that would last to the end of Robert’s life. Rabi’s powerful declaration, “I don’t want three hundred years of physics to culminate in the making of a bomb,” encapsulates the moral complexity inherent in nuclear technology. Ivana spoke of three findings that would come long after Rabi called hydrogen bombs “weapons of genocide,” namely disproportionate effects of radiation on women and girls (based on data on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), long-term radiological contamination in former nuclear testing stites (Marshall Island), and nuclear winter.
The Nuclear Winter and the Global Impact
The ominous concept of a nuclear winter, as examined by many experts, casts a shadow over any discussion of nuclear warfare. Scientists have long warned of the catastrophic global consequences of a nuclear conflict, including large fires and the abundant release of soot, which would engulf the atmosphere, causing dramatic drops in global temperatures and drastic reductions in food availability worldwide. This stark potential underscores the immediate need to address the nuclear threat through international agreements such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
Interpreting the Nuclear Narrative: Contrasting Perspectives on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Carol Gluck, Professor of History, explained the intricate narratives surrounding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shedding light on the disparities in interpretation. In the Japanese narrative, these bombings are not depicted as the conclusive end of the war but as the dawn of an era of peace. In stark contrast, the American narrative often portrays the atomic bombs as causing the end of the war and saving American lives. This disparity underscores the complexity of public attitudes toward nuclear weapons, providing insight into the many historical interpretations of a pivotal event.