Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Trinity

Sixty-three years ago today, the US tested the first atomic weapon. The device was a plutonium bomb, very much like the one that would be dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9 of the same year. This isn't one of those round-number anniversaries that usually prompts people to think about where we've come from and what this means for us now, but it does raise for me a few questions about nuclear technologies. Does their pedigree, having begun as weapons of mass destruction, make them ethically unsuitable for practical or peaceful purposes? Does the danger of their potential use or misuse outweigh their benefits? Who should get to decide who uses nuclear material for what purposes?
I've posted here the admittedly dry account of the Trinity explosion by physicist Luiz Alvarez, who was observing the test from a B-29. While not hugely interesting in and of itself, it illustrates how easy it can be to get information directly from the original source. A good source also allows us to understand its own bias.
Politics is perennially guilty of putting human-made "truths" ahead of objective facts. Likewise, many people and groups seem to work to recast history in their own image, selectively highlighting and suppressing events, memories, and outcomes in an attempt to legitimize their present situation and aims. People repeat these half-truths, these convenient omissions, Convincing Numerical Factoids, glimmering generalities, and the flat-out lies until they become their own truth. In most cases, we don't know where they came from and we don't care, because they support the conclusion that we started with. Instead of wandering like so many sheep, shouldn't we get as much information as possible directly from the source? Shouldn't we question the objectivity and authority our sources?

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration; ARC Identifier 594933

18 comments:

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Final answer? Yes.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Smart arse.

Chris Crawford said...

Does their pedigree, having begun as weapons of mass destruction, make them ethically unsuitable for practical or peaceful purposes?

No. Military technology has been a bounteous source of peaceful applications, from Archimedes' lever to radar to missiles.

Does the danger of their potential use or misuse outweigh their benefits?

Tough to answer. It has proven very difficult to insure that peaceful uses of nuclear power and military uses are kept separate. In fact, the way the Non-Proliferation Treaty was written, it was technically impossible to do so.

Who should get to decide who uses nuclear material for what purposes?

Well, that was what NPT was supposed to do, but it didn't work out.

Sue said...

erd, as a sociologists I have been trained to view all truths as human made, all "facts" as socially constructed, because all science is socially constructed. All scales and measurements are socially constructed; all rules for how to apply scales and measurements are socially constructed.

On the one hand there is a material reality that affects us and constrains or actions regardless of intentions and efforts. On the other hand, there is no way for us to know about or understand that external material reality without the use of socially constructed tools (language, mathematics, science, religion, art, etc.). My eyes may look out upon a material world that is independent of my existence and of my society, but for me to process what my eyes look at -- to "see" -- I have to make sense of things and that requires language, and language is entirely a social construction. The language one speaks, the culture one belongs to causes the material world to be mentally processed in a certain way. There is extraordinary variation in the ways in which human societies do and have processed that external input and made sense of it.

While I happen to find the rules of modern science convincing, and tend to trust that the findings of modern science are useful for making sense of and predicting events in material reality, that does not mean that I don't think that science is an appropriate guide for everything. After all science is what gave us atomic weapons.

Much depends upon what the issue is whether science or religion or philosophy or even art is the best means by which "truth" should be approached.

Some issues deal with how to use the material world to achieve a certain end. Or to predict potential or future states of the material world. For these science may be the best tool. Other issues concern the social world or the spiritual world or the emotional world, other approaches make more sense. Science is of little value in deciding moral issues. Figuring out how to build a bomb is science, figuring out whether to build it (and even more importantly whether to use it) is a moral issue, one for which science provides little guidance.

I am reminded of a painting called "Mortal Sin: The Confessions of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by the great American figurative painter, Jerome Witkin (who I had the privilege of meeting and conversing with for many hours) -- which shows Oppenheimer kneeling in confession on the bones of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki dead.

Chris Crawford said...

Sue, I'll argue a stronger version of your position:

...to predict potential or future states of the material world. For these science may be the best tool.

I'll say that science is DEFINITELY the best tool for predicting future states of the physical world. It may not be able to give good answers in some cases, but whatever answers it gives beat all heck out of alternative means of prediction.

Science is of little value in deciding moral issues.

Again, I'll take the strong position: science is of ZERO value in deciding moral issues.

BTW, on the matter of Oppenheimer: he paid with his career for his moral reservations about nuclear weaponry. He believed strongly in its value against Hitler, when they were building it. But as the Cold War deepened and Teller started pushing the H-bomb, Oppenheimer opposed Teller, who in turn maneuvered successfuly to get Oppenheimer kicked out. That's a quick and very dirty shortening of a complicated tale.

As far as social construction goes, I'll refer you to some interesting studies on color perception in different languages. The linguistic categories really do seem to affect people's perceptions of color.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris Crawford,
Thank you for reading and commenting. With respect to the issue of pedigree, does the perception of some people and groups that nuclear = weapons create a political barrier against civil uses?

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
I agree with you to a point about social constructs. It's important to understand sources of bias, because when we communicate there's no way to avoid them. However, I think it's easy to carry this idea too far, into the realm of relativism or the excesses of the Science Wars. At a point, there are natural phenomena that do what they do, whether they are described in a social context or not. And while constructs like language and mathematics are quite useful (if not necessary) for a detailed understanding of nature, rudimentary understanding can occur without them.
I think you're spot-on about using various paradigms and systems of belief in appropriate contexts, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Neither the rational perspective nor the pararational perspective is universal.

Sue said...

erd,

I'm not sure you understand what chris crawford and I are saying about the social construction of reality. We aren't talking about "sources of bias" in the conventional sense. We are talking about the fact that no human anywhere knows anything with out the use of their own culture. All human thinking and process of sensation and information must occur through language or other symbolic cultural constructs like mathematics. You are simply incorrect, it is not possible for humans to "know" anything without some form of symbol to process the input from the outside world. It is certainly possible to live and survive in the world (as all other plant and animal species do) without symbols. But it is not possible to know the world without symbols.

This in no way denies that there is an objective physical world out there that has objective consequences -- gravity exists and works no matter what symbols we use to explain, quantify or comprehend it. The point is that all human attempts to observe, measure, explain, and understand the "world out there" are dependent upon cultural symbols, especially language. Chris pointed to some research (of which I am well aware) that demonstrates that even with some thing as basic as "color" there are huge differences, based on language and cultural categories, in which humans recognize, process, categorize and "know" color.

This is not about "cultural relativism." Not all cultural constructions, symbols, ways of making sense of the world are equally valid. The ultimate test is the survival of societies and cultures -- because there is a real, material world out there, that human cultures must deal with for survival, and there are other human societies that must be related to and dealt with for survival as well.

Human cultures can get along quite well, surviving for hundreds or even thousands of years (like the Inuit) with sets of cultural believes and symbolic categories that seem like nonsense to so called civilized people. Their cultural symbols and ways of understanding the world worked for them for longer than our society and cultural symbols have worked for us, until the social nature of their world changed (encroachment by modern people with modern technology).

There can be more than one way to construct reality, but not all ways of constructing reality stand up to the one test that matters - societal and human survival.

Chris Crawford said...

Sue, let me toss this into the discussion of social construction of ideas: are you familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? It was never formally articulated, and so there are different flavors of it. The strong version of it declares that language controls thought -- and that has been roundly trashed. The weak version of it declares that language and thought are intertwined. The significant observation here is that the destruction of the strong version demonstrates that there are thought processes that are not affected by the socially constructed language.

Sue said...

Chris, indeed I am. Learning about the Linguistic-relativity hypothesis back in '70 was probably one of the things that helped daw me into a sociology/anthropology major. I was trying to find my volumes by E. Sapir and B. L. Whorf before responding, but my husband appears to have sucked them into his library, and he's busy grading papers (like I should be) so I don't want to disturb him yet again. I do remember seeing that some one had tested the "hard" version of the hypothesis and found it wanting. I'd love a reference if you have one.

I would say that I find the "soft" version more appealing in any case, which may not be apparent given my previous comment. It is possible to experience the world non-symbolically. [My concern here is that most people are utterly unaware of the overwhelming extent to which their everyday life experience is driven by symbolic thought]. For example, the goal of most meditative practice (I'm married to a Buddhist) is to do just that, shut off the symbolic processing and just be in the world. However, that experience cannot easily be replayed mentally, or communicated to others without symbols. This is why Buddhist teachers emphasize 'practice' -- you have to do it to experience it, it cannot be adequately described or explained. Obviously, meditative experience has impacts beyond the meditative state -- e.g., my husband is soooo much easier to live with when he meditates. Everyone has experiences that "transcend words" and we can remember that we had such an experience, but we have difficulty mentally recapturing or replaying that experience or even greater difficulty communicating it to others, when we do not have the symbols with which to do so.

What makes me "soft" (the influence of language and experience is two-way) rather than "hard" is that I think when humans do bump up against these experiences that are not encompassed by existing symbols and language, we have the capacity to create new symbols.

Sue said...

Oh yes, to Chris Crawford -- let me suggest a counter reference: Alfred Schutz and Thomas Luckmann The Structures of the Life-World.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
I've watched a border collie at my local dog park observe his owner throwing a ball with a lever, and then charge across a long distance to almost the exact point the ball will land. He doesn't watch the ball in flight. He sees the direction and amount of force applied to it and extrapolates its ultimate position.
I call the trajectory a parabola. If I had a stop watch and a measuring wheel, I could calculate the instantaneous force, the apex, the angle at time of launch, etc. Or, knowing those data (and the bearing) I could calculate where the ball will land. All of that is burdened with cultural constructs.
Pooch understands basic mechanics well enough to apply them for his own benefit. Crows observe the properties of materials and make tools. Squirrels develop work-arounds to get into bird feeders. A friend of mine has followed muley deer for miles on meandering routes to places the animals know water is available. They learn and know without any language or math. (OK, pooch knows he's a "good boy" for bringing the ball back, but his owner didn't teach him how to find a derivative.)
Social constructs are pervasive in human thinking, and it's certainly impossible to communicate without them, but I disagree that humans are incapable of this type of psychology. Unfortunately, I don't see any way to prove my feelings that could get past any IRB.
Perhaps we're simply defining "know" and/or "symbol" differently.

Sue said...

Good questions, erd, and a good example to work with to try to better explain what I’m getting at.

You said: “a border collie at my local dog park observe his owner throwing a ball with a lever, and then charge across a long distance to almost the exact point the ball will land. He doesn't watch the ball in flight. He sees the direction and amount of force applied to it and extrapolates its ultimate position. I call the trajectory a parabola. If I had a stop watch and a measuring wheel, I could calculate the instantaneous force, the apex, the angle at time of launch, etc. Or, knowing those data (and the bearing) I could calculate where the ball will land. All of that is burdened with cultural constructs.
Pooch understands basic mechanics well enough to apply them for his own benefit.”

How does the dog do what he/she does? The dog comes equipped with certain genetically encoded abilities that were essential to survival as a hunting and later herding animal. Both hunters and herders need to be able to intercept targets while running full out (and therefore not being able to watch the target). The essential instructions for how be in the right place at the right time are coded into dogs DNA through natural selection first, and then deliberate breeding by humans, and not all breeds of dog have this unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time. Of course those with the basic genetic coding still need some training and practice to get it right time after time. The dogs’ skill is very specific to certain situations and certain objects, and dogs’ skill is restricted only to situations that are immediately present – right now and visible to them, because the dogs ability is based on task specific genetic codes. The dog’s behavior does not depend upon comprehension of concepts like “trajectory,” “force,” and “angle” and the dog cannot generalize to other activities (such as figuring out where a bullet is going to go from a gun, or a rocket is going to go from a launch pad) that involve the exact same principles. Far more importantly, because they lack symbolic thought they cannot imagine that there is a machine somewhere out of sight beyond the horizon that is going to lob an explosive shell at them and figure out where it might land (and get out of the way); dogs have to see the initiation of the throw humans only have to conceptualize or imagine it).

Humans also have the capacity to learn through practice and experience much like the dog, how to be in the right place to catch the baseball or Frisbee, and this does not necessarily require any use of symbols. Samll children who have not yet learned to talk learn to catch a tossed toy. Watching the dog, you can see where the ball or Frisbee is going to land, without bothering with formulas. However, because we don’t share the same type of genetic coding with the dog, the percentage of humans who can actually CATCH the ball or Frisbee unerringly after a small amount of practice is extremely small compared to the percentage of dogs who can do this (one reason why good baseball players get paid so much). What really makes the difference between the human and the dog is that through the use of symbols (words and/or mathematical formulas) humans can figure out where the ball/frisbie will land, even if we are not nimble enough to be there to catch it. But more importantly we can apply the concepts (even without formal training, because our minds are genetically predisposed to abstraction and symbolization) to new and unique situations. We can learn to play ball, and we can also plan Mars landings months and years in advance, under circumstance where it is impossible to see anything that is happening. We can (unfortunately) use the same principles to accurate aim cannons and intercontinental ballistic missiles at folks we can’t even see, and anticipate where their cannon balls and rockets will hit us.

Dogs have biologically coded abilities that are activated by practice and experience and can reproduce those abilities under specific circumstances; humans have biologically coded abilities to use symbols that allow us to imagine things that have never happened before and figure out how to do them. Humans can mentally conceptualize totally novel things, express those events in words, diagrams and mathematics (three kinds of symbols), and then execute (and coordinate with others that they may never meet face to face) an activity that works properly the very first time that unique activity is tried. We also have the capacity to learn from things we never seen, things done by other people, both their successes and their failures. Dog can only learn from his/her own direct experience.

Hope this helps.

Sue said...

Bear with me, I thought of another way in which the human and dog are different that helps to illustrate what I mean about symbols and thinking.

When a human throw a ball for a dog to fetch, the dog does not move into position to receive the throw until the ball is visible in the humans hand. While the ball is still in the humans pocket or backpack the dog is doing something else. Then the dog must wait until the ball is actually released from the hand before heading in the right direction to intercept it.

By comparison, take a good major league outfielder, begins preparing to be in place to receive the ball as soon a new batter steps to the plate. The outfielders shift their position based on knowledge of whether the hitter bats right handed or left handed, and based on their knowledge of that hitters past patterns (knowledge the fielder can acquire without ever having actually been present when this player batted). Humans can anticipate ahead of action because we mentally (symbolically) think about what is going to happen before it does.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Reasoning vs conditioning.
Human vs dog.

That's why PETA or HSUS just don't get it.

Chris Crawford said...

Sue, I have difficulty accepting the proposition that any kind of symbolic thinking is involved when I throw or catch a frisbee. This kind of thing was the basis for rejecting the strong form of Sapir-Whorf.

Sue said...

Yeah, I think that symbols and symbolic thought are absolutely essential to playing frisbie.
Let's begin with the fact that when an object comes whizzing towards your head you don't duck! :) You have to identify the flying object (he,he) as a toy or game, not a weapon or other form of attack, or even a misguided hardball that might break a finger. That process of identification is a cultural one, based on symbols.

I think we're going to have to agree to disagree, and retire this thread (if not the subject)! It's been fun. I'm thinking of picking up this thought on Sociological Stew since I have been blogging about other aspects of the social construction of reality recently.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd would you find it appropriate for the population of peoples to decide a course of action such as nuclear power, or growth of military prowess. or do you find it more comforting of a descision in the hands of leaders?