Professor Lawrence M Krauss graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me on his thoughts about some things Robert Oppenheimer wrote. Here are the first few. I hope to get a couple more out of him but we shall see. I am very grateful he took time out of his busy schedule to indulge me.
In an Address to the American Philosophical Society Oppenheimer talked about what they learned in the scientific studies at Los Alamos and why he cannot tell them the story of how they made the atomic bombs.“It would be a pleasure to tell you a little about it. It would be a pleasure to help you to share our pride in the adequacy and the soundness of the physical science of our common heritage that went into this weapon that proved itself last summer in the New Mexico desert.”“That would not be a dull story, but it is not one that I can tell today. It would be too dangerous to tell that story. That is what the President, on behalf of the people of the United States , has told us. That is what many of us, where we forced ourselves to make the decision, might well conclude. What has come upon us, that the insight, the knowledge, the power of physical science, that the cultivation of which, to the learning and teaching of which we are dedicated, has become too dangerous to be talked of, even in these halls. It is that question that faces us now, that goes to the root of what science is, of what its value is. It is to that question to which tentatively, partially and with a profound sense of its difficulty and my own inadequacy I must try to speak today. “In his book The Flying Trapeze, in the third lecture ‘War and the Nations’ he says;“It may seem wrong to speak of this as an experience of physicists. It certainly is not an intellectual challenge like that out of which the theory of relativity was born or that which gave rise to the solution of the paradoxes of wave-particle duality and than quantum theory. I doubt if there is a certain specific right idea to be had in the field of how to remake the world to live with the armaments and to live with our other commitments and our other hopes. But is true that we have been marked by our deep implication in this development, by the obvious fact that without physics it could not have happened, and by the heavy weight which has been laid on so many members of this community in counseling their government, in speaking publicly and in trying above all in the early phases to find a healthy direction. I do not think that even our young colleagues, tearing away at the new unsolved problems of fundamental physics, are as free of preoccupation for their relation to the good life and the good society, as we were, long ago, when we were their age.”Oppie was outspoken about his views on the free exchange of ideas, knowledge and scientific discovery. As you know this was his downfall.
- After he was accused of being a threat to national security, had his reputation and his career destroyed, do you think what happened to him had any affect on the scientific community in a way that hindered scientific progress, even if just for a short period of time?
- Do you think what happened to Oppie caused scientists to feel reluctant to have a free exchange of ideas or did it strengthen their cause for it?
“As I say above, I think Oppie was unique, so what happened to him probably didn’t generalize. “
- Do you agree with Oppenheimer’s views on free exchange of ideas?
“The development of nuclear weapons changed many things, and changed the sense that scientists had of their relationship to society. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose board of sponsors I chair (following in Oppie’s footsteps in that regard) is based on the fact that the scientific community felt a new responsibility to discuss the dangers of nuclear war with the public, to inform their views for future actions. I think that responsibility still persists. Beyond that, the free exchange of ideas is essential for the progress of science. “
- Do you ever worry about losing the freedom of speech you have on the university stage, about losing research funding or tenure for your outspoken views on politics and religion or for your atheism due to political pressure, pressure from religious institutions or the religious community?
“I don’t really worry about this. I am happily pretty insulated from this, and more or less protected by the University, which supports my right to free speech. I know that there are various institutional positions I might otherwise have if I didn’t speak out as I do, but I am probably happy not to have them.”
In Science and the Common Understanding he writes;“Transience is the back-drop for the play of human progress, for the improvement of man, the growth of his knowledge, the increase of his power, his corruption, and his partial redemption. Our word, the heroic act fade into a memory of memory, and in the end are gone. The day will come when our race is gone; this house, this earth in which we live will one day be unfit for human habitation, as the sun ages and alters. Yet no man, be he agnostic or Buddhist or Christian, thinks wholly in these terms. His acts his thoughts, what he sees of the world around him – the falling of a leaf or a child’s joke or the rise of the moon – are part of history; they are a part of becoming and of process, but not only that; they partake also of the world outside of time; they partake of the light of eternity.These two ways of thinking, the way of time and history and the way of eternity and of timelessness, are both part of man’s effort to comprehend the world in which he lives. Neither is comprehended in the other nor reducible to it. They are, as we have learned to say in physics, complementary views, each supplementing the other, neither telling the whole story. Let us return to this.Could you give me your thoughts on this?
“I don’t have strong thoughts on this.. Our time in the Universe is no doubt temporary, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking about the future, even a possibly eternal future for the universe..”