MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIV No. 1
September / October 2011
Political Climate Change Threatens
Scientific Endeavors
Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle:
MIT Faculty and Nuclear Disarmament
Rise of the Rest, Fall of the Best?
Innovations in Communication Instruction at MIT: Celebrating Ten Years of the Communication Requirement (CR)
HASS Exploration Program:
Entering Phase Two
Faculty Fallout
A Letter to President Hockfield
MIT Ranked 3rd in the World, 5th in the U.S.?
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
MISTI Expands Faculty Seed Funds and Launches New MIT-Chile Program
College Admissions 101
Request for Preliminary Proposals for
Innovative Curricular Projects
Nominate a Colleague for the
MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program
Commenting on “Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion”
U.S. News & World Report: Best College Rankings for Nartional Universities, 2003-2012
Printable Version

Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle:
MIT Faculty and Nuclear Disarmament

Kosta Tsipis

On May 4 of this year, the MIT Faculty Newsletter, the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT, the Program in Science, Technology and Society, and the MIT Physics Department sponsored a forum entitled: “Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle: MIT Faculty and Nuclear Arms Reduction.” Following is a transcription of the presentation given by Dr. Kosta Tsipis, long-time MIT Research Associate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Let me start with an anecdote that encapsulates the debate about the utility of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. In 1991, Mr. Gorbachev organized a huge nuclear arms control conference in Moscow and part of that was a reception at the Kremlin. Everybody who was anybody was there: Mr. Gorbachev, Jerry Wiesner (the science advisor to Kennedy, and then president of MIT), Sakharov (the physicist who developed the hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union), and several others.

Gorbachev was telling Wiesner, “You know we need 3,000 nuclear weapons because otherwise we will not know whether we will have enough to deter you.” Jerry said “Excuse me, may I ask you a question?” and Gorbachev said yes. “Suppose you attack us first and you eliminate all our nuclear weapons except 50. Would you give up Moscow for that?” Gorbachev says no. “Would you give up Leningrad?” No. “Would you give up Kiev?” No. Would you give up Vladivostok? No. “How many does that make?” asks Jerry. Gorbachev sheepishly said “ten?” “So you see,” said Jerry, “you don’t need 3,000.” Gorbachev turns to Sakharov and says “Why are you telling me 3,000? – Ten, that’s what you really need!”

Sakharov went through the usual litany of not having enough to deter the U.S. after a U.S. first strike. And even though we knew that China had only two hundred ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) with nuclear weapons, we also subscribed to Sakharov’s argument, and kept accumulating nuclear weapons for forty years.

So now let me go back to relating the role of MIT physicists in nuclear arms control over the years. What I have to say is very personal, therefore you have to excuse my errors and omissions for two reasons: Number one, I came to MIT in 1966, therefore I do not know what happened before, which apparently was very important. Number two, I’m an old man; I forget. So if I have forgotten instances and people’s names and so on, I hope you’ll excuse me.

So I came here in 1966 to work with Martin Deutsch on particle physics and I was assigned an office in Building 26 that was right next to Bernie Feld’s. Bernie was one of the four physicists who came to MIT from Los Alamos: Bernie, Vicky Weisskopf, Phil Morrison, and Cyril Smith. Since Bernie’s office was right next to mine, I would see him going back and forth to Europe and Washington and to nuclear arms control conferences, and one day I walked in and said “Professor Feld, I would like really to do what you are doing in terms of nuclear arms control. What should I do?” He looked up from his cluttered desk and said, “You work.”

So I started working, analyzing the technical and operational aspects of weapons like strategic cruise missiles, and MIRVs (Multiple Independently-Targeted Re-entry Vehicles) and submarine-launched long-range nuclear missiles, and informed the public, the opinion-makers and the decision-makers, about nuclear weapons, their uses and their effects.

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But long before that, members of the MIT community had already contributed substantively to nuclear arms control. At the very beginning, in 1945, Phil helped organize the “Federation of Atomic Scientists” (which quickly became the “Federation of American Scientists”) and then became its president for several years. At that time Bernie joined the Board of the “Council for a Livable World,” an influential group promoting nuclear arms control in Washington, and also the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and later its editor for many years.

In 1963, Jerry Wiesner walked into Kennedy’s office in Washington on a rainy morning and said to him: “Do you see that rain falling outside the White House? That rain is bringing down radioactive material from above ground nuclear tests and it is exposing to radioactive fallout everybody from Nevada to New York. You must do something about that.” And Kennedy said, “What should we do?” and Jerry said, “We have to forbid above ground nuclear tests.”

So Kennedy got together with the Russians and indeed about two weeks before he was assassinated, signed an agreement not to have above ground tests anymore, which was enormously important. If you look at The New York Times (May 3, 2011) there was an article which showed how much radioactivity was dropped on the United States because of our and the Russians’ above ground nuclear tests. Since the 1960s we never had again such big radioactive fallout anywhere as when we were testing weapons above ground.

So Jerry Wiesner was one of the first to contribute to nuclear arms control from MIT.

And then in 1964 there was an MIT professor of political science and electrical engineering by the name of Jack Ruina, who attended an annual Pugwash Conference in India. Pugwash conferences were the ones that Russell and Einstein started in 1957 to get scientists together to think how we’re going to avoid catastrophe, how we’re going to avoid nuclear holocaust. These conferences started in Pugwash, a small village in Nova Scotia, and occur every year. In 1964 it was held in India. There Jack Ruina presented a paper that explained why ABMs (anti-ballistic missile systems) would be a disaster if deployed. The Russians said what do you mean? It’s a defensive weapon! And he explained to them how if they develop a defense against ballistic missile, we would think that it’s perfect, so we’ll have to keep on building more and more ballistic missiles to counter it and if we do that then the Russians will build more and more and more ABMs. In 1964, Jack was the first one to say that in public. And eventually, of course, by ’71 or ’72 the agreement was made between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to do away with the ABM. We built a single such system in North Dakota to protect an ICBM field, but we never manned it. It was never in any way operational.

Then in 1969, we had a big demonstration here in Cambridge with MIT being the target – it had to do with the Draper Lab. The Draper Lab was completely devoted to the Air Force and everybody was complaining about what the Draper Lab was doing with the Air Force in Vietnam. So to protest the work at Draper Lab in that war – the students were very active at the time opposed to MIT dealing with weapons and war and at that point – Henry Kendall, among other people, (Scott Paradis, Francis Low, Leo Marx, Salve Luria) started the Union of Concerned Scientists, which played a major role in the years to come.

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Now between 1973 and 1977 I was Science Advisor, Science Director at SIPRI, the Swedish International Peace Research Institute. The reason I mention it is because there, in SIPRI, was an American administrative assistant by the name of Randy Forsberg. Randy came and said, “I’m very much interested in this kind of thing you guys are doing so I’d really like to come to MIT to get a PhD in arms control.” But I was in the Physics Department, and I couldn’t tell the Political Science Department what to do. But next year, George Rathjens, another professor in Political Science who was deeply involved in defense issues, went to SIPRI and convinced her to come.

So Randy [Forsberg] came in 1978 and, at that time, completely unrelated to her, George Kistiakowsky, (the legendary Harvard chemist who made the explosive lenses that made the plutonium bomb possible), Bernie Feld, and I would meet every Wednesday afternoon to discuss what the arms control community could do about this unbridled proliferation of nuclear weapons; and I don’t remember who said it, but someone said “How about proposing to freeze the number of weapons in both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. arsenals?” and we broke up.

Such ideas are a dozen a minute in academia, but they evaporate unless someone works to convert them to actions. At some point after our meeting, perhaps a few days later, I saw Randy in the corridor and told her about the freeze idea someone had mentioned at our meeting. Randy picked it up and she started this huge Freeze movement that culminated in half a million people in Washington and New York marching in favor of freezing the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal. She was really another very strong voice that came out of MIT since the Freeze was clearly her doing. We should never minimize what Randy has contributed to nuclear arms control even though, unfortunately, she died at a very early age.

Now people outside the Physics department, Jack Ruina, George Rathjens, and Bill Kaufman, even though they were Pentagon aficionados, fought against nuclear weapons and nuclear war, and they were also people who came from MIT.

In addition, you had the Biology Department; Maury Fox was member of the Council for a Livable World and he was very active. So was Salva Luria; so was Ethan Signer; so were David Baltimore who came the year I did, and Jon King. And in the Physics Department there were additional people like Leo Sartori who came and joined the group of arms controllers. In 1978, Herman Feshbach, Bernie Feld, and I started the “Program in Science and Technology for International Security” (PSTIS) in the Physics Department. About the same time Jack Ruina and George Rathjens started a similar program focusing on policy in the Center for International Studies. In PSTIS we trained a lot of students in nuclear arms control who are all now very prominent: Matt Bunn is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School, managing the Atom Project; Steve Fetter is now working with John Holdren in the White House; Joe Romm now has a strong Internet voice about both nuclear weapons and global warming.

We published a lot of stuff; the effects of nuclear attack on a city, laser weapons, particle beam weapons, we published 11 articles in Scientific American about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. But my pride and joy is that when Mr. Reagan announced Star Wars in 1983, I wrote an article in Playboy(!) in which I said that President Reagan knows little and understands less about physics and the laws of nature. PSTIS published the first article about anti-ballistic particle beam weapons in 1979, saying it’s not going to work. Then another one in 1981 saying ABM laser’ beam weapons could not work.

But anyway, an enormous amount of work was done at MIT: the Biology Department, Physics Department, the Center of International Studies, graduate students, undergraduates, post-doc scientists, mid-career physicists – it was really an assembly of dedicated scientists working against a global threat: nuclear war.

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But then many from MIT (Feld, Rathjens, Fox, Tsipis, Bernstein, et al.) became active in the “Council for a Livable World” that was started in 1962 by Szilard, as an anti-nuclear war lobby group in Washington focusing on Senatorial elections. Bernie was head of that for many years, and then George Rathjens became head. And then in addition was the participation of MIT scientists in Pugwash. There were lots of influential people in Pugwash that came from the MIT Political Science Department, from Science, Technology and Society, from Physics, from Biology. George Rathjens became Secretary General of Pugwash many years ago and he was there for 12 years. So there’s an enormous amount of nuclear arms control work that originated here at MIT but was conducted outside the Institute proper.

Then in ’79, the Boston Study Group put together “The Price of Defense,” a thorough analysis of the costs of the arms race, written mostly by MIT scientists: Randy Forsberg, Martin Moore, (Check Spelling) Phil Morrison, Paul Walker, Fred Kaplan – all graduates or undergraduate students, some professors. And then in 1984, Jack Dennis and many others (Feld, Morrison, Jon King, Tsipis) produced The Nuclear Almanac: everything you wanted to know about nuclear weapons and their potential uses. It is another book about nuclear weapons also from MIT.

And then in 1993, some of us thought, “Clinton is coming in, let’s go to Washington and tell him what to do.” So Phil Morrison, Jerry Wiesner, and I wrote a little book called Beyond the Looking Glass and we went to Washington and had a press conference outlining our proposals for the new Administration. We were assaulted by everybody saying how many nuclear weapons do we need, and we answered about 500, and we were just dismissed completely. Everybody expected us to say “zero.”

Finally at the very end, Phil and I wrote a book, Reason Enough to Hope, about what the United States should be like in the twenty-first century. It was Jerry’s proposal that he, Phil, and I work on it, but we lost him prematurely.

So this is a very brief history of what faculty and students did at MIT. And I think the most important people were Jerry, and Vicky, and Herman who said OK, nuclear arms control is an integral part of Physics and we’re going to keep it that way fifty years after the origin of nuclear weapons in Los Alamos. Thank you.

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