Nuclear Weapons Education Project
Nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to all of humanity by their very nature, and the recent tensions between the United States and North Korea have brought that threat back into the public eye. It is essential for young people, particularly those who grew up after the end of the Cold War, to be educated on what nuclear weapons are and on their potential effects on the world. The Nuclear Weapons Education Project at MIT aims to support this goal by helping professors and lecturers in various disciplines prepare a lecture or two, or selected course materials, involving nuclear weapons topics for their introductory-level courses, thus reaching large numbers of students. We believe that even a limited introduction to the issues surrounding nuclear weapons could help engage student interest in a topic that is unfortunately increasingly relevant to the young people of today.
The long-term objective of the Nuclear Weapons Education Project is to teach our students, who will become future policymakers, scientists, journalists, lawyers, and voting citizens, about the nature and importance of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons play a massive and complex role in national and global security. It is essential that colleges and universities take steps to prepare the next generations of policymakers and citizens for the tremendous task of protecting the United States – and the world – from ever enduring the unthinkable devastation of a nuclear war. One or two lectures on nuclear weapons is not enough to dive into the nuance and detail that these issues demand from a policy perspective, but we believe it is enough to plant the seeds of interest and urgency in the minds of students who are interested in facing challenging global problems. Further, we believe this would provide an opportunity to equip students with the foundational knowledge and informational resources to continue learning about these issues on their own.
With increasing effort over the last few years , the members of the Nuclear Weapons Education Project have been working to advance this initiative at MIT in several ways. We are working with the instructors of introductory physics classes to include materials relevant to nuclear weapons issues in problem sets and other assignments. Also, during IAP 2016, Prof. Bernstein co-taught a course on nuclear weapons with Prof. Jim Walsh of MIT’s Security Studies Program (Department of Political Science). The course offered a concise overview of the history of nuclear weapons, some technical discussion of their physics and physical effects, and an introduction to the political issues and consequences of nuclear weapons to a class of about 12 students. Luisa Kenausis, then a junior, was a student in the class. This past IAP, the Nuclear Weapons Education Project offered a series of three lectures on nuclear weapons topics, taught by Ms. Kenausis, Prof. Bernstein, and Dr. Michael Hynes, of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.
Lastly, we have made significant progress developing the Nuclear Weapons Education Project’s Website into an informative resource for educators filled with brief, reliable summaries of information on a variety of nuclear weapons topics. Work remains to be done on that initiative, and we plan to complete most of the remaining tasks with the help of student researchers.
Going forward, four undergraduate students will be working through the UROP program on broad-ranging, summary-level research on nuclear weapons for use on the Nuclear Weapons Education Project Website. The students will be coordinating with one another as well as with their faculty advisors – Prof. Bernstein, Prof. Redwine, and Dr. Hynes—on the topics they choose to research and summarize. Since the content being produced for the Website is intended to be a high-level summary of the most important information that is publicly available online, we believe that this UROP will offer student participants an opportunity to educate themselves on nuclear-related topics that are of interest to them while requiring minimal background knowledge or research experience.
In keeping with the spirit of the Nuclear Weapons Education Project, we have sought to make the process of researching and self-educating on these topics accessible to our UROP students, who are mostly freshmen. We hope that the relative newness of these students to the field of nuclear weapons will prove to be a benefit in their work.
Since the intended reader of the Website is an educator, likely without a background in nuclear weapons, students who do not specialize in nuclear issues may be particularly well-equipped to identify the concepts that will be most foreign and challenging or most interesting to a non-nuclear audience.
The Nuclear Weapons Education Project is also continuing to pursue opportunities to promote education on nuclear weapons issues outside of MIT. Prof. Bernstein has also been coordinating with physicists at over a dozen universities who are working to advance this goal in the courses they teach or develop new courses or seminars at their university. We have made particular progress with Prof. Jim Napolitano and Prof. Bernd Surrow, the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Department of Physics at Temple University.
The current members of the Nuclear Weapons Education Project steadfastly believe that the education of future generations of policymakers and citizens will be a vital step towards the development of safe and effective nuclear weapons policy. Further, we believe that a substantive introduction or exposure to nuclear weapons issues can be enough to trigger a student’s interest in these issues, even if that introduction is brief. This belief is not founded solely on optimism: Ms. Kenausis’s academic and career path were powerfully shaped by her first exposure to nuclear weapons topics in the classroom, and that experience underlies her commitment to this project.
For his part, Prof. Bernstein has been particularly engaged with nuclear weapons issues since the Cuban Missile Crisis. He sat through that event with a Russian colleague, Oleg Chubinsky, who had recently come to work in the cyclotron that Prof. Bernstein was running. Prof. Bernstein’s involvement with nuclear arms control was further increased by his interactions with some of the Manhattan Project’s alumni, including MIT’s Victor Weisskopf and Phillip Morrison, and Henry Linschitz of the Brandeis Chemistry Department.
For those of us who are old enough to have lived through the Cold War and who recall all too well air raid drills and discussions of possible paths to survival in case of nuclear war, it is sobering that we must initiate related discussions at this time. But the world has probably not been paying enough attention to this ongoing threat in the past few decades, and recent events have only emphasized this reality.
With the recent and unexpected news of a possible summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the near future, the work of the Nuclear Weapons Education Project only stands to become more relevant. Accordingly, we are actively seeking the help and support of others to move this project forward and expand our reach. There are two primary ways in which members of the MIT community can support the Nuclear Weapons Education Project:
In closing, the Nuclear Weapons Education Project does not advocate for any particular political goal or promote a certain solution to the challenges posed by nuclear weapons. We do not wish to indoctrinate students with our personal beliefs or ideas about nuclear weapons or visions for nuclear policy. Instead, we aim to promote the use of carefully-researched, factual, concise information about nuclear weapons to give students the intellectual tools to critically engage with the challenging issues of nuclear weapons. As today’s students become the policymakers and citizens of tomorrow, even a small investment in our students’ knowledge of nuclear weapons issues will help set the stage for safe, informed nuclear weapons policy in the future. We welcome feedback at email@example.com.