Manhattan Project #14 (Berman and Einstein)

Chapter Six
(Having fried his career, Berman returns to thinking about weapons and “progress”)
So that was that, for a while. It obviously put a serious crimp in our budget, which Jane wasn’t too pleased about. She was a reading teacher at the local middle school, and it was tougher making ends meet with just her income. But there was a plus side; it gave me time to think about things, like why I did it and whether I was in the right line of work.

I had always believed I was born to do the news. I’m curious and a good writer. And I’d been pretty successful after I made the jump to broadcast. But, as I already told you, I’ve always been uneasy with some of the attitudes you’re supposed to have in the news business, especially about violence and war and death. My co-anchor, on the other hand, was on target, strictly mainstream. I never detected a second of cognitive dissonance in her mind over what it means to be a right-thinking, patriotic American. She’s a good person in every possible way, by mainstream standards—a good journalist, a good wife, a good mother.

Maybe I am in the wrong business, I thought. But I also came back to the basic question: why do I think the way I do? And the ultimate question: why are human beings so willing to treat each other in such horrible ways? I put the professional question on hold for a while, and tried to focus on killing. But I didn’t make any real progress on it for years, until I met the guy outside the smoke shop. That’s why I got so worked up when his advice led me to the stirrup thing.

When I started digging into the development of weapons, I stumbled onto a book for kids about inventions. It traced the history of invention from prehistoric days all the way up to modern times. The author started out by telling kids what a debt we owe inventors. Without them, she said, we would never have made any progress. And then she said the story of inventions explains how human beings rose from savagery to civilization. Those are her words—savagery to civilization. That line hit me like a two-by-four between the eyes.

I had a hard time reconciling those words with what I see people do with inventions. And her list of important primitive inventions and what people did with them didn’t help. She started with cave men learning to use a stone to crack a nut; that sounded fairly useful and harmless. But the next inventor she applauded was the guy who attached that stone to the end of a stick. What could you do with a stone tied to a stick? Clobber somebody over the head, of course. The author gave special credit to whoever invented the boomerang, a special stick you could throw at somebody and have it come right back to you. That’s a step toward becoming civilized? Give me a break.

The writer moved on to other important inventive steps toward civilization, like taming fire. What did that do for us? This woman thought it was great because it allowed us to control all the other creatures on earth. In other words, it became a weapon. I could just picture some prehistoric clan setting fire to anything and anyone they considered a threat. Some great invention.

The list went on and on. Some of the inventions were basically harmless, like basketweaving and thatched roofs. But others weren’t. When someone discovered they could split rocks so they had a sharp edge on them, it became a knife to stab your enemies with. Tie the knife to a long stick and you’ve got a spear, so you don’t have to get as close when you want to kill somebody. Bend a stick and tie a string between the ends, then make a very small spear with a sharp stone on the end, and you’ve got a bow and arrow you can use to kill people or other animals from even farther away.

This was some kind of progress. Every time somebody invented one of those things, it got used to kill. That’s a disturbing thought for me, but the author considered it part of the whole arc of history ever rising toward civilization. At one point she stated, as a given, that human beings have always fought, individually or in crowds, what we call war. And she was okay with that, too. She said fighting wars taught us a lot. Like what? It taught us to invent other stuff like slings, blowguns, bolas, and shields and armor to protect ourselves against all those other inventions. And, she told the kids, war taught us things like cooperation, discipline, how to build fortifications, and signaling over a distance—it improved our communication skills. If you think about it, she said, all the stuff we have in our civilized world today is just savage inventions improved and perfected for our benefit.

I don’t mean to pick on her, although I’m not pleased to think she set out to fill children’s heads with that stuff. In fact, I found another guy, with a Ph.D. no less, who thinks inventions made the world a better place. Specifically what he had in mind was the spear. According to him, the invention of the spear brought peace to the land for a time. He said feuding tribes were more inclined to settle their differences nonviolently when they knew the other guys could chuck a spear and kill them from a distance. If he’s right, then other inventions after the spear—like gunpowder, cannons, pistols, rifles, and missiles, which can wipe you out from even farther away—should have put an end to war completely.

But they obviously didn’t. I’m sure inventions have killed lots more people since they came up with the spear, than before. One of those people was my mother. Instead of living a long life and enjoying the traveling she always dreamed of doing when she retired, or enjoying her grandchildren or her great grandchildren, she became a casualty of invention, the ultimate invention. I promised to tell you her story when I told you about the nuclear plant guy on the plane. It definitely fits into my theory; I guess now’s as good a time as any to tell it.

First, think about those dotted lines they use in the Indiana Jones movies to track Indie’s travels across the globe. Now picture two red dots on a globe, one in Ulm, Germany, where a salesman and engineer and his wife had a son in 1879. The little boy had a little trouble speaking, at first, but he turned out to be very smart in school, especially in math. The other dot is in southwestern Pennsylvania, in a small town called Republic. Forty five years after the bright little boy was born, a coal miner and his wife in Republic had a little girl. She was very pretty and also a good student. Her education began in a one-room schoolhouse and she was so bright she started and finished school a year ahead of her class.

The little German boy’s trail of dots started moving after he graduated from university. The dots moved away from Germany as he tried unsuccessfully to find a teaching job. He moved to Switzerland, where a family friend helped him get work in the patent office. He spent a lot of time there thinking about electromagnetism and other physics questions. The little country girl’s dot stayed put in Pennsylvania as she grew into a tall, attractive, and deeply religious young woman. When she finished high school, she was too young to get a job, so she went back to class and continued studying. Along with beautiful penmanship and top grades, she acquired excellent clerical skills.

In 1905, the young man in Switzerland published what he called a Special Theory of Relativity, in which he wrote that it was possible to release a lot of energy from a small amount of matter. He captured his idea in the formula E=mc2. That probably sounds familiar. E=mc2 is the theoretical foundation for the atomic bomb. The young man didn’t develop the A-bomb. At that point in his life, he considered himself a pacifist. But as his red dots made their way west across the Atlantic, he knew the bomb could be invented. While he was on vacation off Long Island, when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis threatened to take over the world, the young man signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to create the bomb before Hitler did.

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