THE SCIENCE AND POLITICS OF THE ATOMIC BOMB
Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts (UNITED STATES)
About this paper:
Appears in: EDULEARN12 Proceedings
Publication year: 2012
Conference name: 4th International Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies
Dates: 2-4 July, 2012
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Abstract:The controversy over the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 provides a window into the social, political and ethical dilemmas of nuclear weaponry. The paper describes a course of this title which the author has taught for a number of years, during which the students learn details of the revolution in physics that took place between 1896 and 1945. Students are drawn to the course by the political and ethical issues - there are no science requirements in the author's college - but also find themselves excited by the history of the scientific developments. The ethical, political and scientific issues are extremely complex, intermingled, and profound. Would the bomb be ready in time? What technical problems had to be solved to make the bomb a reality? Did the Truman Administration deliberately change the wording of the Potsdam Proclamation so as to prevent the Japanese from accepting it, thereby giving time for the United States to use the bomb? Did the atomic bomb actually shorten the war in the Pacific, or was it the Russian entry into the war that caused the Emperor to overrule the Japanese Army and accept the Allied terms of surrender? What were the ethical issues involved in continuing the work on the bomb after the United States learned that Germany was not, in fact, making the bomb, given that the original rationale for the bomb was to beat the Germans to it? When did the United States decide that the atomic weapon would be a permanent part of its arsenal?
The paper will not only discuss the profound ethical issues involved in scientists working on the most destructive weapon the world has known, but also the strengths and difficulties of teach a course like this. The strengths include student enthusiasm, which is high, and the value of getting students to take a science course who would otherwise completely avoid science. Some students, in fact, have gone on to major in science after taking the course, although they had no intention of majoring in science when the entered college. The weaknesses include the necessity of squeezing out some of the science to accommodate the inclusion of political and ethical issues.
The paper will conclude with some overall lessons, both positive and negative, contained for educators world-wide in this approach to science teaching. In the United States and in a number of other countries, a trend, small but growing at the moment, is developing to include the political and ethical context in which science takes place in science courses for science and non-science majors alike. The paper's conclusion will also address some of the implications of this trend.
Keywords: Science, ethics, politics, nuclear, atomic.