Field of Science

On their birthday: The wisdom of John Wheeler and Oliver Sacks.

A rare and happy coincidence today: The birthdays of both John Archibald Wheeler and Oliver Sacks. Wheeler was one of the most prominent physicists of the twentieth century. Sacks was one of the most prominent medical writers of his time. Both of them were great explorers, the first of the universe beyond and the second of the universe within.
What made both men special, however, was that they transcended mere accomplishment in the traditional genres that they worked in, and in that process they stand as role models for an age that seems so fractured. Wheeler the physicist was also Wheeler the poet and Wheeler the philosopher. Throughout his life he transmitted startling new ideas through eloquent prose that was too radical for academic journals. Most of his important writings made their way to us through talks and books. Sacks the neurologist was far more than a neurologist, and Sacks the writer was much more than a writer. Both Wheeler and Sacks had a transcendent view of humanity and the universe, a view that is well worth taking to heart in our own self-centered times.
Their backgrounds shaped their views and their destiny. John Wheeler grew up in an age when physics was transforming our view of the universe. While he was too young to participate in the genesis of the twin revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics, he came on stage at the right time to fully implement the revolution in the burgeoning fields of particle and nuclear physics.
After acquiring his PhD, Wheeler went on a fellowship to what was undoubtedly the mecca of physical thought – Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. By then Bohr had already become the grand old man of physics. While Einstein was retreating from the forefront of quantum mechanics, not believing that God would play such an inscrutable game of dice, Bohr and his pioneering disciples – Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Dirac, in particular – were taking the strange results of quantum mechanics at face value and interpreting them for the next generation. Particles that were waves, that superposed with themselves and that could be described only probabilistically, all found a place in Bohr’s agenda.
Bohr was famous for trying to describe physical reality as accurately as possible. This led to his maddening, Delphic utterances where he would go back and forth with a colleague to rework the fine points of his thinking, relentlessly questioning everyone’s reasoning including his own. But the process also illuminated both his passion to understand the world as well as his absolute insistence on precision and honesty. His talks and writings are often covered in a fine mist of interpretive haze, but once you ponder them enough they are wholly illuminating and novel. Bohr’s disciples did their best to spread his Copenhagen gospel throughout the world, and for the large part they succeeded spectacularly. When Wheeler joined Bohr in the mid 1930s, the grand old philosopher of physics was in the middle of his famous arguments with Einstein concerning the nature of reality. The so-called Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, published in back-to-back papers by Bohr, Einstein and their eponymous colleagues in 1935, was to set the stage for all quantum mechanical quarrels related to meaning and reality for the next half century.
For Wheeler, doing physics with Bohr was like playing ping-pong with an opponent possessing infinite patience. Back and forth the two went; arguing, refining, correcting, Wheeler doing most of the calculating and Bohr doing most of the talking. Wheeler came from the pragmatic American tradition of physics, later called the “shut up and calculate” tradition. While not particularly attuned back then to philosophical disputes, Wheeler rapidly absorbed Bohr’s avuncular, Socratic method of argument and teaching, later using it to create probably the finest school of theoretical physics in the United States during the postwar years. His opinion of Bohr stayed superlative till the end: “You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, but the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr.”
In 1939, with Bohr as a sure guide, Wheeler made what was practically speaking probably the most important contribution of his career – an explanation of the mechanism of nuclear fission. The paper is a masterful application of both classical and quantum physics, treating the nucleus as an entity poised on the cusp between the quantum and the classical worlds. In the same issue of the Physical Review that published the Wheeler-Bohr paper, another paper appeared, a paper by Robert Oppenheimer and his student Hartland Snyder. In their paper, Oppenheimer and Snyder laid out the details of what we now call black holes. The seminal Oppenheimer-Snyder paper went practically unnoticed; the seminal Wheeler-Bohr paper spread like wildfire. The reason was simple. Both papers were published on the day Germany attacked Poland and started the Second World War. Just eight months before, German scientists had discovered a potentially awesome and explosive source of energy in the nuclear fission of uranium. The discovery and the Wheeler-Bohr paper made it clear to interested observers that weapons of immensely destructive power could now be made. The race was on. As a professor at Princeton University, Wheeler was in the thick of things.
He became an important part of the Manhattan Project, contributing crucial ideas especially to the design of the nuclear reactors that produced plutonium. He had a vested interest in seeing the bomb come to fruition as soon as possible: his brother, Joe, was fighting on the front in Europe. Joe did not know the details of the secret work John was doing, but the two words in his letter to John made his general understanding of Wheeler’s work clear – “Hurry up”, the letter said. Sadly, Joe was killed in Italy before the bomb could be fully developed. His inability to potentially save his brother’s life massively shaped Wheeler’s political views. From then on, while he did not quite embrace weapons of mass destruction with the same enthusiasm as his friend Edward Teller, his opinion was clear: if there was a bigger weapon, the United States should have it first. One of the hallmarks of Wheeler’s life and career was that in spite of his political leanings – his conservatism was in marked contrast to most of his colleagues’ liberal politics – he seems to have remained friends with everyone. Wheeler’s life is a good illustration, especially in these fraught times, of how someone can keep their politics from interfering with their fundamental decency and appreciation of decency in others.
His scientific gifts and political views led Wheeler to work on the hydrogen bomb amidst an environment of Communist hysteria, witch hunts and stripped security clearances. But after he had done his job perfecting thermonuclear weapons, Wheeler returned to his first love – pure physics. During the war, he had teamed up with an immensely promising young man with fire in his mind and a young wife dying in a hospital in Albuquerque. Richard Feynman and John Wheeler couldn’t have been different from each other; one the fast-talking, irreverent kid from New York City, the other a courtly, conservative, Southern-looking gentleman who wore pinstriped suits. And yet their essential honesty and drive to understand physics from the bottom up made them kindred souls. Feynman got his PhD under Wheeler and for the rest of his life loved and admired his mentor; his work with Wheeler also inspired Feynman’s own Nobel Prize winning work in quantum electrodynamics – the strange theory of the interaction between light and matter. Wheeler’s love for teaching and the art of argument he acquired from Bohr crystallized in his interactions with Feynman. It set the stage for the latter half of his life.
Wheeler is one of the very few scientists in history who did breakthrough work in two completely different branches of science. Before the war he had been an explorer of the infinitesimal, but now he made himself an intrepid Marco Polo of the infinitely large. In the 1950s Wheeler plunged headlong into the physics of gravitational collapse, starting out from where Oppenheimer and others had left off. Memorably, he became the man who christened Oppenheimer’s startling brainchildren: in a conference in New York, Wheeler called objects whose gravitational fields were so strong that they could not let even light escape ‘black holes’. Black holes and curved spacetime became the foci of Wheeler’s career. While pursuing this interest he contributed something even more significant: he essentially created the most important school of relativistic investigations in the United States. And combining this new love with his old love, he also created entire subfields of physics that are today engaging the best minds of our time – quantum gravity, quantum information and quantum computing, quantum entanglement and the philosophy of quantum theory.
As a teacher, Wheeler could give Niels Bohr a run for his mentorship. Not just content with supervising the usual flock of graduate students and postdocs, Wheeler took it upon himself to train promising undergraduates in the art of thinking about the physical world. Story after story flourishes of some young mind venturing with trepidation into Wheeler’s office for the first time, only to emerge dazed two or three hours later, staggering under the weight of papers and books and bursting with research ideas. In fact Wheeler supervised more senior research theses at Princeton than any other professor in the department’s history, and for the longest time he taught the freshman physics class: what better way to ignite a passion for physics than by taking a class as a freshman from one of the century’s most brilliant scientific minds? To top it all, he used to sometimes take his students to see a neighborhood resident at the famous address 112 Mercer Street – Albert Einstein. Sitting in Einstein’s room in a circle, the awestruck young minds would watch Wheeler trying to gently convince a perpetually resistant Einstein of the correctness of quantum ideas.
Out of Wheeler’s fertile school emerged some of the most interesting minds of postwar physics research: a very short list includes Jacob Bekenstein who forged startling links between black hole thermodynamics and relativity; Hugh Everett who came up with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an interpretation which flew in the face of Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation; Bryce Dewitt with whom Wheeler made the first inroads into the deep realm of quantum gravity; Kip Thorne, gravitational wave pioneer whose dogged efforts finally won him the Nobel Prize last year. With some of these students Wheeler also wrote pioneering textbooks, including a doorstop of a book that has been gracing the shelves of students and professors of relativity like a patron saint since its publication. Very few teachers of theoretical physics equaled Wheeler in his influence and mentorship; certainly in the twentieth century, only Bohr, Arnold Sommerfeld and Max Born come to mind, and among American physicists, only Robert Oppenheimer and his school at Berkeley.
With his students Wheeler worked on some of the most preposterous extensions of nature’s theories that we can imagine: wormholes, quantum gravity, time travel, measurement in quantum theory. He constantly asked his pupils to think of crazy ideas, to extend our most hallowed theories to their breaking point, to think of the whole universe as a child’s playground. His colleagues often thought he was going crazy, but Feynman once corrected them: “Wheeler’s always been crazy”, he reminded everyone. Like his mentor Bohr, Wheeler became a master of the Delphic utterance, the deep philosophical speculation that could result in leaps and bounds in humanity’s understanding of the universe. Here’s one of those utterances: “Individual events. Events beyond law. Events so numerous and so uncoordinated that, flaunting their freedom from formula, they yet fabricate firm form”. The statement is vintage Wheeler; disarming in its ambiguity, deep in its implications, in equal parts physics, philosophy and poetry.
Many of Wheeler’s ideas were collected together in an essay collection titled “At Home in the Universe” which I strongly recommend. These essays showcase his wide-ranging interests and his gift for philosophy and uncommon prose and are full of paradoxes and puzzles. They also illustrate his warm friendship with many of the most famous names in physics including Bohr, Einstein, Fermi and Feynman. Along with “black hole”, he coined many other memorable phrases and statements: “It from Bit”, “Geometrodynamics”, “Mass without Mass”, and “Time is what prevents everything from happening at once”. He always believed that the universe is simpler than stranger, convinced that what is today’s strangeness and paradox will be tomorrow’s simple accepted wisdom.
John Wheeler died at the ripe old age of ninety-six, a legend among scientists. In affectionate tribute to his own way with words, a sixtieth birthday commemoration for him had called his work “Magic without Magic”, an that’s as good a way as any to remember this giant of science. A fitting epitaph? Many to choose from, but his sentiment about it being impossible to understand science without understanding people stands as a testament to his scientific brilliance and fundamental humanity: “No theory of physics that deals only with physics will ever explain physics. I believe that as we go on trying to understand the universe, we are at the same time trying to understand man.”
We come now to Oliver Sacks. Strangely enough, it took me some time to warm up to Sacks’s writing. I read about the man who mistook his wife for a hat, of course, and the patients with anosmia and colorblindness and the famous patients of ‘Awakenings’ who had been trapped in their bodies and then miraculously – albeit temporarily – resurrected. But I always found Sacks’s descriptions a bit too detached and clinical. It was when I read the charming “Uncle Tungsten” that I came to appreciate the man’s wide-ranging interests. But it was his autobiography “On the Move” that really drove home the unquenchable curiosity, intense desire for connecting to life and human beings and sheer love for living in all its guises that permeated Sacks’s being. I was so moved and satiated by the book that I read it again right after reading the last page, and read it a third time a few days later. After this I went back to almost the entirety of Sacks’s oeuvre and enjoyed it. So mea culpa, Dr. Sacks, and thanks for the reeducation.
Like Wheeler Sacks was born to educated parents in London, both of whom were doctors. He clearly acquired his interest in patients, both as medical curiosities and as human beings from his parents. A voracious reader, he had many interests while growing up – Darwin and chemistry were two which he retained throughout his life – and like other Renaissance men found it hard to settle on one. But family background and natural inclination led him to study medicine at Oxford and, finding England too provincial, he shipped to the New World, first to San Francisco and then to New York.
Throughout his life, Sacks’s most distinguishing quality was the sheer passion with which he clung to various activities. These ranged from the admirable to the foolhardy. For instance, Sacks didn’t just “do bodybuilding”, he became obsessed with it to the point of winning a California state championship and risking permanent damage in his muscles. He didn’t just “ride motorcycles”, he would take his charger on eight hundred mile rides to Utah and Arizona over a single weekend. He didn’t just “do drugs”, he flooded his body with amphetamines to the point of almost killing himself. And he didn’t just “practice medicine” or writing, he turned them into an observational art form without precedent. It is this intense desire for a remarkable diversity of people and things that defined Oliver Sacks’s life. And yet Sacks was lonely; as a gay man who repressed his sexuality after a devastating reception from his mother and a series of failed encounters during his bodybuilding days, he refrained from romantic relationships for four decades before finally finding love in his seventies. It was perhaps his own struggle with his identity, combined with recurring maladies like depression and migraines, that made Sacks sympathize so deeply with his patients.
Two things made Sacks wholly unique as a neurological explorer. The writer Andrew Solomon once frankly remarked in a review of one of Sacks’s books that as purely a writer or purely a neurologist, while Sacks was very good, he probably wasn’t in the first rank. But nobody else could straddle the two realms with as much ease, warmth and informed narrative as he could. It was the intersection that made him one of a kind. That and his absolutely transparent, artless style, amply demonstrated in “On the Move”. He was always the first one to admit to follies, mistakes and missed opportunities.
For Sacks his patients were patients second and human beings first. He was one of the first believers in what is today called “neurodiversity”, long before the idea became fashionable. Neurodiversity means the realization that even people with rather extreme neurological conditions show manifestations of characteristics that are present in “normal” human beings. Even when Sacks told us about the most bizarre kind of patients, he saw them as lying on a continuum of human abilities and powers. He saw the basic humanity among patients frozen in space and time when the rest of the world simply saw them as “cases”. And he displayed all this warmth and understanding toward his patients without ever wallowing in the kind of sweet sentimentality that can mark so much medical writing trying to be literature.
Sacks persisted in exploring an astonishing landscape of aspects of the human mind until his last days. Whether it was music or art, mathematics or natural history, he always had something interesting to say. The one exception – and this was certainly a refreshing part of his writing – was politics; as far as I can tell, Sacks was almost wholly apolitical, preferring to focus on the constants of nature and the human mind than the ephemeral foibles of mankind. His columns in the New York Times were always a pleasure, and in his last few – written after he had announced his impending death in a moving piece – he explored topics dear to his heart; Darwin, the periodic table, his intense love of music, his satisfying and strange connection to Judaism as an atheist, and his gratitude for science, friends and the opportunity to be born, thrive and learn in a world full of chaos. In the column announcing the inevitable end he said, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved”.
Why remember John Wheeler and Oliver Sacks today? Because one taught us to look at the universe beyond ourselves, and the other taught us to look within ourselves. Both appealed to the better angels of our nature and to what we have in common rather than what separates us, asking us to constantly stay curious. These lessons seem to be quite relevant to our day and age. Wheeler told us that the laws of physics and the deep mysteries of the universe, even if they may not care about our fragile, bickering world of politics and social strife, beckon each one of us to explore their limits and essence irrespective of our race, nationality or gender. Sacks appealed to our common humanity and told us that deep within the human brain runs a thread that connects all of us on a continuum, independent again of our race, gender, nationality and political preferences. Two messages should stay with us:
Sacks: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Wheeler: “Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it – in a decade, a century, or a millennium – we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid?”
This is my latest column for 3 Quarks Daily. Image credits: Wheeler, Sacks

Science and faith in a ceremonial cave



The hour was late, but it was still hot. Frijoles Canyon loomed to my right, showcasing its surfeit of stratigraphic tuff and igneous ash layerings and ponderosa pines. I was about a hundred and fifty feet up on the mountain face in a reconstructed cave with a ceremonial kiva or well. The cave was accessible by climbing a series of narrow steps and four ladders inclined against the steep rocks: not recommended for those with a fear of heights. On this particular day I was alone there; it was a hot weekend, and not too many hikers and tourists had scattered themselves around Bandelier National Park where the cave’s located.
It’s tough not to fall in love with the American Southwest. There is no other part of the United States which combines so uniquely and generously Native American, Spanish and Anglo-American culture with spectacular desert and mountain expanses as far out as the eye can see. Our trip had started with the Grand Canyon, whose first display of infinite recesses and a blaze of colors is sufficient to stop almost any conversation for a few seconds. It had then continued through Indian reservations spread across three states – albeit still crammed into nooks and crannies relative to their original seemingly limitless expanse – which took us through the incredible towering structures of Monument Valley to New Mexico.
In Monument Valley, our guide had made us lie down on the cool, hard bed of a sandstone cave while gazing up at the giant outline of an eagle carved out by water, wind and time into the ceiling of the cave. An older Native American had sung an ancestral song while his nephew who accompanied us played a trifurcated flute, the sounds reverberating through the cavernous structure. It couldn’t have been much different thousands of years ago, when men and women not very different from us made such rituals part of their lives, when they must have silently held communion with dead and living kin looking out across a blanket of stars and red desert.
The stunning mountain wonders of New Mexico are always a treat for the eyes, but nothing evokes a sense of awe and beauty for me as much as Valles Caldera. As you drive past Los Alamos into the Jemez Mountains, you are taken completely by surprise as you navigate a switchback and are suddenly greeted with what looks like a huge African Savannah, an immense grassy expanse reaching out across the horizon with a considerable hill jutting out in the middle; you half expect to see herds of zebras or bison stampeding across the plains. If you didn’t know better, you would think you were the first humans to emerge from the wilderness into this giant volcanic field, formed by a massive eruption about 1.2 million years ago. The hill is a lava dome, formed by the violent ejection and slow outflow of hot magma; time has carpeted the dome and the surrounding field with vegetation since its creation. It used to be a lake once. Mountains dotted with ponderosa pines and Douglas Firs rim the caldera. The floor of this giant bowl is spread across over fourteen miles, and the sheer size became clear when, unaided by binoculars, what looked like ants turned out to be herds of hundreds of grazing elk. Ten thousand years ago the natives wandered over this expanse, grazing their own livestock and looking for hard, black obsidian for their arrow and spear heads. Given how much the region has remained constant for thousands of years, even as geothermal activity and hot springs have gently but firmly caused local deformations, it’s hard not to feel a connection with those who came and went here over the years; their eyes saw what ours did.
The same sense of shared kinship strikes one in that cave in the Bandelier tuff which might have held twenty five Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans. Eight hundred years ago the place was a beehive of activity, with the peak population predicted to be about five hundred. Between the 12th and 13th century the Anasazi departed, dispersed and largely disappeared; for what reasons it’s still debated, although a mix of climate change – especially drought – and economic instability seems to be our best bet. While they lived in regions like Bandelier and Chaco Canyon they created a flourishing culture, both primitive and enlightened in parts. Economic trade with neighboring tribes was widespread, and animal skins, gems, pottery were exchanged extensively at key commercial sites like Chaco Canyon. The natives pioneered novel methods of harvesting and storing corn, of insulating their ground and cliff homes from excessive heat and cold, of waging war and brokering peace. But perhaps no other creation of the human mind infused their culture as much as religious belief.
It was everywhere. From dictating what directions to build their caves in to how to harvest their grains to elaborate rituals for burying their dead, religion filled every nook and cranny of their thoughts and emotions. It was pagan worship writ large, and no other relationship exemplified its intensity as much as their connection with nature. It was a connection that I especially pondered in the ceremonial cave, and one that was by no means unique to Native Americans. But seen from the eyes of a native, everything that I was seeing – the pines and firs and medicinal plants in the canyon, the mountain lions and bears and rattlesnakes lurking (fortunately far), the wind howling through the trees, the rough grains of cave wall tuff – imbibed special and essential spirits, good and evil. You went through elaborate rituals to please the good spirits and appease or drive away the evil ones, and you could not imagine a life without them.
Every living and non-living thing was a religious symbol of sorts, and the random motions of nature and life – an eagle jousting with a snake, a mountain lion choosing not to eat you, a trifecta of pines silhouetted against the dimming sunset – were pregnant with meaning and prediction. Nothing just existed, and surely nothing was the result of blind chance and the vagaries of geological and biological events. If I closed my eyes and took it all in, I could almost fancy myself at night in this hollow; wearing elk skins, beating drums, chanting, drawing geometric figures on the walls, reassuring myself that I was appeasing my favorite spirit with my actions.
Dusk was approaching, so I took in the view one last time and climbed down the ladders and single-file steps, quickly attaching and detaching my hands from the still hot rungs. The path to the visitor center at Bandelier runs through a pleasant tree-lined corridor intertwined with a stream, a stream that was muddy and wet then but which always runs the risk of sustaining unexpected flash floods. And as I walked and pondered my time during the previous few days in the cave and in the Jemez mountains and among the red sandstone monuments, I was suddenly struck by two thoughts. First: Thank God for modern science. And second: it’s not that simple. With its overabundance of sprits and essences with their own agency, the world which the natives inhabited was a world full of wonder, but it was also a frightening world. Even if I were the smartest Native American in Frijoles Canyon, I could not have possibly figured out why there was lightning, why fire worked, how I could prevent or cure disease, why my crop failed this year, why my niece was carried off by a mountain lion or by pockmarks on her face. I would have been miserable in the face of misfortune and had scant recourse except for trial and error to stave it off. Everything in the universe was haunted, blessed, cursed, and that was the only way to explain life and death in my little settlement.
It’s easy today for us to underestimate the emotional reassurance that science has provided, even as it has paradoxically revealed a universe without design. Today we no longer feel that light and dark are governed by battles between gods and demons or that we must simply please a deity rather than calculate the coming and going of the seasons using a calendar to figure out the best times and practices for crop rotation. Perhaps most significantly in terms of emotional amelioration, we now no longer believe that diseases are caused by malevolent forces beyond our control and have found countless ways of understanding, preventing and treating them; even if we cannot cure every disease, the mere fact of rational understanding provides comfort. We have sculpted and reworked the material world to our own uses, to build towering structures and weapons glistening with metal and fire that would keep mountain lions at bay. And we no longer fear lightning and have harnessed similar forces of electricity for heating and cooling our houses, for connecting us to people around the planet, for being the candle that lights up both the dark and our ignorance. In that sense, there’s no getting around the fact that we have evolved many fold over the ancients.
And yet it’s clear that in many ways we have also fallen behind, and that was the second thought I had as I made my way back. The physicist Niels Bohr once said that one of the cardinal principles ruling the behavior of the physical world was one he called the principle of complementarity. The principle says that a physical system embodies one or more qualities, all of which are essential for its description but none of which are visible at the same time. For instance, an electron can behave like a wave and particle, and it will behave like one or the other depending on the experiment you set up, but never both at the same time. But Bohr also extended his principle of complementarity to mean something bigger, a principle of paradox. Bohr loved paradoxes and always tried to explore them in science, but he also explored them in human affairs. During the Second World War, he found a much bigger hook to hang that hat on – nuclear weapons. He realized that the same weapons which can annihilate much of humanity can also bring an end to war. The destructive and pacifist nature of nuclear weapons can thus not be separated from each other.
In one sense it’s this principle of paradox that governs the supposedly unscientific religious beliefs of the natives. For in their fear and respect for the spirits of nature is their respect for nature itself. Native Americans had a far better relationship with their natural environment that one we can even dream of, especially in developed capitalist countries. Their worship of the rain, animals and plants went hand in hand with their sustainable use of these entities. They usually took from the earth only what they needed, and they almost never hunted animals for sport but only for their skins and meat; whenever they killed an animal they offered an invocation thanking the creature for its service. They were acutely aware of climate change, especially droughts, even if they may have been largely powerless to act against it. Their religious ethos led to a great ethos of environmentalism, and it’s not possible to separate the two.
In my opinion, the greatest value of Native American culture to our own modern sensibilities stems from its intimate and productive relationship with the environment. We seem to have lost that ethos of responsible environmental stewardship and sustainable practices even as we have largely and rightly cast aside the trappings of both pagan and organized religion. Westward expansion fueled in part by racial beliefs has further downplayed important values of ancient cultures. We have largely cloistered ourselves away from the forests and streams in our malls and cities, and most of us grow up without having any idea of how fragile ecosystems are because we were never forced to depend on them the way the natives did.
And yet we still do. Deforestation and climate change and ocean acidification don’t stop just because we enclose ourselves in our air-conditioned cubicles. Unlike the ancients, we certainly have the technological wherewithal to withstand the adverse impacts of the environment, but we cannot insulate ourselves from our own adverse impact on key ecosystems like glaciers, forests and oceans for too long. The center has to give in someday. But the solution, at least in principle, is not too difficult to comprehend. It’s Niels Bohr’s principle of complementarity applied to Native American cultures, with a twist. We can respect their religious traditions without believing in their literal meaning, because the same traditions that make us believe in a holy spirit in nature can also make us respect nature independent of that literal meaning.
In that sense we can again be the Anasazi looking on toward the horizon in an alcove high up in the mountains, but this time armed with rational scientific skepticism and a fundamental faith in a complementarity meld of man and environment. The same scientific tradition that helped us to cast off primitive beliefs now has the power to help us protect the environment. Let us use it wisely. We don’t have to pick and choose between the two.
This is my latest monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily.

JFK, nuclear weapons and the 1963 'Peace Speech': Looking back sixty five years



Sixty five years ago, on June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made an impassioned plea for peace to the world on the campus of American University in Washington D.C. The speech was carefully crafted, copies were shown to only a few trusted advisors for comment, and Kennedy's ace speechwriter Ted Sorensen worked on it day and night to meet the president's schedule. In his book "To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace”, the economist Jeffrey Sachs considers this to be Kennedy's most important speech; JFK delivered many inspiring speeches – including the famous moon speech at Rice University (“We choose to go to moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard”) – but I tend to agree with Sachs that among all of them, no other speech has the sense of urgency and the long term relevance of the peace speech.

JFK's dedication to peacemaking shines through in his words. The piece contains one of the most memorable paragraphs that I have seen in any presidential speech. In words that are now famous, Kennedy appealed to our basic connection on this planet as the most powerful argument for worldwide peace:

"So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

Kennedy was saying these words through hard experience, against the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that had brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. Recently declassified documents now indicate that the Soviets had more than 150 nuclear weapons in Cuba, and there were many close calls which could have sent the world over the precipice. For instance, a little known submarine officer Vasili Arkhipov refused to launch his submarine's nuclear torpedo even as American planes were dropping dummy depth charges around the submarine. Contrary to what the self-serving accounts of Bobby Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy and other Kennedy advisors would later indicate, it was JFK himself who played the most pivotal role in keeping the crisis from escalating. When world war was averted, everyone thought that it was because of rational men's rational actions, but Kennedy knew better; he and his advisors understood how ultimately, helped as they were by their stubborn refusal to give in to military hardliners' insistence that Cuba should be bombed, it was dumb luck that saved humanity. Even later, George Lee Butler who headed the US Strategic Command during the end game of the Cold War said, “We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

Kennedy was thus well aware in 1963 of how quickly and unpredictably war in general and nuclear war in particular can spiral out of everyone's hands; two years before, in another well-known speech in front of the United Nations, Kennedy had talked about the ominous and omnipresent sword of Damocles that everyone lives under, "hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness". His Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev understood this too, cautioning JFK to not tighten the "knot of war" which would eventually have to be catastrophically severed. As one consequence of the crisis, a telephone hotline was established between the two countries that would allow their leaders to efficiently communicate with each other.

Kennedy followed the Peace Speech with one of the signal achievements of his presidency, the signing and ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) which banned nuclear tests in the air, underwater and in space. This treaty not allowed prevented untold amounts of radioactive fallout from contaminating the planet, but also made it much harder for other countries to develop nuclear weapons. The effort was far from straightforward; Sachs describes how Kennedy used all the powers of persuasion at his disposal to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republican hardliners and Southern Democrats to endorse the treaty, while at the same time striking compromises with them that would allow underground nuclear testing.
How have Kennedy's understanding of the dangers of nuclear war, his commitment to securing peace and his efforts toward nuclear disarmament played out in the fifty years after his tragic and untimely death? On one hand there is much cause for optimism. Kennedy's pessimistic prediction that in 1975 ten or twenty countries would have nuclear weapons has not come true. In fact the PTBT was followed in 1968 by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which for all its flaws has served as a deterrent to the formation of new nuclear states. Other treaties like SALT, START and most recently NEW START have drastically reduced the number of nuclear weapons to a fraction of what they were during the heyday of the Cold War; ironically it was Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush who must be credited with the greatest arms reductions. In addition, there are several success stories of countries like South Africa, Sweden, Libya, Brazil and the former Soviet Republics giving up nuclear weapons after wisely realizing that they would be better off without them.
Yet there are troubling signs that Kennedy's dream is still very much a dream. Countries like Israel and India which did not sign the NPT have acquired nuclear arsenals. North Korea is baring its nuclear teeth and Iran seems to be meandering even if not resolutely marching toward acquiring a bomb. In addition, loose nuclear material, non-state actors and unstable regimes like Pakistan pose an ever-present challenge that threatens to spiral out of control; the possibility of "accident, or miscalculation, or madness" is very much still with us.
There are also little signs that the United States is going to unilaterally disassemble its nuclear arsenal in spite of having the most sophisticated and powerful conventional weapons in the world, ones which can hit almost any target anywhere with massive destruction; this development was only made harder by the coming of the Trump administration which understands little about these weapons. In a recent piece in Physics Today, arms experts Richard Garwin, Frank von Hippel and Steve Fetter point out that the United States still possesses four thousand nuclear warheads, each one of which packs a punch that’s an order of magnitude bigger than the weapons which leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many of which are designed to be launched within a 10 to 30 minute window of potential detection of enemy launches. As the author Eric Schlosser documented through stories of dozens of accidental almost-launched weapons, this narrow window leaves very little room for false alarms, malfunction or stupidity, each of which humanity possesses in spades. As the trio of physicists in Physics Today also notes, many in this country continue to be obsessed with missile defense; an obsession that goes back to the Reagan years and that time and time again has been shown to be largely unfeasible, both on technical as well as political grounds. Meanwhile, a comprehensive test ban treaty seems as out of reach as ever before.
There are some pinpricks of hope. The US did unilaterally disarm its biological and chemical weapons arsenal in the 70s – Richard Nixon did this virtually overnight, without asking anyone - but nuclear weapons still seem to inspire myths and illusions that cannot be easily dispelled. A factor that's not much discussed but which is definitely the massive elephant in the room is spending on nuclear weapons; depending on which source you are looking at, the US spends anywhere between 20 to 50 billion dollars every year on the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal, more than what it did during the Cold War. Thousands of weapons are still deployment-ready, years after the Cold War has ended. It goes without saying that this kind of spending is unconscionable, especially when it takes valuable resources away from pressing problems like healthcare and education. Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex lamented exactly this glut of misguided priorities in his own "Chance for Peace" speech in 1953:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
It is of course inconceivable to imagine a conservative politician saying this today, but more tragically it is disconcerting to find exactly the same problems that Eisenhower and Kennedy pointed out in the 50s and 60s looming over our future.
As Sachs discusses in his book, in a greater sense too Kennedy's vision is facing serious challenges. Sachs believes that sustainable development has replaced nuclear weapons as the cardinal problem facing us today and until now the signs for sustainable development have not been very promising. When it comes to states struggling with poverty, Sachs accurately reminds us that countries like the US often "regard these nations as foreign policy irrelevancies; except when poverty leads to chaos and extremism, in which case they suddenly turn into military or terrorist threats". The usual policy toward such countries is akin to the policy of a doctor who instead of preventing a disease waits until it turns into a full-blown infection, and then delivers medication that almost kills the patient without getting rid of the cause. Sadly for both parties in this country, drones are a much bigger priority than dams. This has to change.
We are still struggling with the goal laid out by John Kennedy in his Peace Speech, but Kennedy also realistically realized that reaching the goal would be a gradual and piecemeal process. He made it even clearer in his inaugural speech:

"There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems...(from the inaugural speech) All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."
Indeed. We do not know where it will end, but it is up to us to begin.