Field of Science

David McCullough (1933-2022)

I have been wanting to write about David McCullough who passed away recently and whose writings I always enjoyed. McCullough was admittedly one of the finest popular historians of his generation. His biographical portraits and writings were wide-ranging, covering a variety of eras; from "1776" and "John Adams" about the revolutionary period through "The Great Bridge" about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1860s to "Truman" about Harry Truman's life and presidency. "Truman" is in fact the best presidential biography I have read. In spite of its size it never bogs down and paints a fair and balanced portrait of the farmer from Missouri who became the unlikely and successful president.

McCullough's writing style and approach to history warrant some discussion. He was what you would call a gentleman writer: amiable, avuncular, genteel, not one to kick up dust or to engage in hard-hitting journalism; the opposite of Howard Zinn. Although his writing was balanced and he stayed away from hagiography, it was also clear that he was fond of his subjects, and that fondness might have made him sometimes avert a completely objective, critical approach.

That style opened him up to criticism. For instance, his "The Pioneers" that described the opening up of the Ohio country and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 engineered by Manasseh Cutler came under scrutiny for its omission of the brutal and unfair treatment of Native Americans in the new territory. The ordinance was actually quite revolutionary for its time since it outlawed slavery and effectively laid the fuse for developments sparking division between slave and free states in the 1850s and the ensuing Civil War. McCullough did emphasize this positive aspect of the ordinance, but not the negative repercussions for Indians. 

That streak is emblematic of his other writings. He never shied away from the evils of slavery, treatment of Native Americans or oppression of women, but his gaze was always upward, toward the better angels of our nature. Most characteristic of this style is his "The American Spirit", written at a fraught time in this country's history. As I mentioned in my review of the book, McCullough's emphasis is on the positive aspects of this country's founding and the founders' emphasis on individual rights and education, even if some of them personally fell short of observing those rights for others.

While I understand that McCullough might have had a bias toward the better parts of this country's history, I think that's the right approach especially today. That is because I think that a lot of Americans on both sides have acquired a strangely and fundamentally pessimistic approach toward both our past and our future. They seem to think that the country was born and steeped in sin that cannot be expiated. This is a very flawed perspective in my opinion. Perhaps as an immigrant I am more mindful of the freedoms and gifts that this country has bestowed on me, freedoms that are still unique compared to many other countries, but I share McCullough's view that whatever the substantial sins that this country was born in and perpetuated, its moral arc, as Martin Luther King would say, has always been upward and toward justice. In many ways the United States through its constitution laid the foundations for democracy and freedom that been emulated, in big and small ways, by most of the world's successful democracies. The leaders and activists of this country themselves were mindful that their country was not conforming to that perfect union described in its founding documents.

Progress has not been linear, certainly, but it has been steady throughout the ages. I think it's appropriate to complain that some aspects of progress should have taken much less time than what they did - unlike many other countries, the United States still has not had a female president, for instance - but that's different from saying that progress was made only by certain groups of people or that it wasn't made at all. As just one example, while African-Americans took the lead in the civil rights movement, there was no dearth of white Americans including religious activists like Benjamin Lay, firebrand speakers like William Lloyd Garrison and women suffragists who also wanted to end slavery. In addition, as David Hackett Fischer details in his monumental new study of black Africans' contribution to the country's early years, black and white people often worked hand in hand to make big and small achievements for slaves and freedmen alike. Recognizing this unity in diversity - E pluribus unum - is central to recognizing the essence of America.

The United States was a melting pot of different kinds and dimensions since before its founding, and all elements of this melting pot helped shape progressive views in this country. To privilege only certain elements does a disservice to the diversity that this country has exemplified. David McCullough knew this. He distinguished himself by telling us in his many writings how there was a constant stream of progressive forces emerging from all quarters of society, including all races and economic classes, that helped this country implement its founding ideals of liberty and equality. Even when the sky appeared darkest, as happened often in our history, the forces provided the proverbial silver lining for all of us to aspire to. We need more of that sentiment today. McCullough will be missed, but his writings should provide a sure guide.

Book review: "The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age", by Steve Olson

In the history of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos has always been the star, and Hanford and Oak Ridge where plutonium and uranium respectively were created have been supporting actors. Steve Olson's goal is to resurrect Hanford as the most important site in retrospect. Its product, plutonium, is now the element of choice in the vast majority of the world's nuclear arsenals. And the product of that creation has created an environmental catastrophe beyond reason.

Olson has written a lively and thought-provoking book about the "devil's element" and the global catastrophe and promise it has bred. Olson's account especially shines in the first half as he describes Glenn Seaborg, Joseph Kennedy and Arthur Wahl discovering plutonium-239 at Berkeley in February, 1942. Very quickly plutonium's promise became clear - unlike uranium whose rare fissionable isotope (uranium-235) it would take herculean efforts to separate from its more copious cousin (uranium-238), plutonium, being a different element from uranium, could be separated using relatively simple chemical means from its parent uranium-238. It was also clear that plutonium could be more efficiently fissioned than uranium and so less of it was needed to build bombs; if this elementary fact of nature had not been true, enough plutonium would never have been produced in time for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, and the world's nuclear arsenals might have looked very different. As it turned out, while the Hiroshima bomb needed about 140 pounds (63 kilograms) of uranium, the Nagasaki bomb needed only about 13 pounds (6 kilograms) of plutonium. It is still stupendous and terrifying to think that an amount of plutonium that can be carried as a cube that's about 3 inches on one side can destroy an entire city.
The first hulking reactor at Hanford (Reactor B) went up soon under the watchful eyes of Enrico Fermi, Eugene Wigner and the DuPont company; the first batch of plutonium from Hanford was produced at the beginning of 1945. Olson's book has amusing accounts of the differences in philosophy between the DuPont engineers and the physicists; the engineers thought the physicists considered everything too simple, the physicists thought the engineers made everything too complex. Of special note was Crawfort Greenewalt, a bright young engineer who had married into the DuPont family and who orchestrated DuPont's building of the reactor. Somehow peace was brokered and the warring functions worked well during the rest of the war. The plutonium in the Nagasaki bomb came from Hanford, its high spontaneous fission rate necessitating a revolutionary new design - implosion - used in that bomb and pretty much all its successors.
Olson's account of the Nagasaki mission is gripping. The poor city was the third choice after Hiroshima. Kokura which was the second choice turned out to have significant cloud cover. So did Nagasaki, but at that point the 'Bockscar', the B-29 bomber that was delivering the bomb, made a last-minute decision to bomb in spite of lack of the visual bombing requirement which had been mandated. After the war, even Manhattan Project chief General Leslie Groves who never publicly regretted the bombings said privately that he did not think Nagasaki was necessary.
As the Cold War heated up, the Hanford site became the principal site of production of plutonium for the tens of thousand of nuclear weapons that were to fill the missiles, bombers and submarines of the United States, a number that was many fold that necessary to bring about the destruction of the entire planet in a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. The reactors were powered down in the 60s and early 70s, only to be powered up again during the hawkish administration of Ronald Reagan. There was another kind of destruction wrought during their operation. In their haste to make plutonium: billions of gallons and pounds of toxic radioactive and chemical sludge and waste were stored in makeshift steel tanks underground; some of this effluent was released into the mighty Columbia River. The scientists and engineers and politicians who made Hanford did not quite understand the profoundly difficult long-term problem for humanity that these long-lived radioactive materials would face. Even today, the Hanford site is often referred to as the most contaminated site in the world, and it is estimated that it could take up to $640 billion to clean up the site.
With plutonium also came jobs and families and hospitals and schools. Olson who grew up in the area talks about the complicated relationship people whose fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers worked on the reactors have with the site. On one hand, they are proud that their work contributed to the end of World War 2 and preserved America's edge and possibly survival during the Cold War; on the other hand, they worry about the bad reputation that the site has gotten as the principal protagonist in creating weapons of mass destruction. Most of all, they worry about the potential cancers that they think the contaminated site might have caused. As Olson documents, studies have found tenuous links at best between the radiation at the site and the rate of cancers, but it's hard to convince people who believe that any amount of radiation must be bad.
Today the Hanford site is part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that encompasses Oak Ridge and Los Alamos (I have been wanting to go on a tour for a long time). The B reactor no longer produces the devil's element. Instead it is a mute testament to humankind's discovery of the means of its own destruction. That nuclear weapons have never been used in anger since August, 1945 might elevate it in the future to an importance that we cannot yet gauge.

The root of diverse evil

It wasn’t very long ago that I was rather enamored with the New Atheist movement, of which the most prominent proponent was Richard Dawkins. I remember having marathon debates with a religious roommate of mine in graduate school about religion as the “root of all evil”, as the producers of a documentary by Dawkins called it. Dawkins and his colleagues made the point that no belief system in human history is as all-pervasive in its ability to cause harm as religion.

My attitude toward religion started changing when I realized that what the New Atheists were criticizing wasn’t religion but a caricature of religion that was all about faith. Calling religion the “root of all evil” was also a bad public relations strategy since it opened up the New Atheists to obvious criticism – surely not all evil in history has been caused by religion? But the real criticism of the movement goes deeper. Just like the word ‘God’, the word ‘religion’ is a very broad term, and people who subscribe to various religions do so with different degrees of belief and fervor. For most moderately religious people, faith is a small part of their belonging to a religion; rather, it’s about community and friendship and music and literature and what we can broadly call culture. Many American Jews and American Hindus for instance call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Hindus.

My friend Freeman Dyson made this point especially well, and he strongly disagreed with Dawkins. One of Freeman’s arguments, with which I still agree, was that people like Dawkins set up an antagonistic relationship between science and religion that makes it seem like the two are completely incompatible. Now, irrespective of whether the two are intellectually compatible or not, it’s simply a fact that they aren’t so in practice, as evidenced by scores of scientists throughout history like Newton, Kepler and Faraday who were both undoubtedly great scientists and devoutly religious. These scientists satisfied one of the popular definitions of intelligence – the ability to simultaneously hold two opposing thoughts in one’s mind.

Dyson thought that Dawkins would make it hard for a young religious person to consider a career in science, which would be a loss to the field. My feeling about religion as an atheist are still largely the same: most religion is harmless if it’s practiced privately and moderately, most religious people aren’t out to convert or coerce others and most of the times science and religion can be kept apart, except when they tread into each other’s territory (in that case, as in the case of young earth creationism, scientists should fight back as vociferously as they can).

But recently my feelings toward religion have soured again. A reference point for this change is a particularly memorable quote by Steven Weinberg who said, “Without religion good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things, that takes religion.” Weinberg got a lot of flak for this quote, and I think it’s because of a single word in it that causes confusion. That word is “good”. If we replace that word by “normal” or “regular” his quote makes a lot of sense. “For normal people to do evil or harm, that takes religion.” What Weinberg is saying that people who are otherwise reasonable and uncontroversial and boring in their lives will do something exceptionally bad because of religion. This discrepancy is not limited to religious ideology – the Nazis at Auschwitz were also otherwise “normal” people who had families and pets and hobbies – but religious ideology, because of its unreason and reliance on blind faith, seems to pose a particularly all-pervading example. Religion may not be the root of all evil, but it certainly may be the root of the most diverse evil.

I was reminded of Weinberg’s quote when I read about the shocking attack on Salman Rushdie a few weeks ago. Rushdie famously had to go into hiding for a long time and abandon any pretense of a normal life because of an unconscionable death sentence or fatwa to kill him issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. Rushdie’s attacker is a 24-year-old man named Hadi Matar who was born in the United States but was radicalized after a trip to Lebanon to see his father. By many accounts, Matar was a loner but otherwise a normal person. The single enabling philosophy that motivated him to attack and almost kill Rushdie was religious. As Weinberg would say, without religion, he would have just been another disgruntled guy, but it was religion that gave him a hook to hang his toxic hat on. Even now Matar says he is “surprised” that Rushdie survived. He also says that he hasn’t even read the controversial ‘Satanic Verses’ which led to the edict, which just goes to show how intellectually vacuous, mindless sheep the religiously motivated can be.

I had the same feelings, even more strongly felt, when I looked up the stories of the Boston marathon bomber brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. By any account theirs should have been the quintessential American success story: both were brought to this country from war-torn Chechnya, placed in one of the most enlightened and progressive cities in the United States (Cambridge, MA) and given access to great educational resources. What, if not religious ideology, would lead them to commit such mindless, horrific acts against innocent people? Both Matar and the marathon bombers are a perfect example of Weinberg’s adage – it was religion that led them down a dark path and made the crucial difference.

The other recent development that has made me feel depressed about the prospects for peace between religion and secularism is the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court. In doing so, the Supreme Court has overturned a precedent with which a significant majority (often cited to be at least 60%) of Americans agree. Whatever the legal merits of the court’s decision, there is little doubt that the buildup to this deeply regressive decision was driven primarily by a religious belief that considers life to begin at conception. It’s a belief without any basis in science; in fact, as Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan wrote many years, if you factored in science, then Roe v. Wade would seem to have drawn the line at the right point, when the fetus develops a nervous system and really distinguishes itself as a human. In fact one of the tragedies of overturning Roe v. Wade is that the verdict struck a good balance between respecting the wishes of religious moderates and taking rational science into account.

But Evangelical Christians in the United States, of which there has a been dwindling and therefore proportionately bitter and vociferous number in recent years, don’t care about such lowly details as nervous systems (although they do seem to care about heartbeats which ironically aren’t unique to humans). For them, all there is to know about when life begins has been written in a medieval book. Lest there be any doubt that this consequential decision by the court was religiously motivated, it’s worth reading a recent, detailed analysis by Laurence Tribe, a leading constitutional scholar. Lessig convincingly argues that the Catholic justices’ arguments were in fact rooted in the view that life begins at conception, a view on which the constitution is silent but religion has plenty to say.

The grim fact that we who care about things like due process and equality are dealing with here is that a minority of religious extremists continues to foist extremely regressive views on the majority of us who reject those views to different degrees. For a while it seemed that religiosity was declining in the United States. But now it appears that those of us who found this trend reassuring were too smug; it’s not the numbers of the religious that have mattered but the strength of their convictions, crucially applied over time like water dripping on a stone to wear the system down. And that’s exactly what they have wanted.

The third reason why I am feeling rather bitter about religion is a recent personal experience. I was invited to a religious event at an extremely devout friend’s place. I will not note the friend’s religion or denomination to keep the story general and to avoid bias; similar stories could be told about any religion. My friend is a smart, kind and intelligent man, and while I usually avoid religious events, I made an exception this time because I like him and also because I wanted to observe the event, much like an anthropologist would observe the customs of another tribe. What struck me from the beginning was the lack of inclusivity in the event. We were not supposed to go into certain rooms, touch certain objects or food, take photos of them or even point at them. We were supposed to speak in hushed tones. Most tellingly, we weren’t supposed to shake hands with my friend or touch him in any way because he was conducting the event in a kind of priestly capacity. What social or historical contexts in more than one society this behavior evokes I do not need to spell out.

Now, my friend is well-meaning and was otherwise very friendly and generous, but all these actions struck me as emblematic of the worst features of religion, features meant to draw boundaries and divide the world into “us” and “them”. And the experience was again emblematic of Weinberg’s quote – an otherwise intelligent, kind and honest person was practicing strange, exclusionary customs because his holy book told him to do so, customs that otherwise would have been regarded as odd and even offensive. For normal people to do strange things, that takes religion.

Fortunately, these depressing thoughts about religion have, as their counterpart, hopeful thoughts about science. Everything about science makes it a different system. Nobody will issue a fatwa in science because a scientist says something that others disagree with or even find offensive, because if the scientist is wrong, the facts will decide one way or another. Nobody will carry out a decades-long vendetta to overturn a rule or decision which the majority believes as shown by the data. And certainly nobody will try to exclude anyone from doing a scientific experiment or proposing a theory just because they don’t belong to their particular tribe. All this is true even if science has its own priesthoods and has historically practiced forms of exclusion at one time or another. Scientists have their own biases as much as any other human people – witness the right’s opposition to climate change and the left’s opposition to parts of genetics research – but the great thing about science is that slowly but surely, it’s the facts about the world that decide truths, not authority or majority or minority opinion. Science is the greatest self-correcting system discovered by human beings, while religion keeps on allowing errors to propagate for generations and centuries by invoking authority and faith.

Sadly, these recent developments have shown us that the destructive passions unleashed by religious faith continue to proliferate. Again and again, when those of us who value rationality and science think we have reached some kind of understanding with the religious or think that the most corrosive effects of religion are waning, along comes a Hadi Matar to try to end the life of a Salman Rushdie, and along comes a cohort of religious extremists to end the will of the majority. Religion may not be the root of all evil, but it’s the root of a lot of evil, and undoubtedly of the most diverse evil. That’s reason enough to oppose it with all our hearts and minds. It’s time to loudly sound the trumpets of rationalism and the scientific worldview again.

First published on 3 Quarks Daily.