Back in January this year, the Doomsday Clock was moved to only 100 seconds until midnight–the representative marker for nuclear war. In doing this, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board pleaded with world leaders to take action for an international security risk that they have let spiral out of control: “It is 100 seconds to midnight. We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds – not hours, or even minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency – an unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.” Indeed, it is a sobering thought to think that a powerful minority has access to weapons that could wipe out humanity, all at the push of a button. But how did it get to be like this? How did humanity come to harness nuclear physics and yield the power of the sun so destructively? It all started with the discoveries of one German nuclear physicist Hans Bethe.
In 1938, Bethe proposed the mechanism by which smaller and cooler stars like our Sun produce energy: nuclear fusion. Specifically, he outlined the process that is called the proton-proton chain reaction. In broad strokes, under the immense heat and gravity within a star, 4 hydrogen nuclei (ie. protons) will combine to form 1 helium atom. During this multi-step reaction, nearly 70% of the original mass is lost to heat and light, thereby perpetuating the cycle of nuclear fusion to other surrounding atoms. This discovery (along with future work building upon it) landed him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1967. However, with the Second World War looming, this discovery immediately took on geopolitical importance.
Soon enough, Bethe was recruited alongside hundreds of other scientists by the U.S. military to work on the ‘Project Manhattan’ to create a working atomic bomb. The A-bomb would dwarf the power of any conventional chemical explosive by harnessing the incredible amount of energy released from the chain reaction of splitting atoms. Despite this, Bethe’s prior work raised the question of a possible alternative to the focus on fission. Headed by Edward Teller, some scientists sought instead to apply the fusion mechanism to create the hydrogen bomb, an unfathomably destructive weapon that would release more than 1000 times the energy than that of a traditional atomic bomb.
While their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful during the war (which was officially terminated by the US dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945), the initiative was reinvigorated in the Cold War when the Soviet Union successfully tested their first atomic bomb in 1949. This challenge to their nuclear supremacy pushed the American administration to seriously pursue the development of a hydrogen bomb. In 1952, following a design outlined by Teller and his partner Ulam, they successfully detonated their first thermonuclear weapon.
This test effectively opened Pandora’s box and wholly changed warfare and politics forever: it introduced the concept of mutually assured destruction between these nations. Their wars could no longer be fought through means of attrition with guns, tanks, and chemical bombs. Now, at the push of a button, nations with these weapons of mass destruction could completely decimate a country and take the rest of the world down with it through the deadly aftereffects of radioactive fallout.
Still today, there exist nearly 13,500 nuclear warheads across the world–including the devastating H-bombs–, more than enough to annihilate the human race. Humanity is at a crossroads. We must decide what we are going to do with the ingenious work and discoveries of scientists like Hans Bethe.
Nuclear technology is a fascinating area of science with countless non-military applications that could help humanity thrive in the coming decades and reveal the inner workings of our universe. Alternatively, it can be used to destroy everything we have come to know. As Einstein’s (probably apocryphal) saying goes: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
1. Hoskin, Michael A. The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy. Point Par Point, 2007.
2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Proton-Proton Cycle.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Jan. 2018, www.britannica.com/science/proton-proton-cycle.
3. Hans Bethe – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Mon. 21 Sep 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1967/bethe/facts/>
4. History.com Editors. “Manhattan Project.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 26 July 2017, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-manhattan-project.
5. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Edward Teller.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Sept. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-Teller.
6. Kageyama, Yuri. “A-Bombs vs. H-Bombs: What's the Difference?” The Globe and Mail, 6 Jan. 2016, www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/a-bombs-vs-h-bombs-whats-thedifference/article28030528/#:~:text=Atomic bombs rely on fission,also produce energy through fusion.
7. History.com Editors. “Manhattan Project.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 26 July 2017, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-manhattan-project.
8. “Soviets Explode Atomic Bomb.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Feb. 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/soviets-explode-atomic-bomb.
9. “Teller-Ulam Configuration.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/technology/Teller-Ulam-configuration.
10. McDonough, David S. “Nuclear Superiority or Mutually Assured Deterrence: The Development of the US Nuclear Deterrent.” International Journal, vol. 60, no. 3, 2005, pp. 811–823. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40204064. Accessed 22 Sept. 2020.
11. Institute of Medicine (US) Steering Committee for the Symposium on the Medical Implications of Nuclear War; Solomon F, Marston RQ, editors. The Medical Implications of Nuclear War. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1986. Genetic Consequences of Nuclear War.
12. “Fact Sheets & Briefs.” Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance | Arms Control Association, www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat.
13. Taylor, Adam. “Map: The Countries Believed to Have Tested Hydrogen Bombs.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/01/06/map-the-countries-believed-to-have-tested-hydrogen-bombs/.
14. Dan Evon. “Did Albert Einstein Say World War IV Will Be Fought 'With Sticks and Stones'?” Snopes.com, www.snopes.com/fact-check/einstein-world-war-iv-sticks-stones/.
*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.