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Freeman Dyson’s Interview

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Freeman Dyson is an esteemed mathematician and theoretical physicist at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, Dyson discusses his work at England’s Bomber Command in World War II, tracking the position of bomber forces. He explains the importance of scientific innovation in wartime, the effectiveness of strategic bombing campaigns, and why civil defense worked better in Germany than in Britain. Dyson later worked with Manhattan Project veterans Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, and Robert R. Wilson, and recalls how they felt about the project. He discusses Niels Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s ideas for international control of nuclear weapons, and what methods he thinks would work best to further nonproliferation efforts today. Dyson also remembers visiting Oak Ridge, and explains Oak Ridge’s important role in building innovative nuclear reactors and conducting biological experiments.

Date of Interview:
March 26, 2008
Location of the Interview:


Freeman Dyson: I’m Freeman Dyson, F-R-E-E-M-A-N D-Y-S-O-N, retired professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Cynthia Kelly: Why don’t we start with your experience in World War II? Maybe you could tell us what your role was.

Dyson:  In World War II, I was given the job of operations research, which is really just a polite way of saying statistician. I was collecting information about the operations of the British bomber command. At that time – this was 1943, so the war was two-thirds over, I came in only for the last two years – we had a huge bombing campaign operating against Germany. In fact, the day I arrived at Bomber Command was just the day after the first heavy attack on Hamburg, which was a turning point in the bombing campaign. It was the first time we had really destroyed a city. There was a jubilant air in the place the day I arrived.

I was immediately given the job of calculating the position of the bomber force at various times of the night, and plotting the places where the bombers were shot down. So that was my trade, investigating the progress of operations on a very short time scale. They wanted to have the information within a couple of days. So that was what I did essentially for the rest of the war, collecting information about the operations.

I was concerned with the bomber losses. The operations research center to which I belonged, which was a bunch of civilian scientists, we were divided into two main groups. There was the bomber effectiveness group and there was the bomber losses group. I was in the bomber losses group, so I wasn’t so much concerned with what the bombing was doing, but with how many bombers we lost.

Kelly: This is an aside, but I did read something about—maybe it was in one of your works—about how they figured out how to substantially reduce the number of bomber losses, through some device. 

Dyson: Window? 

Kelly: Yes, maybe.

Dyson: It happened also that the day I arrived at Bomber Command was also the day after we first used “Window.” Window was a device for jamming the German radars. It simply consisted of strips of paper with aluminum on one side so they conducted electricity. Each strip was of the right length just to resonate with one of the German radars. There were two main German radar systems, which we called Freya and Würzberg. These strips of paper were tuned to jam them both.

One of my jobs the very first week was calculating the distribution of these paper strips: where they actually were in the sky at various times, and figuring out how effective they would be as jammers. Well, it turned out that they were highly effective for one week, and that was it. After that, they had no effect at all. This is sort of typical of the way real life works: you have some very clever idea which everyone thinks is going to win the war. It turns out that it works beautifully. But the Germans are also rather clever, and they think of a countermeasure. And within one week the whole thing is nullified.

So that was what happened. For that week, when we were attacking Hamburg, the Window, we calculated, saved about 100 bombers. Losses went down abruptly. We would have lost maybe 300, but we actually lost 200 during that week, or something like that. It was a very noticeable reduction in losses. The first night we only lost twelve, which was far below the normal loss rate, which at that time was about five percent. We were flying 500 or 600 bombers, which meant we were losing about twenty-five or thirty each operation. We only lost twelve that first night, so that was a triumph. Certainly Window worked that first night.

But what the Germans did, with a speed we found miraculous. We expected the Germans would finally be able to counter Window, but we never expected they would react so fast. They must have been well prepared for this. Germans must have had all their plans ready, they knew it was coming. It only took them a week, actually, to get a completely new organization for the fighter defense. Most of the bombers were shot down by night fighters. The German night fighters were very good. Before Window, each fighter was actually controlled from the ground by a radar, or rather, two radars. They had one radar focused on the bomber, one focused on the fighter. From the ground, they would vector the fighter to intersect the bomber, so they’d shoot them down one at a time.

Well, after Window, they abandoned that system completely, because Window made it ineffective. Instead, the ground controllers simply vectored the fighters into the general neighborhood of the bomber stream. The German fighters carried airborne radar, so they were able to do the honing onto the individual bombers. At short range, Window didn’t work, because as soon as you got within a few miles of the bomber you could see it anyway. So that the fighters, within a very short time, were just as effective as they had been before. That’s typical of the way things work in wars.

Kelly: People think that if you have a technological edge, that you can vanquish your enemy, but obviously you have to keep your technological edge sharp.

Dyson: It’s the same with civil defense. The Germans were being heavily bombed for about three years, so they got very good at civil defense. Whereas in Britain we were only bombed for six months, we never really got the hang of it. It was a huge difference. It actually took ten times as many bombs to kill one person in Germany as it did to kill one person in London. That was one of the reasons why the campaign failed, that the German civil defense was just very good. You can actually save people with civil defense. Most people are unaware of that. Civil defense does work. It would also work against nuclear bombs. Of course, that is a politically unpopular view, but it happens to be true.

Kelly: Can you explain that?

Dyson: Well, most of the people who are killed in nuclear bombing are killed by blast and fire, which is sort of old-fashioned, it has nothing to do nuclear radiation. Some people die of nuclear radiation, but that’s a small number by comparison. If you are five feet underground, you are very well shielded from all of that. So most people, even in a nuclear bombing, would survive, if they are five feet underground. Of course, in Hiroshima, they didn’t have that. If the Japanese had had a couple of years, they would have learned, and probably faster than that. It’s quite unrealistic to imagine that, with good civil defense, that Hiroshima would have been so devastating.

Kelly: That’s interesting. Your experience with the Air Force, you wrote in Disturbing the Universe, that the experience led you to conclude that “Bombing of cities was a pointless waste of lives.”

Dyson: Right. On both sides. We lost a tremendous number of airmen, something like 40,000 young men were killed. And the Germans lost 400,000 civilians. It made no difference to the war, practically speaking. The real war was being fought on the ground, mostly in Russia.

But I should mention, just in connection with the civil defense: there was a wonderful book written after the war by a man called Hans Rumph. The title means “The Scarlet Rooster,” which means “fire.” This fellow was actually the head of German civil defense, and he described how they operated. It’s a splendid book. Of course, nobody ever reads it. I don’t think it was ever translated, as far as I know.

Kelly: Maybe you could talk about how Britain made the decision in 1936 to start a campaign for building big bombers and thinking that this war would be fought with the Air Force and less of the ground?

Dyson: Let me start from World War I, which is really what was dominating everybody’s thinking at the time. The people who were running the various governments in different countries leading up to World War II, they had all lived through World War I, and they were totally dominated by their memories of World War I, whatever it was. On the British side, World War I was just an unspeakable tragedy, and our lives were dominated by this feeling of tragedy. The war had been so horrible, had killed so many people and had destroyed European civilization, and led to a feeling of doom and gloom everywhere.

The number one imperative in everybody’s mind was, “We we won’t fight World War I over again.” That was just absolutely the dominating principle. So how do you do it then? The question was, now Hitler comes along, we are faced with Hitler, we will obviously have to fight him one way or another. He was hell bent on conquering Europe, and had more or less said so publicly. So we were faced with this problem.

In Britain, the chief advocate of bombing was Sir Hugh Trenchard, who had been the Chief of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. In World War I, the Royal Flying Corps was part of the Army, so it operated just as a tactical Air Force. Hugh Trenchard was the boss. He flew over the trenches. The people down in the trenches were dying in the millions. He was flying overhead and he said, “That’s not the right way to do it. Instead of fighting in trenches, we should be attacking the Germans directly.”

He said to himself, already in 1917 when World War I was aging, that, “Next time we will do it differently.” He became the head of the Royal Air Force when it was established, when it became an independent command. He was still very influential in the 1930s, and he campaigned then for having a big Air Force, and he won.

The strategic plan was actually officially adopted in 1936 – that World War II should be an air war, not a ground war. The big money was put into Bomber Command. Bomber Command was, I think, one-quarter of the entire British economy. It was very, very large. So already in 1936 we started building factories to build big bombers, so we had the production lines running, and big bombers were being produced by the time the war started.

Of course, in the Battle of Britain these were only an encumbrance. What we needed was fighters and not bombers, but still. We barely just had enough fighters to squeeze by.

For the rest of the war, we continued producing bombers. The question was: what do you do with them? Originally, of course, the idea was that you use the bombers for attacking military targets, you bomb factories, bomb war communications, trains, and bridges and things of this sort, tactical military objectives. But they quickly discovered, first of all, that you couldn’t fly over Germany in the daytime, because you got shot down, and if you went at night, you couldn’t hit anything smaller than a city.

So the answer was then decided quite early in the war: it had to be a night bombing campaign, because that was the only hope of surviving, and it had to be a campaign against cities, not against factories. That was how it went. The logic of war dictated how it should be fought. Once you had decided your main weapon was to be strategic bombers, then that was all you could do. So that’s how the whole thing started.

In America the situation was somewhat similar. There was, again, a decision to have an independent Air Force and to make it heavy. The Americans still believed in daylight bombing, which turned out they couldn’t do. They very sensibly made the decision in 1943 not to go over Germany at all, so they were not bombing Germany in the greater part of the war, because they only had daylight bombers. They got shot down. They made the wise decision: let’s not do that. During the middle two years of the war, the British Air Force was bombing more or less alone. The Americans were waiting until they had long-range fighters to escort the bombers, which in the end they did.

So it was a complicated story, but both America and Britain decided strategic bombing was a good idea, which Hitler never did. Hitler never believed in strategic bombing. He was always a ground soldier. He believed in fighting the war on the ground.

The Americans finally built the B-29 force to bomb Japan, which was essentially on the British model of night bombing. The B-29s were built essentially as city destroyers. I don’t know when that decision was made. Probably quite early in the war, they decided they had to go for Japan. Japan was always postponed, until after Germany had been defeated. But in fact, they made these decisions to build these bombers long before, of course.

The B-29s were very effective in Japan. Everything worked well in Japan, because they had no time. The Japanese bombing started in March 1945 with a huge attack on Tokyo, which killed more people than any other attack in the war, on either German or Japanese. They killed 150,000 people in one night, and destroyed half of Tokyo. That was the opening salvo, and then the bombing continued for three months. Essentially all the cities in Japan were destroyed, and the Japanese never had time to get organized the way the Germans did.

Kelly: I am personally interested in the civil defense in London and why it was not greater.

Dyson: In London, of course, we had shelters. The tube system was wonderful. Every tube station was filled with bunk beds so people could go down spend the night there, if they wanted. But we were not compelled to go. Of course, the Germans were. That was the difference. In Britain, it was voluntary. You could go down if you felt like it, and most people didn’t. We were not being bombed heavily enough so that everybody went down. In fact, rather few people went down.

It was a social meeting place down there. Lots of people went down just because it was fun even, when we weren’t being bombed. It wasn’t used the way it should have been. I was in London only a few nights during the bombing, so we never thought of going down to the shelters. The question never came up. It was much more interesting to be up, to look out the window and see what was going on.

Kelly: That’s very interesting. There are many stories of Churchill, how he felt it was exhilarating so be shot at.

Dyson: Oh yes, it was true! I was a teenager at that point, and it was fun. There was a wonderful film made many years later called “Hope and Glory.” I don’t know if you have ever seen that. It was an excellent film, the best film about the British war experience that I know. It was the war seen through the eyes of a ten year old. It was a great lark, that’s actually very accurate.

Kelly: You talked in your book about how the scientists at Los Alamos, in fact, had a great lark.

Dyson: Yes. That was very true. Everyone you speak to who was at Los Alamos during those years always say, “Oh, it was a wonderful time.” It was the high point of their lives as a scientist. It was a time when everybody was in together, not working for personal credit, but for a clearly defined goal, with all these great people working together. It was something they had never experienced either before or since.

Kelly: Another thing which you talk about, which I think is interesting: Oppenheimer confessed, famously, “In some sort of crude sense, the scientists have known sin.” You commented, “They did not just build the bomb, they enjoyed building it. They had the best time of their lives while building it.” And that Americans lacked the tragic sense of life, which was deeply ingrained in Europeans.

Dyson: That’s true, of course, yes. It was certainly true that when [J. Robert] Oppenheimer said that the physicists had known sin, many people violently objected to that and said, “We were just soldiers working for the war, like other soldiers. If it’s sinful to fight wars at all, then we were sinners, but otherwise not.”

They had a good point. At that point, certainly everybody was involved in the war in essentially the same way. We were fighting what we considered for a good cause. But the difference was that the soldiers were really suffering, whereas the scientists at Los Alamos were not. What Oppenheimer probably had in mind was the fact that they actually enjoyed doing what they were doing. It was not just that they were soldiers fighting in a good cause, but they were also having a great time, having the best time of their lives, and that was in some sense sinful. I think that he was right.

Kelly: You mentioned in that section of the book, that [Richard] Feynman was sort of an exception, because he had lost his wife to TB, and he had experienced tragedy.

Dyson: It was worse than that. He hadn’t yet lost her, he was losing her during those years. She was dying but not yet dead. That was very true, he really understood what it was to suffer. Americans, generally speaking, didn’t. I felt the contrast very strongly when I came to America in 1947, two years later. Feynman was still living under the shadow of this tragedy. I got to know Feynman the. It was great luck; when I came to America I had never heard of Feynman, but within two weeks I was his friend. It was purely by accident.

Kelly: Let’s talk about that, you coming to America and why you came and where you went and who you worked with.

Dyson: After the war, I actually wanted to go to Russia. My plan was to go and study in Russia. I loved the language, and I had been also aware of the fact that there were some very fine scientists in Russia, particular people like [Igor] Tamm, [Lev] Lendow and [Pyotr] Kapitsa and such. Russia had a really high level of excellence in science, in spite of the communist party. The communist party had attacked biology very seriously, but they had never attacked physics, so physics was going strong. So I wanted to go to Russia.

After the war, things rapidly deteriorated. It became less and less feasible to go as a student to Russia. Within about six months, it was fairly clear that it was impossible, that it wasn’t going to work, that they didn’t welcome foreigners anymore. So America was the second choice. Which was very fortunate, as it turned out.

So I made plans to come to America. Everybody in England wanted to travel because we had been cooped up on the island for six years. The easiest way to travel at that point was to go to America, because America had money. There was a wonderful institution called the Commonwealth Fund, which gave away money to students to come to America. I applied for a Commonwealth fellowship and got it. Then the question was where to go.

I happened to meet Sir Hugh Taylor, who was one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos. I met him in Cambridge and said, “Where should I go in America?”

He said, “Cornell.” The conversation was over in about five seconds. He said, “Cornell was where all the brightest people went after the war was over.” I had never heard of Cornell, but thought I would take his advice. So I applied, and then I went.

I came to Cornell to work with Hans Bethe, who was one of the greatest physicists in the world. He was right there at Cornell. He had been second-in-command at Los Alamos. It was just an ideal situation. In addition to Hans Bethe, there were many other Los Alamos veterans, who were then only about thirty years old, Feynman, and Phil Morrison, and Bob Wilson. Bob Wilson was chief of experimental physics, Bethe was chief of theoretical physics, and Phil Morrison was actually the fellow who carried the plutonium core to Tinian for the Nagasaki attack, so he was deeply involved in the business. Phil Morrison also visited Hiroshima very soon after it was destroyed.

So there were those three people who were leading lights, who had been deeply involved at Los Alamos. I learned everything right from the horse’s mouth.

Kelly: How did these scientists feel about their contribution to the war?

Dyson: All three of them, I think, were quite proud of what they had done. They thought they had made a really important contribution to an important historical event, and they were proud of it. But they all had reservations, of course, particularly Wilson. All three of them were convinced that the evils that could come out of this were much greater than whatever good had been achieved. They were all of them campaigning for international control of weapons. They were all heavily engaged politically. They had set up the Federation of American Scientists, which is still going strong now, after sixty years. The Federation was actually working very hard to get the bombs under control before the Russians would start a major arms race.

There were two proposals which were presented. The United Nations was new. Everybody had high hopes that the United Nations could actually deal with this problem. They held their meetings at the United Nations. There were two proposals. There was an American proposal for a very elaborate international control system, which essentially gave all nuclear processes away to an international authority, so there should be no national nuclear programs, only an international program. No weapons at all. That was a very, very ambitious proposal, which was actually largely put together by Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer thought that was the way to do it, and he had friends in the government at very high levels. That was adopted as the official American proposal. It was called the Baruch Plan, because Bernard Baruch was the one who actually presented it at the United Nations.

In opposition to that, there was the Soviet proposal, which was much simpler, and I think actually much better. What the Russians said was, “Let’s just make bombs illegal, and that’s it,” to treat it the same way chemical weapons were treated after World War I. After World War I, you had the Geneva Convention, which most countries signed. Not the United States, but more or less everybody else signed. So chemical weapons were declared illegal, which meant that there was no international authority building chemicals or anything of that kind, it was simply a legal prohibition. If anybody was producing chemical weapons, that was contrary to international law, and the people involved could be condemned as criminals. But there was no enforcement. That was essentially the Soviet proposal, that you do the same thing with nuclear weapons.

Every country was free to build reactors and to build peaceful nuclear power plants. That was all left in the hands of nations. But you simply had a legal prohibition against producing bombs. I think that would have worked, the same way it did with chemical weapons. It’s a remarkable achievement that chemical weapons were not used in World War II, and that was essentially a concept from the Geneva Convention. The soldiers just disliked like chemical weapons. They had had enough in World War I. It was a horrible way of fighting, and no self-respecting soldier wanted to do that. I think one could have done that with nuclear weapons too.

That was the Soviet proposal. And of course, nobody took it seriously in this country. The fact that it was a Soviet proposal meant that it was political death even to support it. To support it meant you were a Commie. So it never got a hearing, really at all, which is a great shame.

So none of my friends actually took the Soviet proposal seriously. Oppenheimer was fighting for the American proposal very strongly, and everybody else went along. Bethe, Morrison, and Wilson all firmly believed in this international control system as being the key.

I think it wasn’t really practical. It was clear the Russians weren’t going to go along with it. The Russians were completely determined to have their own program. Stalin had already decided that, and nothing we could do would change it. I think the American proposal was probably dead on arrival, really. The negotiations never got anywhere. Sixty years later, I think we might have learned something, and I still think the Soviet proposal would make sense today.

Kelly: So if we go back to before the war ended and the decision to Stimson and Truman had to make, to go forward with dropping the bomb on the Japanese. You talked earlier about bombing Tokyo and thirty-two other cities with conventional bombing. Do you think Truman made the right decision?

Dyson: There are two totally different questions here, which are very much confused in the public mind. It is very important to separate them. The first is: what actually happened in Japan? Why did the Japanese surrender? Did it have anything to do with the nuclear bombs? That’s one question. It’s a very important question, but it should be kept separate from the second question, which is: what did it look like to Truman? How much information did Truman actually have about what was going on in Japan? When he made the decision to drop the bombs, was that justifiable or not? That’s a totally separate question, because Truman had actually very little information. His decision wasn’t at all governed by what was really happening in Japan. His decision was governed by what he knew, which is a very different thing. I think it’s very important to keep those things separate.

If you look at it from the Japanese point of view: their whole strategy, in the late stages of the war, was to make a reasonably advantageous peace. They knew they couldn’t win, by 1945. They were never going to conquer the United States. But they might make a peace treaty which left them some of their possessions, and which left them in a situation that from their point of view was politically acceptable.

Their strategy was very largely based on Russia. You hear that all the time, when you look at the Japanese discussions, which now are available. There’s a book [Racing the Enemy] that’s recently been written by a historian called [Tsuyoshi] Hasegawa, which goes into this very carefully. It’s clear that the Japanese strategy was to end the war on more or less advantageous terms, with the help of Russia. It was very important that the Russians were neutral, and that they could have some real influence on the United States, since the war in Europe was still going on, and it was important for the United States to keep their alliance with Russia. Russia was then in alliance with the United States. That alliance was extremely important as long as the war in Europe continued.

The whole Japanese strategy was to use the Russians to negotiate peace with America, and in the meantime just to fight a defensive war as long as they could. The Japanese Army, of course, was committed to defense to the very last man, as they had done in Okinawa. Everybody knew that the Japanese would fight to the last man. That was taken for granted.

That whole strategy collapsed when the Russians declared war on Japan. That happened—I forget the exact dates, but I think it was August 12th, or something like that, it was three days after Hiroshima. The sequence of events was: first Hiroshima, three days later the Russian declaration of war, and then the same afternoon the attack on Nagasaki, so those three events.

When you look at it carefully, the supreme war-making authority in Japan, the Supreme Council, or something of that kind, was a bunch of about ten people, mostly military people, including the Emperor. When Hiroshima was bombed, the Secretary of the Navy said, “Let’s have a meeting of the Supreme Council.”

Everybody else said, “No, we’re busy, we don’t want to do that.” They didn’t take Hiroshima that seriously. The evidence is quite clear that Hiroshima didn’t have much effect.

Three days later, the Russians declared war. There was a meeting of the Supreme Council within six hours. It was clear that that was really important to everybody. It knocked the bottom out of the whole strategy.

They knew, first of all, after the Russians declared war, that they would be unable to have any help from Russia in making peace. Also, they were in grave danger of being overrun by the Russians. The Russians were already invading Manchuria, and they didn’t have the troops to fight Americans in the south and Russians in the north at the same time.

The whole strategy collapsed on that morning. That was the day that they actually decided to surrender. It was quite clearly in response to the Russian invasion and not to the bombing. Also, Nagasaki actually happened the same day, but it was too late to influence the decision. So I think the evidence is clear that the Japanese surrender was in fact caused by the Russian invasion and not by the bombs – ninety percent to ten percent, or something. So that’s that question.

But then the other question about Truman. If you look at it from Truman’s point of view, he certainly knew that a certain part of the Japanese government was trying to make peace, but he also knew that a large part of the Japanese government was determined not to make peace, particularly the Army. The Army considered it totally dishonorable to surrender under any circumstances. You fought to the last man and that was it. From their point of view, the question of surrender should never arise.

That was a very serious consideration for Truman, that the Army was likely to go on fighting no matter what. It was quite clear that if you had to invade Japan and fight the Japanese street by street through the city of Tokyo, it was going to be enormously costly. Okinawa showed how tough the Japanese were, and in their own country they would probably be even tougher. It was very reasonable to say, if you had to invade Japan and fight over every mile of ground, it would cost probably a million American soldiers, or something like that. It would have been a huge undertaking.

Truman certainly looked at it from that point of view, that it was a choice between dropping the bombs, hoping it would have a shock value and cause a quick surrender, or invading Japan and having huge losses. That was more or less the way the decision was presented to him. And I think there’s absolutely no doubt that if that was the choice, the sensible thing to do was drop the bombs. That’s the way he looked at it, and I think he was right, judging by all the information he had.

Japanese attempts to surrender were not all that clear at all. It was clear there was a faction in the Japanese Foreign Office which wanted to negotiate, but it was equally clear that the war was still going on and that the Army wasn’t interested in surrendering.

He was completely justified in what he did. It is also questionable whether he could have made any other decision, because there was this bureaucratic inertia that was tremendous. The whole bombing campaign against Japan had been running for three months with huge destruction of Japanese cities. Why not do a little bit more if it’s going to end the war? The inertia was just tremendous. Suddenly to say, “Let’s stop. We have got this beautiful new bomb, but we’re not going to use it,” that would have been politically very, very hard to do. I think Truman might in fact have been impeached if he had failed to drop the bombs when he had them ready. It would have produced a very violent reaction if he had said no.

The power of a president is always conditional on having the passive consent of everybody involved. If the majority of the military were against him, he might not have been able to get them to do what he said.

To my mind, the answers to the two questions are in contradiction to each other. On the one hand, the bombs in fact didn’t cause the Japanese surrender, but on the other hand, Truman believed it would, so he was justified in dropping the bombs. It’s an ironical conclusion, but I think it’s more or less right.

Kelly: You mentioned the Hasegawa book, which has only come out in the last year or two. This issue has been so controversial. How do we enlighten people? Up until the book came out, did you feel the same way?

Dyson: No. I changed my mind about a year ago as a result of talking to a young man called Ward Wilson, who lives here in Princeton. He’s not famous. He’s written about this subject in a very convincing way. It was he who brought Hasegawa to my attention. What he points out that there’s an enormously strong piece of evidence, which even Hasegawa didn’t make a big deal of this, but to my mind it is the most interesting of all.

That was the official order which the Emperor wrote ordering the Army to surrender, and he makes the argument why they should surrender, and it is his own words, and I think it sounds very genuine. He doesn’t mention the bombs at all. In that order to the Army, he refers to the events of 1895. He has very much a historical view. In 1895, there was a war between Japan and China. The Japanese won, so China was in bad shape at that time. The Japanese occupied Manchuria and were defeating China. At that point, the European powers intervened, in particular Russia. The Russians said to the Japanese, “You have no business here,” and they actually took over Manchuria, and drove the Japanese out.

The Japanese surrendered to the Europeans, and essentially they accepted the European ultimatum. It was the Emperor—what was his name?—Meiji, was the emperor then. He had tremendous prestige. He had modernized Japan. He said, “We should surrender to keep the Russians out of Japan. We don’t want to the Russians interfering in our lives. So give them Manchuria.” Which is what he did.

So that then, ten years later, Japan could get its revenge. Ten years later, in 1905, they whipped the Russians, but they needed that ten years to recover their strength. Anyway, Meiji ordered the surrender as a tactical move, essentially, and it worked.

That’s what the Emperor in 1945 recalled. “The great Emperor Meiji surrendered, we should do the same thing. It is the best moment. We can get better conditions now than we will later, so let’s surrender quickly and get it over with and preserve whatever we can.” That’s what the order says. It explicitly points to Russia as the reason for surrendering, and says nothing about the bombs.

He was talking to his own people when he wrote that. That was the way he was thinking. It looks to me very plausible, but we will never know one hundred percent, because they never really explained themselves afterwards. Afterwards the Japanese propagated the myth that the bombs had been decisive, because it was much more honorable to surrender to a new force of nature than to surrender to the Russians. There is another document which is in Hasegawa’s book, written by the Secretary of the Navy, saying that “We should tell everybody we surrendered because of the bombs.” That’s the evidence, and I think it’s pretty strong.

Kelly: I’m trying to think how this affects Americans today in thinking about the war, and the whole issue of should we or shouldn’t we have. You point out, it’s two questions. You have to go back to the context of the time. It’s certainly not fair to impose the knowledge we have in 2008 to Truman, when he did not know these things. This is what he had to base his decision on, and not these other things.

Dyson: Yes, it’s very important to keep the two things separate. In fact, the bombs didn’t end the war, but we thought they did. That’s the truth.

I draw strong conclusions from all of this, that we could get rid of nuclear weapons now, essentially by following the Russian plan, declaring nuclear weapons to be illegal. We just get rid of ours. That’s what George Bush Sr. did with the tactical nuclear weapons, I think in 1991, when [Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev was still in charge in the Soviet Union just before the Soviet Union disappeared. When it was clear that relations between the America and Russia were finally getting friendly, what George Bush Sr. did was simply unilaterally say, “We are not going to have tactical nuclear weapons at all.” Those were the little nukes, each of which is big enough to destroy a city, but they were deployed all around the world in the most dangerous places. We had lots of them in England, we lots of them in Germany, we had lots of them in Japan, all over the place, also in Korea, and on ships, which was perhaps the most dangerous of all.

I actually made a visit to the United States Ship Princeton, which was an armed missile cruiser, carrying 100 long-range missiles on this cruiser. These were tactical missiles, half of them were nukes, and half of them were non-nukes, and they were on the same ship. It was completely crazy: just press the wrong button and you have fired a nuke instead of an old-fashioned or conventional missile. Those things were just a war waiting to start by accident. Anyhow, those were got rid of. Now the Princeton still carries missiles, but it doesn’t carry nuclear missiles.

So the surface Navy became completely non-nuclear. The Army became completely non-nuclear. All that’s left is the Air Force and the submarines. So that was a huge act of unilateral disarmament done by George Bush Sr. He did it one afternoon, carefully timing it so it coincided with a settlement of a tobacco lawsuit, which got all the headlines. Nothing of this appeared in the newspapers. It just happened, just very quietly; nobody raised any objections.

A few days later, Gorbachev said, “That makes sense, we will do it too.” The Russians got rid of theirs also, and that’s the way it should be, I think. We could do it again with the strategic weapons. It probably would work just as well. You don’t get rid of all of them in one day, but you get rid of a lot. By making them illegal, it gives you a very much stronger grounds for resisting proliferation.

You are not going to get rid of the danger of hidden weapons; the danger of hidden weapons will always be there, just as it is now. You won’t be able to inspect all these various countries that you think might be hiding nuclear weapons. But if they are illegal, it means that it has to be on a fairly small scale, comparatively. You have then a legal justification for taking very strong measures if you find out they have been cheating.

I think that’s the best you can do. It’s certainly much better than the present situation. In the present situation, the Russians and the United States both have these huge arsenals of strategic nukes, and those are far more dangerous, I think, than anything Iran or the North Koreans may produce. So we can get rid of those, anyway.

Kelly: How do you respond to those who believe that we really can’t afford to be caught without a deterrent or some effective means to stand up to North Korea or Iran, someone that’s poised to use their illegal weapon back at us?

Dyson: There’s no perfect solution to the problem. Everything you do has risks, and that’s one of the risks, that’s all. But in fact, it’s overwhelmingly probable that if the United States gets attacked with a nuclear weapon, it won’t be from a government at all, but it will be a bunch of bad guys carrying a weapon in a suitcase or in a car or in a truck or something of that kind. You won’t even know where it comes from. That’s by far the most probable danger to the United States. That danger you don’t deal with by deterrence at all, so from that point of view it’s irrelevant how much we have ourselves. It’s also possible one of our own weapons gets stolen and used against us. That’s another reason for not having them.

The other possibility, which is quite probable if the North Koreans are serious, or if the Iranians are serious, is that they will be using them against their neighbors, not against us. That’s certainly a real possibility. It’s again the question, what do you want to do? If, for example, the Iranians built a bomb and used it to destroy Tel Aviv, which is, I suppose, the most likely target, what do we do? Do we destroy Iran? I don’t think so. It’s a question, but it’s hard to imagine that we would really do that. I don’t see any moral justification for it. But it could happen, of course.

But whatever happens, the world is unpredictable. But I feel we are fundamentally in much greater danger in a world with 20,000 nuclear weapons than in a world with twenty. It’s an enormous difference. If there are 20,000 weapons in existence and things go badly, we can end up shooting them against the Russians and the Russians shooting theirs against us. If a war gets out of control, we can end up destroying ourselves very thoroughly. If the world has only twenty, half in the hands of Iran—maybe the Israelis have a lot more than that anyway, maybe 100 in the hands of the Israelis—it’s still a lot safer than having 20,000.

Kelly: What do you see as a possible role for the national laboratories?

Dyson: It’s a very difficult question, because what should the national laboratories actually do? They are themselves a very strong bureaucratic influence, and they are politically strong. Of course, we have three national labs, Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia. We need at most one. The problem is, how do you get rid of two of them, or even better, how do you get rid of three of them? It’s difficult. What most of us would love to do—most of us, meaning the people who are sensible, people who think like me—is to give the national labs something totally different to do. For example, to study various forms of energy production, or to study the new world of reduced carbon emissions, and things of this kind, which the national labs are well set up to do. It’s still not clear we need three.

I don’t know the answer. It’s very, very hard to turn the bureaucracy around. You have all these very, very highly skilled people whose lives have been devoted to maintaining the stockpile, and they are very good at it. They all feel it’s absolutely essential that the coming generation should take over their places, that this knowledge which they have so laboriously acquired should not be lost. There’s a lot of talk like that, and you can understand it.

I know some of these bomb designers. They are wonderful people, and they command your respect because they really know the stuff, in a way I never will. They believe that what they have been doing makes sense – I mean, you have got to believe that. It’s hard to argue against them; I have tried sometimes and not had much success.

Oak Ridge, I think, has done better, because it’s not a weapons lab—although they actually do make secondaries—but they are not seen as a weapons lab. Oak Ridge has become a center for biological studies, not only concerning nuclear energy, but a lot of other things. They have a lot of biologists, so they are the sort of world experts on the effects of radiation, originally, but also a lot of work which has nothing to do with nukes at all. It is still, of course, half and half. It still has a large involvement with nuclear things, but it has a very large component which is not nuclear at all. That’s, no doubt, the way to go, somehow just edge gradually out of the nuclear business.

Kelly: At least one of the rationales for building the national laboratory system back in the ‘40s was the expense of high energy physics as a discipline, that these national laboratories would serve universities, like Brookhaven would help NYU, and Princeton. That was the concept, that Chicago would be in alliance with Argonne.

Dyson: Yes, that works actually pretty well. Brookhaven has been very successful. It’s suffering from a lack of funding, but basically it’s done a good job, because it has nothing to do with weapons. So that certainly could be done. If we were to stop wasting all the money on weapons, we could spend it on science. So that could be done. But it’s hard to see that really as justifying three labs. It’s the three weapons labs that are the problem. Oak Ridge could go back to building peaceful reactors, which would be nice.

There’s a wonderful plan—this is a digression—the kind of things the weapons labs might be doing is building way far out kinds of reactors. There’s a wonderful reactor design by Lowell Wood. Lowell Wood is one of these people who doesn’t quite fit into the bureaucracy. He’s a friend of Edward Teller, and I think a very brilliant person. He’s always inventing things. He has invented a nuclear power reactor which burns thorium, so it completely gets rid of the proliferation problem. You build a power reactor which has really no proliferation potential, really, at all. You build it deep underground. It’s helium cooled, and as long as you keep pumping helium, it continues to produce energy. If the helium stops, the thing stops, so you don’t even have to switch it off. It runs for fifty years without being refueled. There’s no refueling at all. You just start it out, it produces huge amounts of electricity, and it burns thorium.

After fifty years, it’s burned it up. The thorium, you just leave it there and never excavate it, so you don’t have any problem with spent fuel, the fuel stays below. It’s pretty harmless anyway; the spent fuel is essentially just a limited amount of uranium-233, which could be used in principle to make bombs, but it’s a small fraction and it’s very well protected with its own radioactivity.

So that’s a wonderful kind of nuclear power. If you want to go into nuclear power, that’s one of the ways to do it. The national lab could do a good job with that. It doesn’t fit into the present commercial system, so on the short run it would be expensive, and no doubt there would be all sorts of technical problems. It needs a lot of work before it actually runs. So that’s a thing a national lab could do. It has nothing to do with bombs.

Kelly: I have spent a lot of time going back and forth to Los Alamos over the years, and my impression is that many of the scientists, at least ten years ago, would make a bargain: if they were young scientists, they really were hesitant to throw their whole career into weapons, but they would be allowed to pursue a whole number of other avenues. That was part of the deal, they would do some weapons work, but they could pursue nanotechnology or materials science and all these other fields.

Dyson: Yes. And of course, they had a big biology program at Livermore, which actually was quite important. 

Kelly: Can you say something to help people understand how essential it is for the United States to invest in basic scientific research, even if there is no immediate product or payoff?

Dyson: I always remember Bob Wilson, who was the head of experimental physics at Cornell, and then afterwards became head of these various big national accelerators. His whole life was building accelerators. He built I think four accelerators in succession at Cornell, then went on to build a bigger and better ones, like at Fermilab.

His technique in raising funds was very simple. He went to Congress and said, “This machine will never be economically profitable, it will never be useful for any practical purpose. It’s just like building cathedrals. It’s not to defend the country, but to make the country worth defending.” And he got the money. That was the right way to do it. He just said, “This is something beautiful we should be doing. It costs a certain amount, but first of all, we will never run over the budget, and secondly we won’t run over the time.” So every machine he built was always under budget and it was always ready in time.

Congress liked him, and he always got the money he asked for. I think that’s the trick. None of this pretense about doing science because it’s profitable or because it will help the country to compete. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not the reason you do it. It’s very important to be honest.

Another gross violation of that principle was the International Space Station, which was sold to the public as having something to do with science, when in fact it has almost nothing to do with science. As a result, NASA became discredited. Everybody knows they were lying, so when they ask for something now, which is real science, they don’t get it.

It’s quite simple. Don’t pretend that pure science is profitable. It usually isn’t. If it is, it may be fifty years later. But what you’re doing when you do pure science is something different. It’s exploring the universe. It’s finding out what’s there. That’s worth doing for its own sake, if it’s worth doing at all.

Kelly: In our anthology, we have [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill’s memo to [President Franklin] Roosevelt after they had met at Hyde Park in I think it was September of 1944. They talked about the agreements they would continue, sharing information about atomic energy after the war—a very important thing that was not observed. Then they talked about, I think, the end of the war in Japan. They might, if necessary, use the weapon, the atomic bomb, on Japan. But also, the third thing that Churchill mentions in this very short piece, is how they need to keep an eye on Niels Bohr.

Dyson: Yes. That was a part of history that I haven’t mentioned. The whole idea of international control of nuclear weapons really originated with Niels Bohr. Niels Bohr was in a unique position because he was Danish, he was essentially neutral, and still was able to go to Los Alamos during the war and see what was going on. He was the only person who wasn’t officially cleared but who actually knew what was happening. He was tolerated by the United States government. It was a remarkable piece of wisdom, in a way, that they let him in.

Anyhow, Niels Bohr was already in 1944 campaigning for international control of weapons. He went and he actually got to see Churchill and he got to see Roosevelt, and he told both of them that you have to have international control if this thing was not to destroy the world. Neither of them listened, of course. Churchill in particular considered that Niels Bohr was dangerous, that he was going to go to the Russians and tell them what was happening, so he wanted to have him locked up. That was a tragedy.

Oppenheimer then talked a lot with Bohr during those times. He was right there at Los Alamos. Bohr and Oppenheimer were very close. Oppenheimer’s campaign for international control was really just putting Bohr’s ideas into practice. Afterwards, Bohr openly campaigned for international control himself. He wrote an open letter to the United Nations called “The Open World,” which I think is a really great piece of writing. It’s typical Bohr. He always took immense trouble with anything he wrote, so it comes out extremely complicated, but it’s a beautiful piece. It’s arguing that the essential thing for the survival of the world with nuclear weapons is openness, and that I think is still true.

Making the weapons illegal is by far the best way of having openness. If they are legal at all, then you have to have secrets which are officially protected. That already gets you into trouble. By having this illegal status for the weapons, you can then make it compulsory, according to international law, also to be open, that you have to tell what you have. That’s roughly the way Bohr was arguing. I don’t think Bohr ever supported the Soviet proposal position, but he came close, certainly closer than we did.

Kelly: So he would have proposed to share all of the information and rely on some international controls.

Dyson: Yes. The secrets would have been held by the United Nations. The United Nations would then license different countries to build reactors, but it would all be under United Nations control. I forgot what it was called, International Atomic Authority, or something, which would actually have the power to do things. (1:17:29)

Kelly: In looking at the twenty-first century, there is a whole new movement, with a civil discussion by George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn and Gorbachev and others who were a party to the events of the ‘80s when they were getting closer to—and early ‘90s—an agreement to end nuclear weapons. They have had some discussions—in Stanford last fall; the government of Norway invited certain other nations to join in in February. Where do you think these things might lead?

Dyson: I think they could go exactly to the direction I want. I am honestly encouraged by this. Did you talk to Sid Drell?

Kelly: He was ill, he was supposed to have been in Washington.

Dyson: Well anyway, you must talk to him. He is very closely in touch with these people. He is also a member of JASON. He is more in it than I am. He should be number one on that subject.

I think it is extremely hopeful. If only we had somebody who wasn’t a jackass actually in the White House, but I think there is a chance. In this respect, in some ways, if this is really to work, we ought to have [John] McCain as president, and not [Barack] Obama. You want to have somebody who is a hardliner by reputation to make this happen, the worse the better in a way. He shouldn’t be some idiot like George Bush, but somebody like McCain could get this and run with it. I think it could go.

All it needs, in fact, is a president who’s not afraid of making big decisions, and also who has some knowledge of what the big decisions actually are. I think McCain could do it. I don’t see anybody else on the immediate horizon. It has to be the president, if it’s to be done in a big style, not just more negotiations but actually doing something. It’s not accidental that [Brent] Scowcroft is involved in this, because he was in the Reagan team and also on George Bush Sr.’s. He was there, I think as National Security Advisor to Bush Sr., I think. He was right there when they got rid of the tactical nukes, so he knows how it’s done. I’m very hopeful about that.

The bad news is that all these people are getting close to 90 years old. You have to do it fast.

Kelly: That’s true. What I’m hoping is that we can broaden the base of public support for such a thing. If they can understand, if they can hear this on our website—

Dyson: Yes, that’s the other way of doing it. If you could have somebody like Obama to really to persuade the public that this makes sense, but it’s a lot harder doing that way. The whole country has to turn left. If you could get right wingers to do it, it’s much easier.

Kelly: I like the “hedgehog” and “foxes” [from Dyson’s book, Hedgehog and Foxes: Different Kinds of Scientists]. Would you like to talk about that? What kinds of scientists they are?

Dyson: Well, it’s not only in science that that’s true. It was some Greek who invented the terminology, and then it became famous. The notion is that there are two kinds of people: the hedgehog, who only knows one trick, and the fox, who knows many tricks. The metaphor is that the hedgehog, if anyone attacks him, he rolls himself up into a ball, and that’s his trick. The person who attacks then gets a bloody mouth, and that’s all there is to it. Whereas a fox can be very clever and do all kinds of other things.

In science, that’s also a good metaphor, that there are two kinds of scientists. One kind is obsessed with one big problem, spend the whole of their lives thinking about one problem, and maybe solve it or maybe don’t, and that’s their life’s work. Whereas the foxes who just jump around from one problem to another, exploring the world and all its different aspects. So the foxes have a lot more fun. They can sometimes discover very beautiful things, and sometimes fall flat on their faces but then they can go on to something else.

I am a fox, and I find that for me, I can’t sustain interest in one problem for more than about six months. I’m sort of an extreme case of the fox. But there are many very good scientists who are foxes. [Enrico] Fermi was a conspicuous example. Most of the scientists since the 1930s have been foxes. The twenties and thirties were the time when the hedgehogs had a field day. They revolutionized the whole of physics with quantum mechanics and making big discoveries every week. So that was the era when hedgehogs were running science in a beautiful way.

Then when you came into the forties and fifties, it turned out the foxes took over and began exploring the universe with a lot of new tools. It was very exciting. Meanwhile, the old generation of hedgehogs were in bad trouble. They were all talking nonsense in different ways. They produced very ambitious theories which didn’t go anywhere, so it was a bad time for hedgehogs. That’s the time when I came into science, and we made fun of these old hedgehogs, the great heroes of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg and Schrodinger were all talking nonsense in different ways. They had these absurd theories that they were promoting. Meanwhile, we were getting along with exploring the universe. It was a dramatic switch from hedgehogs to foxes that happened more or less during World War II.

Kelly: So as a young scientist today, would you say that tactically today the foxes rule, as the mode of operations that works well?

Dyson: It depends on which side you sit, of course. Here at this Institute [for Advanced Study], we have two groups of people, both have the name of natural sciences, and which hardly communicate with each other. On one side, there’s a big group of string theorists, who are all of them hedgehogs. They believe string theory is the answer. It’s a great wonderful construction of wonderful mathematical ideas. I don’t understand any of it, but they think that’s going to be the key to the universe. They are on one side, so they are the hedgehogs.

On the other side there are the astronomers and the biologists, whom I talk to. I can understand what they are doing. They are all foxes. They are every day discovering new things, and changing the problems year to year. And the question is, of course, big question, which is going to win? We don’t know. String theorists believe very strongly that they have the truth. We believe, on the hedgehog side, that we are going ahead and solving the problems one at a time and it’s great fun.

If you go to the lunches you can see that there is two different cultures. The hedgehog lunches are rather grim and silent affairs, where somebody stands in front of a blackboard and talks in a rather formal style, and hardly anybody else asks questions. Whereas in the fox lunches, the astronomers’ lunch, which happens every Tuesday—we went to one yesterday—there were lots of people talking about different things, and all of them talking most of them at once, and they are much happier. I’m obviously biased.

Kelly: That’s fun. I wondered if you could talk about, talking about different styles of management, how Oppenheimer ran the Los Alamos National Laboratory? People have credited Ernest Lawrence’s approach to his laboratory at Berkeley while he was working on the calutrons in the ‘30s and how he had a remarkably open collaborative approach, as opposed to the traditional—let’s just take the Cambridge laboratory, where Chadwick was working pretty much by himself. That was the mode.

Dyson: Cambridge was actually a monarchy. [Ernest] Rutherford was actually totally in charge. He told [James] Chadwick what to do, but then gave him huge freedom. It was definitely a one-man show. But I think [Ernest] Lawrence was a bit like that too. He was pretty much of a monarch. Of course, I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t there at Los Alamos either. But I have the impression that Oppenheimer did an absolutely brilliant job at Los Alamos.

It was very different, because it was so huge. It was 3,000 or 4,000 people, and he knew every person and job. He had this amazing ability to remember who was who and what they were doing, which was something that wasn’t a problem for Rutherford. He only had about twenty people there altogether. That was the enormous strength of Oppenheimer. He was the conductor of this huge orchestra. He was the boss, but he gave them huge freedom as well.

He had this remarkable rapport with General [Leslie] Groves. That was what made the thing work so well. He kept the confidence of Groves all the time, even when he did things that Groves disapproved of. For example, having this completely open sharing of information, which Groves thought was terribly dangerous, but Oppenheimer said, “We have to have it, or we won’t get a bomb.” So he got it. Oppenheimer prevailed in all these arguments with Groves.

That was an achievement; nobody else could have done that. They would have taken such a dislike of Groves that they would have resigned, or else let Groves run the show, which would have been a disaster also. So you needed somebody who had Groves’s respect but could still enforce his will. That was something at which Oppenheimer was amazingly successful.

Everybody who was there always said, “Oh, he was a fine director,” including [Edward] Teller. Teller always said he got along very well with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos; he only quarreled with him later. I think that was true. Teller was very hard to deal with. I have worked with Teller myself, and he could be like a five year old and throw tantrums. But if you could handle him, it was fine, and Oppenheimer certainly could handle him. They got along very well, during the war.

Teller only worked about, he said, twenty-five percent of the time on hydrogen bombs during the war. I think that’s quite accurate. The rest of the time he worked for Oppenheimer. He said it was fine with him, as long as he got his twenty-five percent. That’s the same arrangement they have now at Google; everybody gets twenty-five percent time to do as they like. It’s a wonderful way to run a lab.

The closest we have to Oppenheimer now is Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] at Google. They have that style. I visited Google last year, and it immediately made me think of Los Alamos, because those people are really having fun, and they are changing the world as well.

Kelly: We’ll leave that in and maybe they’ll help sponsor this project!

Dyson: I always think private money is much better than public money, if you really want to get funds. It’s so much more flexible. You don’t have to spend your time writing grants. I would recommend Google very strongly. They are helping us to build a sky survey now, the new sky survey, which is going to be a really fine sky survey and Google is funding it.

Kelly: If you could talk about the role that Oak Ridge played? And how the Manhattan Project was really three major sites and actually probably dozens of other sites that were not run by the government but contributed?

Dyson: I got to know Oak Ridge much later, but it’s done a lot of wonderful things. It was the principal place for peaceful nuclear energy for twenty or thirty years after the war. Very soon Alvin Weinberg became the director and he stayed there for the rest of his life. He just died this year, or last year. Alvin Weinberg was a great character. I liked him enormously. He was not at all the Oppenheimer style; he was a quiet but very effective director. He spent his whole life essentially on one problem. He was a hedgehog.

He developed nuclear reactors of all kinds. It was creative engineering. It wasn’t science, but it was very creative engineering, building weird reactors. It was a great time to be in that business. It was nuclear energy as an art form. They made a lot of very important inventions, only one of which has ever been used for commercial power, which was the light water reactor. It was a collaboration with the Navy. It was essentially the submarine reactor that dominated the commercial world ever since.

Unfortunately, everything else was switched off. They stopped doing this sort of creative engineering at a time when the light water reactors were chosen as the reactors for commercial nuclear power. I think that was a very big mistake. The fact is, if you look at the airplane as it now exists, it actually works so well because there were 100,000 different designs which were actually tried out. With nuclear power, that has not happened. We never found the good ones, because we never looked. They just made this arbitrary choice of the light water reactor of the conventional kind, which we all dislike today, because it is unsafe and it has all kinds of bad characteristics. But it was chosen essentially because it fit into a submarine, and they had a crash program to build nuclear submarines. The industry got started with nuclear reactors for submarines, and that’s what they have been doing ever since. They’re not called submarine reactors, but that’s where they are.

The main thing you have to have, if you want a reactor to fit into a submarine, is it has to be very compact. It has to have a high density of power, which is just what makes it dangerous. Whereas for a civilian reactor you want the opposite, you want it to have a low density, lots of thermal capacity, so that it can absorb huge amounts of heat, so it won’t melt down. What you want is really the opposite of what the Navy wanted. That’s never happened, because Oak Ridge essentially was told, “Don’t do that,” which is very unfortunate. So Oak Ridge then stopped building reactors, and turned its attention to other things.

When I became involved, they were in fact the leading place in the country for studying energy, largely because of Alvin Weinberg. Alvin Weinberg always believed, first of all, that nuclear power was important, and secondly, that carbon dioxide was important, that there would be a big problem with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He saw those two things as strongly coupled together. He actually organized a thing called the Institute of Energy Analysis, which I became a regular visitor. That’s where I learned about climate, and all these things which are now fashionable.

He was doing that thirty years ago, and one of the things he did was to bring in a lot of biologists. He understood from the beginning that the carbon dioxide problem was half biology and half physics. The biological half is just as important as the meteorological half, and that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is very strongly coupled with carbon dioxide in the ocean and carbon dioxide in trees and carbon dioxide in soil. They’re all about equal in quantity, strongly coupled together.

So you can’t deal with the atmosphere without dealing with all the others. And he understood that the soil was probably the best way of grappling with the problem. Soil is something that we can measure and understand. It’s easier than meteorology. It more or less stays put. So we could deal with the climate problem essentially with biology rather than with passing rules of burning fossil fuels. That’s what I learned from him at Oak Ridge, which has been a big part of my life ever since.

Oak Ridge had a lot of interesting people. I remember I met the sister of Ralph Nader, whose name was Claire Nader. She was at Oak Ridge. She is a very interesting person. She is a biologist who is very much interested in the environment and has some of her brother’s force of personality. She was a close friend of Alvin Weinberg. It was a place where radicals were welcome.

He [Weinberg] was also a leader in putting up this friendship bell at Oak Ridge, which was the last time I saw him, actually. It was, I don’t know, maybe six or seven years ago. This beautiful bronze bell was actually manufactured in Japan, then shipped over to Oak Ridge and set up as a monument to—I think it’s officially a monument to Pearl Harbor and nuclear bombs, as being sort of two evil aspects of technology. It’s supposed to be equal share of blame between Japan and the United States.

When we dedicated it, we each had a partner from Japan, so there was a schoolgirl from the America and a schoolgirl from Japan, there was a professor from America and a professor from Japan. I forget who my opposite number was, but anyway, it takes two people to actually ring the bell, so each two of us rang in turn. Then they had a lot of poetry being recited, in English and Japanese. It was a very moving occasion.

So that was Alvin Weinberg. The spirit of Weinberg was always very strong at Oak Ridge, so I hope that stays alive.

Kelly: That’s great. I hope so, too. I actually met him and we had on tape, he talked about the X-10 Graphite Reactor and how he developed that. That was at least ten years ago.

Dyson: That’s of course a historic monument, but we have not built any more like that.

Kelly: That’s air-cooled. But it worked.

Dyson: It worked.

Kelly: What other things have I not asked you about that I really should have, that you would like to say?

Dyson: People make a lot of fuss and a lot of noise about attracting young people into science. It’s supposed to be terrible, because if you look at American graduate schools almost half of them or more than half are Asians, the really bright graduate students. We are not producing our own scientists, but we are importing them from India and Asia and various other places. I don’t think that’s bad at all. It should be a global enterprise. Science always has been a global enterprise, and it works best when it’s more international rather than less. So by all means, let’s get the best, but we don’t have to produce them here. Trying to force our young people into science just because we think that it’s somehow good for the country is probably harmful and counterproductive.

I think of the analogy with England and Japan when we were emerging from World War II. Both England and Japan were in bad shape after World War II. The English government was persuaded that we had to have more science, in order to recover from the war. In fact, England led the world in fraction of national income that was put into pure science. They did extremely well, we had wonderful scientists, lots of Nobel prizes and discovered the double helix and all kinds of great things, started radio astronomy, and many new things.

Japan, on the other hand, decided, “We want to rebuild the country. We don’t need science. All we need is to copy what the other people do and then improve on it ourselves.” So the Japanese chose just to support basic industries, particularly information science, but really not science, but technology. And of course you could see the results. In twenty years, Japan was rich and England was comparatively poor.

There’s no doubt that if you want to get rich, then doing a lot of science is not the way. It shouldn’t be sold to the public on that basis. England, of course, did all right in the end, not as well as we should have. While all this beautiful science was being done in England, the British automobile industry collapsed, as the Japanese automobile industry flourished. We see the results today: nobody one drives English cars, everybody drives Japanese.

Still, England had the best science. I think people should be aware of that. What do you want? If you want it, you can have it. This country should be certainly doing as much science as people want to do, and there is plenty to be done, but it’s not going to be particularly beneficial to the automobile industry. The automobile industry needs something else.

My advice to young people is: do what you can do. Everybody should have the maximum freedom of choice. If you want to be a medieval scholar, be a medieval scholar, and don’t think that’s not fulfilling your destiny. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t. We have a certain number of people who are amazingly gifted in science, and they should be given support and encouragement. But don’t think it has to be five percent of the university population, or whatever it is. That’s irrelevant. The important thing, people should have opportunities, they shouldn’t pushed into things they’re not suited for. I have an elitist view of science. I think science is tremendous fun, but it is only a few people who really have the gift for it. Just the same is true of music or almost any other trade or acting. 

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