David Kirby, The San Francisco Chronicle, December 24, 2000.
In April 1932, 35 of the world's top physicists, among them Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and P.A.M. Dirac, met at Niels Bohr's Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen for their annual conference on quantum mechanics. In just a few years, the world's powers would begin the war that would end with a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. It seems eerily prescient that some of the younger conferees took several days away from discussing protons and neutrons to rewrite Goethe's "Faust," with their best-known colleagues appearing as the play's main characters.
So we learn in "The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs," a brilliant study of the interplay between literature and physics. John Canaday writes that the young physicists had turned to the story about a man who attained supernatural powers by selling his soul to the devil to acquire "the metaphorical tools with which both to explore and to contain the disruptions involved in this dramatic leap in their search for a deep knowledge of nature."
The participants in the 1932 conference turned to this one play to explain their early work. The scientists who developed the first working atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1943 would need a virtual library to accomplish a similar purpose. In memoirs, letters, speeches and conversations with one another, they referred to Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" and Shakespeare's "The Tempest," the Old Testament and the teachings of the Buddha, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost World," the writings of Thucydides as well as those of Lewis Carroll.
Perhaps the best-known use of metaphor to describe atomic power is Robert Oppenheimer's borrowing from the 2,000-year-old Bhagavad Gita just seconds after the first nuclear explosion in the New Mexico desert. Quoting the many-armed Vishnu, Oppenheimer said, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
In examining the many reactions to Oppenheimer's statement, Canaday notes that no commentator has ever regretted that the scientist didn't describe the blast literally, or that he preferred an ancient metaphor to "his own" words. The image of a god of destruction who leaps full-blown from nowhere to fill our familiar sky said more about the terror about to be unleashed on the world than any account relying on mere physical description could.
Canaday also explains how Oppenheimer, the scientist responsible for overseeing construction of the first atomic bomb, had in mind the John Donne sonnet that begins "Batter my heart, three-personed God" when he called the first atomic bomb trial the Trinity test.
Just as Freud turned to Greek tragedy to name the Oedipus complex, so the Los Alamos scientists peered into dusty volumes in order to understand the blinding terrors of the atomic age. In both cases, the investigators suspected that someone had encapsulated their half-formulated discoveries centuries earlier not with scientific formulas but with metaphors. As different as psychoanalysis and physics are, the principle is the same: In order to understand the future, you must first know the past.
In a graceful metaphor, Canaday points out that while literature makes it possible to think about science, science on the magnitude of nuclear fission returns the favor. By creating weapons so powerful that no sane nation would use them, scientists have ensured that atomic bombs will almost always be "fictions," that is, symbols of a terrible reality rather than reality itself.
Unfortunately, the metaphor holds only as long as superpowers such as the United States and Russia, or some rogue nation, never check out a volume from their nuclear libraries, setting off a catastrophe of unchartable dimensions. If that happens, it'll be time to reach for the old books again, assuming there'll be books left to reach for and someone to do the reaching.