[Marxism] Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work: Politics and natural science

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Fri Mar 24 08:32:59 MST 2006

Charles Brown wrote:
> Given the history of physics in the twentieth century, and the role of the
> most profound discovery in physics - relativity and E = MC squared - to the
> bourgeois misuse of this genius idea to originate the most horrific weapons
> in the history of humanity

i don't really see how Einstein's big idea of relativity contributed so
directly to the bomb.

people were playing with nuclear reactions independently of his work.
historically, there was a whole branch of physics that took off at the
very end of the 1800's -- nuclear physics -- with a complete set of its
own questions and quandries. Roentgen (X-rays, high energy), Rutherford
(nuclear bombardment before they knew what "nuclear" meant), Walton &
Cockcroft (nuclear reactions, first **confirmation** -- not use --  of
E=mc^2).  these are people who dabbled with bombarding materials,
developing the NOTION of a nucleus as they went along.  Lise Meitner
confirmed that the 200 MeV yield (U235) of a single nuclear fission  --
first calculated using basic 19-th century electrostatics and some
knowledge of the size of nuclei --  made sense in terms of measured
"mass defects" and e=mc^2. thus relativity provided  basically an
(energy) accounting/bookeeping check.  on the theoretical front, more
significant was Bohr's work on the nuclear drop model of the uranium
nucleus, which gave scientists a *mechanism* for understanding how the
fission process proceeds from bombardment to energy release. Meitner
used this drop model for her book-keeping check.

then came other critical ideas and challenges: chain reaction (Szilard,
required knowing what a neutron was and what fission was),
cross-sections and yields (Los Alamos gang), geometry/ignition/triggers
(Los Alamos), enrichment (Oak Ridge), testing, delivery schemes.

so yes, at the end, e=mc^2 enters into calculations here and there. as
does addition and subtraction, adding machines, graph paper,
centrifuges, and so forth. but relativity doesn't really show one how to
build a bomb. there is no big secret about nuclear reactions that
requires relativity to understand. it took the energy of stars to cook
heavy elements like uranium from hydrogen, and that energy gets released
when you break the components up. if you could hang out in the middle of
a star and watch protons fly into each other AND STICK TOGETHER (because
of the nuclear force), you would say to yourself, damn, there's a lot of
energy in there somewhere.

but in fact, the energy of nuclear reaction emissions was observed first
in experiments. in truth, we "knew" about nuclear energy before we even
developed a good idea of what the nucleus really was. and that was due
to a lot of people working in seemingly disparate fields for many many

if there is any place to start giving up on "great person" science,
maybe we should start here with the atomic bomb.

les schaffer

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