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

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Fri Mar 24 09:20:43 MST 2006

Les Schaffer 
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

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 years.

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

les schaffer

CB: Thanks for this , Les. It is the kind of technical summary I have been
looking for for a while. 

I am glad to remove Einstein's as a key discovery in the process. I
certainly have no problem with seeing the bomb as a result of a group and
groups' efforts. This doesn't get around the issue of those groups of
scientists discovering something that the capitalists will inevitably take
and probably abuse to make a weapon. 

On the science,  I was kind of thinking of E = MC squared, as you say ,
accounting for the enormous energy in the nucleus. I guess you are saying
everybody could tell there was a lot of energy in there, but the exact
amount is known from the famous formula ? Or something else ?  

Anyway, I certainly don't blame the groups of nuclear physicists anymore
than I blame Einstein for the outcome of their work , as it was just not
foreseeable enough. I am proposing a very strict and rigorous standard, and
I wouldn't expect them to be able to reach it back at the beginning of the
century, although Einstein did refuse to help with warfare in WWI, as I
said. He had a pretty strict peace standard there.

Overall, however, they do all become something of a group of Sorcerers'
Apprentices, loosing powers that get out of their control, unintended
consequences and all that. 

Clearly there is danger that the U.S. militarist regime will misuse future
great discoveries , even as they are made by teams and not individuals.

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