AT THE HEART OF THE BOMB The Dangerous Allure Of Weapons Work By Debra Rosenthal Addison-Wesley. 244 pp. $18.95
MY FATHER, who knew about nuclear weapons work first hand, would have found this book disquieting. Like his old friend and colleague, the physicist John Manley, to whom this book is dedicated, my father was part of that heroic generation that built the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. For him, it was a job that had to be done to defeat Hitler. After the war, he returned to Los Alamos a number of times for the beauty of the place and for sentimental reasons, but he never pursued weapons work again. Nor did he like being reminded of the generations that followed his on "the Hill."
But in her highly personal and readable study, Debra Rosenthal does want to remind us. She's fascinated with "the dangerous allure of weapons work." How can the scientists and technicians at Los Alamos and at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque -- for the most part, highly educated, thinking people -- dedicate themselves to this sort of work?
The responses, of course, vary with the subjects. She obviously admires John Manley and his generation. In Manley's view, "true scientists" are concerned with the social and political implications of their research; they seek truth, not better toothbrushes. The more recent generations, however, the author argues, respond as much to job security and high salaries as to the intellectual challenge of their projects. How they rationalize their business of creating devices that can kill us all many times over is the heart of Rosenthal's book.
Like most studies of this sort, At the Heart of the Bomb is meant to be disquieting. It is -- but often in ways that the author probably did not intend. First, there's the question of her methods. The author holds a PhD in public policy and she was on the political science faculty at the University of New Mexico when she wrote this study. On the surface, she went about her work as a social scientist would.
Beginning in 1984, she tape-recorded 260 hours of interviews with 85 people, about evenly divided between Los Alamos and Sandia. What sorts of question did she ask? Did she have a fixed questionnaire? She never tells us. Nor are there tables and charts that tabulate and analyze her conclusions. At best, what we get from this book are impressions. Clearly this isn't social science.
Then what is it? "New journalism"with the author as participant/observer? That might be all right except she doesn't clearly represent it that way. Moreover, her manner is often disconcerting. At times she switches abruptly from her subjects' opinions to her own and the transition is blurred. For example, she records the attitudes of a Los Alamos minister toward scientific objectivity; in the next paragraph, Rosenthal abruptly gives her own meditations on the topic.
If this is "new journalism," she is certainly free to insert personal observations and poetic license. She still needs to make sense. Her conclusion doesn't. "If Los Alamos is a metaphor for America . . . then it, and the other weapons laboratories, are also a metaphor for the science-centered world." But who says they are? "Harmony is defined by the machine's efficient hum, and the sacred world is lost." So am I.
At the heart of At the Heart of the Bomb is a disquieting anti-science attitude. The author does applaud John Manley's credo as a scientist, the credo of the British Royal Society, dedicated to the exploration of nature "for the greater glory of God and Man." Yet for her, in the "new world, the modern world, science (and nearly everything else) is a fuel. It incites change, movement and competition. It is an instrument for mastery and control, but also domination and repression." But science, as the comments of Descartes and Galileo remind us, has always been potentially that.
Rosenthal's book stirred my conscience and it would have stirred my father's. But she also needs to examine her own. She needs to be straight with her readers. Is she studying political science or practicing politics? Most of all, she needs to be fair. Certainly science is weapons development. But as John Manley and my father would have chorused, as the Hubble Telescope (whatever its flaws) reminds us, science is also wonder and excitement, one of the glories of our Western Civilization. Claudio Segre`'s biography, "Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life," recently appeared in paperback. He is currently working on a memoir about his father, the physicist Emilio Segre`.