Watch and read here the full transcript of anthropologist Hugh Gusterson’s TEDx Talk: Who Are Nuclear Weapons Scientists? at TEDxFoggyBottom conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: who-are-nuclear-weapons-scientists-by-hugh-gusterson-at-tedxfoggybottom
I’m an anthropologist. When you think of anthropologists, you think of people who study cannibals in New Guinea, people in grass skirts in Samoa. I’ve spent my career as an anthropologist studying American nuclear weapons scientists. I wanted to know why someone, when they graduate from university would want to give the rest of their life to designing weapons that could kill millions of people, what it feels like to do that for a living, what effect it has on people and how they talk about it.
So, towards the end of the Cold War, I started talking to weapons scientists of the Lawrence Livermore Lab, about an hour east of San Francisco. I’ve also spent time at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, where the weapons scientists designed the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This resulted in a couple of books: Nuclear Rites and People of the Bomb, and I’m just finishing up a third book on the nuclear weapons labs this summer.
Anthropologists like to hang out with the people they study, they like to follow them around, listen to what they say, watch what they do, write it all down in notebooks. I obviously could not do that with the weapons scientists. They work behind that barbed wire fence. They have top secret clearances, which I didn’t have. So except from being allowed to go to the cafeteria at the lab, I wasn’t allowed inside the lab.
So, how do you study people when you can’t follow them to work? Well, I did a lot of interviews. When I arrived in Livermore, I knew one person. He was the son of a nuclear weapons scientist, and he introduced me to his father. His father was kind enough to invite me to his house and spent three hours telling me his life story. At the end of that evening he said, “Tomorrow I’ll call you with the names and phone numbers of five colleagues,” which he did. And they referred me to other people. So soon I had dozens of nuclear weapons scientists, willing to talk to me.
I also moved into housing, that I shared with people who worked at the lab. Over a couple years I lived in three different homes, with three different people, who worked at the lab. I went to church every Sunday if I could, met lots of weapons scientists at church and tried to get to know the ministers, who had to minister the congregations full of nuclear weapons scientists. Spent a lot of time in bars and cafes, ran up quite a bar tab. And I even joined a baseball team and a basketball team in the lab sports league to get to know people that way.
So, what kind of people are nuclear weapons scientists? And before I answer this, I want to pause a moment and invite you to imagine what you think the answer will be. What are your stereotypes? What kind of people do you think they are?
So, I assumed that they would be right-winged republicans. And I was wrong. More of them were liberal than conservative, some of them had protested the Vietnam War as students, they’d been active in the civil rights movement, they gave to environmental causes, they supported women’s rights. Now, some were conservatives as well, but most of the ones I got to know actually were liberals. Vastly more of them were men than women, and that represents the demographics of American physics.
About 70% of the weapon scientists I talked to were active Christians, in mainline denominations: Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians. There are quite a number of Jews as well, quite a lot of Mormons — there’s a big Mormon church in Livermore — and a couple of Buddhists.
So, they weren’t political ideologues, they didn’t do this because they felt passionately hostile to Communism. They didn’t do it because they were ultra-nationalist Americans. They did it out of a kind of pragmatic sense. If you asked them, “Do nuclear weapons keep the peace?” They thought that they were making devices that just pragmatically forced countries to behave themselves, and not attack each other.
So, when I asked them, when they came out of grad school, why they decided to accept a job at a nuclear weapons lab, they didn’t talk much about the politics of it. They didn’t say, “Well, I really wanted to design nuclear weapons.” They talked about the attractive ambiance of the lab, this laid-back atmosphere. You didn’t have to wear a tie to work. There’s this strong emphasis on team work. The lab had cutting-edge technology, super computers, the latest lasers, and so on.
I interviewed a professor at a university, who trained a number of people who went on to work at the weapons labs. And he commented that it was a kind of paradox that it was his kinder, gentler students who went on to become weapons scientists. He told me that the cut-throat, aggressive, ultra-competitive students went on to become professors.
And what did they say about the ethics of their work? In every life history, as I was gathering it, I would ask them, “So, do you think about the ethics of your work when you’re offered the job? Did you work through that?” And over and over again, I heard the same thing, “You know, you’re so lucky that you’re talking to me, because I think about the ethics of my work, but my colleagues don’t think about it like I do.”
So I soon realized that the people were thinking about the ethics of the work, but the lab didn’t create a space where they could talk about that collectively.
As I hinted, they believe that nuclear weapons keep the peace and save lives. I made a point of asking weapons scientists, “Do you think weapons you work on will ever be used?” And they said, “No, of course not.” I asked if they had nightmares about nuclear war. “No, of course not.”
And some of them told me that it’s actually more ethical to work on nuclear weapons than on conventional weapons. They told me, if you work on land mines or napalm, you’re creating weapons that will maim and kill people. If you work on nuclear weapons, you’re working on weapons that are designed to deter a war.
So, one of them told me he felt proud, he felt — he’d save millions of lives by preventing World War III. They all, for the most part, also felt very strongly that Western countries are stable, mature, and rational enough that they can be trusted with nuclear weapons, but that non-Western countries like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, don’t have that same level of stability, maturity, and rationality, and that it wouldn’t be ethical to work on nuclear weapons in those countries, and those countries can’t be trusted with the weapons.
The scientists, if you ask what their main product was, they produced nuclear tests. The US did over 1,000 nuclear tests over about 50 years during the Cold War. The last American nuclear test was in 1992. President George H. W. Bush signed legislation ending nuclear testing in 1992. And then President Bill Clinton, in 1996, signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.
So, since 1996, there was a flurry of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and there’s been a handful of tests by North Korea. But apart from that, nuclear testing is over. Britain, France, America, Russia, China have not tested nuclear weapons since they signed this treaty in 1996.
So, you might ask, what do nuclear weapons scientists do then, if we’re not testing nuclear weapons anymore? And also, given that the US maintains a stockpile of 7,000 nuclear weapons — that’s right, US still has 7,000 nuclear weapons — how are they maintained if you can’t test them to make sure that they work?
This shows the budget for nuclear weapons research and development in the US. And the reason I’m putting this up here, what’s striking about this, is that we actually spend more on nuclear weapons research and development now since the Cold War ended, since nuclear testing ended, than we spent during the Cold War. That red line in the middle is in constant dollars the average amount we spent on nuclear weapons research and development during the Cold War. And you see that we’re spending a lot more now, even though we’re not designing and testing new nuclear weapons.
So, what is that money being spent on? Well it’s being spent on very expensive simulation technologies, and on salaries for people at the labs. The labs have roughly as many nuclear weapons scientists now as they had during the Cold War, and they’re training a new generation of weapons scientists as I speak.
So, they’re using expensive simulation technologies to simulate components of a nuclear test. This is an image of part of the dual axis radiographic hydro-test facility at Los Alamos, a big mouthful, I know. It’s an expensive super X-ray machine, that will tell you whether the plutonium core that sits inside a nuclear weapon will compress exactly symmetrically when you need it to and it does that without actually using plutonium, without creating a nuclear explosion.
The national ignition facility at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, being toured here by Arnold Schwarzenegger, cost $4.5 billion to build. It’s the most powerful laser on Earth. 192 separate laser beams converge exactly at the same time, I mean, within nano-seconds, on a pellet of deuterium and tritium. And when they do that, it creates temperatures and pressures greater than those inside the sun. And they do that a few hundred yards away from a suburban housing development. It’s the test, the kinds of physical regimes you find in hydrogen bombs.
Lab scientists integrate the results of experiments for machines like these, in enormous supercomputers, some of the most expensive and powerful supercomputers in the world. Those supercomputers spit out numbers, that mean something to the weapons scientists, but they can also create three-dimensional images of a nuclear explosion. And this is a facility at Los Alamos called “The Cave.” And you see here nuclear weapons scientists, actually walking inside a simulation of a nuclear explosion, looking at particular facets of the explosion.
So I want to leave you with three thoughts. The first is this: Nuclear weapons have become much more abstract than they used to be. At first, they were tested above ground. I interviewed all the weapons scientists who told me vividly about the feeling of the heat, of the flash of the explosion on their bodies, the blast wave. One of them told me he peed in his pants in terror when he saw his first nuclear test. It was so terrifying as a bodily experience.
Then, the test went underground and became more abstract. Now, they’re not even tested underground. They look pretty and psychedelic like this. There’s a real danger in that abstraction. There’s a danger that we can forget the terrible damage which these weapons are capable of.
The second thought I want to leave you with is this: Do we believe that the world can go on indefinitely half nuclear and half nuclear-free? The five official nuclear powers have no plans to abolish their nuclear weapons. Do we think that Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and so on won’t follow in their footsteps?
And then, finally, there’s this thought: this is a nuclear missile in the US with several warheads on it. If it’s ever used, when it flies out of there, within half an hour, somewhere on the other side of the world, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people will be dead. There are silos like this all over the United States, and in Russia. There are weapons like this on submarines, patrolling the oceans at all times.
It is the faith of our nuclear weapons scientists that this situation can go on indefinitely, that human beings are rational enough, that they can be trusted never ever to let these missiles out of the silo.
So, look at that missile and ask yourself: do you share their faith that this missile will always stay in its silo?
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