“I chose abolition over Los Alamos”: Nobel prize winner Jack Steinberger joins the share your shadow initiative

July 10, 2013

07 July 2013

Dr Hans Jakob “Jack” Steinberger is stark in his description of the horror of nuclear weapons. And his perspective is perhaps one that warrants special notice. A world-renowned physicist, based at CERN since 1968, Dr Steinberger’s impressive career culminated in the award of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the discovery of a subatomic particle called the “muon neutrino”. His current work focuses on seeking solutions for what he sees as an impending energy crisis brought on by the exhaustion of fossil fuels. Throughout his career he has been an ardent critic of the nuclear weapons regime and has been discouraged by the lack of progress made by the nuclear weapon possessors such as the United States in fulfilling their promises. He was especially disappointed with President Obama’s recent speech in Berlin, noting that “despite the famous Prague speech in 2009, after which there was so much hope and optimism, there has been no progress made in the last years at all. President Obama said nothing in Berlin that signals a real intention to move forward.”

Forced to leave Germany while still in his early teens, Dr Steinberger moved to the Chicago area in the United States where he pursued his studies at the University of Chicago, the scene of some of the most ground breaking work towards the development of nuclear weapons. As a young physicist, he studied under a pair of the most important physicists in the field, Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, who have each been referred to as “fathers of the bomb”. Dr Steinberger, however, was clear from the outset about his stance on these weapons:

“I was against [nuclear weapons] from the beginning. I was in the army when [the bombings over] Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened, and they came as a terrible shock. After that I was always very clear in wanting to get rid of the bomb. I was asked to participate in a group of scientists who would advise the government about nuclear weapons. Richard Garwin, who perhaps knows more about nukes than anyone else, was part of the group. I would have had to work at Los Alamos. But I declined. I could not be a part of that.”

Instead, Dr Steinberger became a supporter of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists as well as the Federation of American Scientists, both of which were founded by former Manhattan Project physicists in opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He rejects the notion espoused by sceptics of nuclear disarmament that, like any technological advancement, since nuclear weapons cannot be “uninvented”, our only hope is to ‘manage’ their existence:

“It is true that you cannot uninvent something. We will always have the knowledge of nuclear weapons – of how to make them and how to use them. There will be people with the resources to build them. But it is to the advantage of everyone not to have them – no country can be safe until these weapons are removed. Also, the business of maintaining nuclear weapons is a huge undertaking that requires a great number of staff and resources to maintain. But global nuclear disarmament can be checked and enforced.”

Despite his bleak assessment of the current state of affairs, Dr Steinberger remains hopeful that a world free from nuclear weapons is possible if new leadership on the issue can be found. He argues that many of the nuclear weapon states would rather not have the bomb and know that it is against their interests, but they, for political or perceived military reasons, cling on to them, not wanting to take the first step to disarm. Once the breakthrough can be secured, he believes that the path for the nuclear-armed states to disarm would not take very long.

Indeed, to Dr Steinberger, what is as obvious as the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons is that “countries have nothing to gain by maintaining nukes, they are a threat to everyone, equally to those who have them and those who don’t have them”.

ICAN spoke with Dr Jack Steinberger at his office at CERN on July 9, 2013. 

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