Friday, May 6, 2011

He Da Bomb!

Well, it looks like the Bomb Class is a go now that we’ve hit our enrollment target for the summer. Good news! Teacher gets to eat this summer!

I like this class – it’s an awful lot of fun to teach. It’s a team-taught class, with three of us up there discussing the history, science and ethics of the atomic bomb, and we all bring a very different perspective to this one object.

To a scientist, the atomic bomb is just a device that converts one form of energy (the binding energy in the nucleus of atoms) into other forms of energy (heat, light, pressure, sound). So he approaches it from that perspective and asks questions like “What is energy?” “How do you measure it?” “How do you release binding energy?” “How much energy do you get when you do?”

To a philosopher, the atomic bomb is an ethical question. Are there any circumstances where a weapon of this magnitude and indiscriminate force can justifiably be used? If so, what are they? If not, why not? So he tends to approach it from that perspective and spend a lot of time discussing just war theory, the nature of ethics, and how well the situation in 1945 squared with either of these.

To me as a historian, the atomic bomb is something that happened at a given moment in time. Things led up to it. Things happened around it. And things resulted in consequence of it. So I tend to spend my time looking at the developments that made it possible and the events that surrounded its creation and use. How did the United States develop the organizational capacity to manage a project like this? (Hint: look at Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire – they’re both just large vertically-integrated industrial enterprises.) How does the federal government grow to where it can manage a project like this – how does it get from laissez-faire to the New Deal? And why does it care enough about the rest of the world to do all this, both in the long term sense of going from isolationism to involvement and the short-term sense of why did the world look so ugly in 1939, when the project started?

Plus, you can make a decent argument that the single most important event in all of American history is Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, but nobody has an opinion about Bacon’s Rebellion. Everybody has an opinion about the bomb.

And we get to those at the Debate – because you have to have the Debate: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified, yes or no?

We’ve never changed anyone’s opinion about this issue, as far as I know, and that has never been our goal. Mostly we want students to walk away with a more complex and well-supported reasoning for their opinions, and a strong sense that, whatever their position is, the other side has points that they cannot answer, only concede.

The three of us disagree on this Debate, which makes it even more fun.

So it’s a great class to teach.

It also led me into one of the more surreal moments of my life.

We first taught this class in 1998, well before I had kids of my own. The philosopher, however, did have two young boys at home – boys he was trying to raise on an ad-hoc instructor’s salary. He was thus a wizard at making things out of cardboard.

So with a little help from the teenager who lived next door, he gathered together a couple of refrigerator boxes, several rolls of duct tape and a large pot of grey paint and built a life-sized replica of Little Boy, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The thing about this is that the bomb was not actually all that big. It was maybe two and a half feet in diameter, and about nine or ten feet long. That’s one of the points we tried to make with it when we dragged it into class on day one – something just that big destroyed an entire city. The mismatch between size and power was something students remembered quite well.

And then we needed to store it.

That year we kept it backstage in the scenery shop, behind the theater, which was remarkably convenient when we hauled it out again for the following year’s rendition of the Bomb Class. Unfortunately the theater department didn’t want us to store it there again – why, I don’t know, since they had a lot of space. Perhaps they just were worried it would get damaged and didn’t want to be responsible for it.

So the philosopher convinced the local VFW hall across town to stash it in their basement.

I have no idea how he got it over there. But I do know how we got it back.

The philosopher asked me to help with this plan, and – not having any kittens to rescue from tall trees or other similar feats of derring do on my plate that afternoon – I said, “sure!” But neither of us had a vehicle of appropriate size for such a task. So we went down to the Maintenance Department, who loaned us the campus pickup truck.

When we got to the VFW, we realized that the replica atomic bomb was rather longer than the bed of the pickup.

No problem, we thought. We’d just load the thing into the bed, heavy side down, and let the light end – the end with the tail fins – stick up.

Since it was a rather windy day that day, we decided that I would ride in the bed with the replica atomic bomb with the tail fins sticking up, to keep it from blowing away.

And off we went through town.

The looks on the faces of other drivers were just ... priceless.

The ones going the other way flashed by too quickly for me to see them or them to get a good look at me. All they saw was a beat-up pickup truck with what was clearly a large bomb in the back, trundling through the streets of Our Little Town, with someone in the back holding on to it. What they thought of it I don’t know, but I will say that I am glad that we were doing this in the pre-9/11 era.

Seriously. Can you imagine Homeland Security’s response? I can’t even bring a full-sized bottle of shampoo aboard an airplane anymore – a pickup with a life-sized model of an atomic bomb probably would have warranted an airstrike.

It was the people driving behind us that I enjoyed so much, though. They’d be toodling along, not really paying attention to what was in front of them, as most people do when driving, when all of the sudden – and I could see the exact moment it happened – realization would dawn.

And I’d wave merrily at them.

And they’d sort of hesitate, and then wave back. Some of them smiled. Others looked sort of flustered. One guy shouted at me – “Hey! Where are you going with that?”

“Gonna go rob a bank!” I shouted back.

It was the best ride through town ever.


Anonymous said...

I would have answered, "I'm going to the DMV!"

Beatrice Desper said...

I know some people who used to go to peace rallies with life sized cruise missiles. Could never do that today.