Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Chapter 57 - "Release Of Atomic Energy": Part 3 - "Release of Atomic Energy"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

On August 6 and 9, U.S. planes dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 15, two days after Korzybski began his lectures at the IGS’s 1945 Summer Seminar-Workshop, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s unconditional surrender. Korzybski told his students that the world had forever changed. (12) 

The fateful bombings had resulted from the accelerating acceleration of war technology. They signaled that human history had reached a clear new chapter based on a simple ‘secret’—exponential growth. The fission bombs depended upon harnessing a chain reaction, an exponential function, within the uranium atom. Several years before, only a few blocks from the IGS’s 1234 E. 56th Street address, physicist Enrico Fermi and his team of scientists and technicians had built a crude atomic reactor in a squash court underneath the grandstand seats of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field Stadium. On December 2, 1942 they achieved history’s first self-sustaining controlled nuclear fission reaction there and demonstrated the key to the tremendous power later unleashed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Fermi’s reactor produced an exponential release of neutrons from uranium 235 nuclei struck by other random neutrons released in the process of radioactive decay. When the amount of uranium reached a critical mass the release of more nuclei resulted in a chain reaction. Cadmium rods inserted into the reactor kept the chain reaction in check and could stop it. The exponential process and the enormous amounts of energy released, had the potential to take a controlled form for peacetime atomic power plants or, in the form of bombs, could yield a devastating force. Over the last several years, the U.S. government had rallied scientists and engineers in a tremendous top-secret effort to build such bombs (in the hope they could beat the Nazis at that game). The multi-centered enterprise, with some initial research done in New York City, was known as the Manhattan Project. With the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, the Manhattan Project secret suddenly became public knowledge. The general public had a definite interest in both the principles and the details involved in atomic research—all to the good from Korzybski’s point of view.(13) 

During the 1945 seminar, Korzybski wrote a short article “Release of Atomic Energy”, in which he registered some of his main concerns about the new world situation. The technical control of chain reactions in the atomic realm would lead to disaster, unless the concurrent development of beneficial social chain reactions involving the general release of time-binding energies took place. As he had emphasized in Manhood of Humanity, the growth of human ethical-social-political-economic life had to catch up to the exponential growth in the more limited exact-science/technical realm. As he had harped on even more since the publication of Science and Sanity, humans could only consciously marshal their time-binding energies through the extension of what he called “scientific method” or an extensional orientation into all areas of society and life. In the article he wrote,
The releasing of atomic energy is the attempt to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. It took endless patient research work, but what guided the research workers? It was the physico-mathematical method, common to them. Dealing with human beings, who are also mysterious and confusing, it is found in general semantics that the physico-mathematical method can also be applied in solving the complex individual and group human evaluations. Our experience shows that the application of physico-mathematical methods to life orientation helps people, and can be taught even in elementary schools, which involves a revision of our educational methods. The ‘great books’ of the thomists, Mortimer Adler, etc., have to be supplemented and to a large degree supplanted by atomist studies. (14)

Korzybski pointed out that, “One of the consequences of the latest discoveries is that the old methods of warfare become obsolete.”
...In the future a few aeroplanes and a few hundreds of atomic bombs would eliminate a New York, a Chicago, a Paris or London, or a new Berlin and a new Tokyo. Scientific discoveries do not remain secrets. It means that any aggressor at a very cheap price will be able to conquer continents, and be annihilated himself.  
This fact alone requires new kinds of social and government control. One of the human consequences may be that devastating wars will cease to happen, as no nation wants to deliberately suicide...The atomic bomb, one of the most world-shaking discoveries ever made, is due to the application of physico-mathematical methods. The utilization of atomic energy in a constructive way will benefit you and me. This discovery as connected with education affects our human adjustment to a universe now better understood. But it will not be a simple task to make the necessary revisions of existing economic, political, sociological, educational, etc., theories. The obstacles are serious, and it will require concerted and strenuous efforts to change the dogmas canalized in our nervous systems for hundreds or thousands of years. (15)

Korzybski provided an example of these kinds of dogmas in the American acceptance—with the Japanese surrender—of the continuation of the Emperor Hirohito’s symbolic rule. Korzybski felt concerned about the strong possibility of prolonging the atavistic Shintoist orientation, which he felt needed to be removed as an active element from Japanese culture. He concluded the article, eventually published in the Winter 1946 [1945-1946] issue of ETC., by saying,
Another irony of fate, emphasized even in newspapers, is that some dictators helped our victory through their racial, religious, and political persecutions. The atomic energy release has been accomplished by mathematical physicists of many nations, many of whom are refugees from Nazi and Fascist intolerance, and continued their work in free countries. It is good to be free, but our freedom depends on infinite-valued flexibility, essential to science, and away from Nazi and Shinto ritualism. Scientific method is the only solution for a new system of education. The main lesson we should learn from the latest scientific discoveries is that we are entering a new world, and to comprehend it and adjust ourselves to it requires those infinite-valued orientations which are at the foundation of the brilliant achievements in the exact sciences. (16) 

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
12. Billie Jane Baguley (who attended the 1945 Seminar-Workshop). Personal Communication with author, Sept. 2005. 

13. By 1947 mousetrap models of the chain reaction in an ‘atomic bomb’ began to get written about in journals and even the popular media. Korzybski read about “Atomic Mousetraps” in Science News and decided that he had to have one in his seminars to demonstrate the important notion of chain reactions, which he wanted students to realize as ubiquitous in science and life. For him it wasn’t sufficient to explain ‘concepts’ like this; they had to be seen, heard, and felt to ‘get under the skin’. The demonstration he used in his 1948-1949 Winter Intensive seminar involved an array of mousetraps set up in a large box with a glass front (for viewing) and a closed top (for protection) with a hole in it. The traps were set and arranged on the floor of the box in columns of about five traps arranged in cross-rows of 10 or so in close proximity. Two hard candies, representing ‘neutrons’ had been balanced on the spring of each trap. Then Ralph Hamilton, one of Korzybski’s assistants at the time, dropped another single ‘neutron’ candy (raspberry flavored, by the way) through the hole in the top of the box to trigger one trap below, which sent its two ‘neutrons’ flying within the box. Each one set off another two ‘neutrons’, and so on. Within a few seconds the whole ‘bomb’ of about 50 mousetrap ‘atoms’ had exploded with dramatic results. [This description of the IGS Atomic Mousetrap demonstration came from interviews with Ralph Hamilton and David Linwood [Levine], both of whom assisted Korzybski at seminars in the late 1940s.] 

14. Korzybski, “Release of Atomic Energy (August 1945), Etc.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. III (2), Winter 1946. Reprinted in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 537. 15. Ibid., p. 537-538. 

16. Ibid., p. 538.

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