April 22, 2017

The rising tensions between the United States and North Korea have got me thinking again about how human history unfolds. I look at the course of human civilization through different lenses depending on the day, but one that I come back to regularly goes like this: All of human experience flows from the intersection of two phenomena, Technology and Ethics.

Through this lens, technology determines the parameters of our lives and societies, encompassing both the raw materials we have available to do things with and the ingenuity we apply to those raw materials. Ethics describe the choices we make as individuals and groups within the parameters set by technology. What happens to us boils down to what we can do with what we have and what we choose to do with it.

Probably the single most important intersection of technology and ethics has, since July of 1945, been nuclear weapons. Those of us who remember the Cold War know what it feels like to inhabit a reality in which any of the paths leading from this intersection—from peaceful to catastrophic—seemed possible. Those who were born earlier may even remember the only use of nuclear weapons in combat, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in August, 1945.

The debate over whether our use of atomic bombs was justified (either at the time or with hindsight) is, from an historian and ethicist’s point of view, both fascinating and essential. The fact that those earth-shattering attacks, by some measures, barely crack the top ten list of World War II’s most terrible actions is the most mind-boggling concept to arise from that discussion. With my students, I approach this topic with the solemnity it deserves, but also with excitement—to see their developing minds struggle to comprehend the scope and complexity of both the technology and the ethics involved. My topic here, however, though related to this one, is a bit different.

I just finished re-reading Ellen Klages’s The Green Glass Sea. Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, this is one of the best young adult books I’ve ever read. And it comes at a perfect time in my thinking—not just because today is both Earth Day and the March for Science. Since I began writing my blog, I have been absorbed in trying to fully experience and better understand the junctions of reading, writing, science, philosophy, history, ethics, and politics. The overlaps and emergent properties of these domains are truly thrilling, and I continue to seek ways to share them in semi-coherent ways.

The Green Glass Sea is about two pre-teen girls living in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the year-and-a-half leading up to the end of World War II. Their parents are working on the Manhattan Project, the massive American scientific project to create the first atomic weapons. The project, the presence of the scientists and their families, the town, and everything connected to “the gadget” (as they call the bomb), is secret. The girls, Dewey and Suze, are both misfits in their own way, and the book is a beautiful exploration of ostracism and friendship. With Dewey’s passion for tinkering, Suze’s artistic talent, and their parents’ constant efforts to push the boundaries of knowledge and engineering, the book is also a moving homage to the powers of inquiry and imagination.

In a short interview at the end of the book, the author, Ellen Klages, explains her view that “art and science, which appear to be opposites, are actually two sides of the same coin. They’re both the result of curiosity and exploration and creativity, finding out how the world works, and asking ‘what if?’” Yes. For my whole life, I have tried to reconcile the math/science and reading/writing impulses that both compel me so powerfully. This is it: both come down to asking questions and looking for answers. The renowned 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman, who appears in The Green Glass Sea because of his actual historical work on the Manhattan Project, titled one of his many books, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. That is the experience at the heart of the inquiring, imaginative mind, and it is at the heart of The Green Glass Sea.

This book has other human experiences at its core as well, especially ethical decision-making. Young readers will pick up on the ethical issues around bullying and breaking rules, but to an adult reader who knows what was done with the atomic bombs being developed in New Mexico and what could still be done with their descendants today and in the future, the primary ethical question that permeates the book goes something like this: How can it be good to do a good job if doing a good job means creating something so bad that it could end all life on earth? The scientists and others who made the Manhattan Project one of the most successful scientific endeavors of all time were extraordinary thinkers and creators, and they performed unbelievably well under the most intense pressure imaginable (as Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan continued fighting), but their extraordinary work was in the service of history’s most destructive invention.

In a chapter called “Celebrating,” which takes place after the Manhattan Project team, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, has exploded the first test weapon at the “Trinity” test site, Ms. Klages presents this short exchange between two of the scientists (Suze’s parents):

      “To success,” he said. They clinked glasses and drank.

      “Now what happens?” Mrs. Gordon asked.

      He shrugged. “It’s out of our hands now. The science worked. It’s all Washington from here.”

      Mrs. Gordon looked at him for a long minute, then put her glass down with a soft but solid clunk. “I think I prefer physics.”

Indeed, every technological advance is, in a real way, a success. Each advancement (other than the rare serendipitous accidental ones) is the result of painstaking inquiry, imagination, problem-solving, and all-around hard work. The question then becomes what to do with these successes. That’s why I love this little scene: it’s a perfect depiction of how little-picture ethics and big-picture ethics coincide. These scientists are happy because they did their jobs well and they acted on their personal belief that the Allies needed to win the war. They—Mrs. Gordon more than her husband—are also anxious that others may not act as ethically, or that the big-picture ethics of international conflict and diplomacy may follow a different logic, one that leads to tragedy.

We all find ourselves facing similar intersection points these days. Many of us feel the weight of trying to lead good everyday lives while also trying to influence, in whatever small way we can, the unfolding of national and global events. How do our personal choices to do what’s right and the choices of politicians and governments relate in any tangible, comprehensible way?

The first atomic bomb test turned the desert sand around ground zero to a kind of green glass called Trinitite—hence the name of the book. That glass is a metaphor for the transformative power of nuclear weapons and of technology generally—and a reminder of why technology’s partner, ethics, requires as much (if not more) of our attention. The best way we can sway the forces of human history through our individual actions is to support, at every turn, the ways in which inquiry and imagination drive ethical questions as much as technological ones. After all, as Ms. Klages says, these endeavors are at the core of both art and science. Science drives our technological capabilities, and art guides our ethics.

So, get out there and march or stay inside and donate. Wonder at the world, and share that wonder. Frame a question and, instead of saving it for later, investigate. Play devil’s advocate and generate hypotheticals. Consider cause-and-effect and contemplate scale. Read, listen, talk, and write. Teach and learn. Do the job that best combines passion, contribution, and survival, and do it well. Never stop asking questions, including those about what’s right and what’s wrong.

Writers do one of the most important jobs out there because they help us perceive and navigate the ways in which individual narratives and human history merge and unfold, as what we can do and what we choose to do jointly create the world in which we live. The Green Glass Sea does this job well. And it will make you think and feel, and entertain you in the process, whether you’re 11, 44, or 77.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.