Friday, December 26, 2014

ASK THE PHYSICIST: "Ash Carter, are we safe with all those nukes?"

Ashton "Ash" Carter
Nominated for the position of
U.S. Secretary of Defense
This is an invitation to solve a problem together.

Something new is happening: Barack Obama has nominated a physicist to be the next Secretary of Defense.

This tees up an opportunity. The nominee, Ashton "Ash" Carter, will need to pass through hearings before the Senate Armed Forces Committee and a vote in the full Senate before assuming his position.

The run-of-the-mill nominee for Secretary of Defense can hide behind their lack of expertise on the topic of nuclear weapons; they're swimming in the same groupthink as everyone else. For someone who holds himself out as a physicist, however, ignorance is not a refuge.

What might be achieved in support of nuclear disarmament in this special circumstance?

Nuclear Disarmament: The Line of Questioning is Timely

There are at least three reasons a line of questioning relating to nuclear disarmament is especially timely for the "Ash" Carter confirmation hearings.

First: the every-five-year review conference ("RevCon") of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) takes place in spring 2015 at the UN in New York City. There is global pressure on the U.S. to live up to its obligations under Article 6 of the NPT to eliminate its own nuclear arsenal.

"We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here"
(Image source: AP / Evan Vucci)
Second: the precipitating event in this turnover in the position of Secretary of Defense was the revelation that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is not in safe hands. (See "U.S. and Its Nukes: 'We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here' ")

Third: there is a growing sense that, in his final two years in office, Barack Obama intends to follow through on major initiatives he promised when he was first elected in 2008. First and foremost among those is the promise for which he was prospectively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: the elimination of nuclear weapons. ("The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.")

What Physicists Know

"Ash" Carter has important credentials in nuclear disarmament work: "Carter served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy during President Clinton's first term."

However, I believe that the important focus of the questioning is what he knows -- and how he understands truth -- as a physicist.

The following questions need to be refined, but they are predicated on the special qualifications a physicist brings to looking at the problem of the U.S. nuclear arsenal:

(a) Physicists recognize truth that is observable. Unlike most of the rest of us, for whom what passes for "truth" actually consists of a high degree of hope combined with a lot of random noise, physicists pay special attention to what is actually observable to be true.

I think it would be very enlightening to ask physicist "Ash" Carter: "Based on what is observable about nuclear arsenals, is "safety" of a population like that of the U.S. an objectively observable condition?"

Physics 101: What can we observe?
(Let's do an experiment.)
I think that, at a minimum, "Ash" would be compelled to state that the "safety" of a population like that of the U.S. can never be objectively observed so long as nuclear arsenals exist. (In other words, "we'll never be able to state with confidence that 'you are safe.'")

It's even possible that "Ash" would admit that, based on his observations, a population like that of the U.S. will always be objectively observed to be unsafe so long as nuclear arsenals exist.

(I suspect that an important element of this line of questioning would be the binary nature of "safety" in light of the existence of  nuclear arsenals: a population is either "safe" or "unsafe"; there's no such think as being "relatively safe.")

(b) Physicists are experimental. Physicists don't just expect to find observable truth lying around; they do work to make truth observable in noise-free environments.

The ability to devise noise-free experiments is particularly important in a world in which nuclear arsenals exist. The United States is currently conducting an experiment in foreign affairs, one which it hopes will render the true risk of a nuclear exchange objectively observable.

The question for physicist "Ash" Carter is: "What are the sources of noise in the experiment?" and "Given the amount of noise, isn't it true that the experiment is flawed and we are just wasting time?"

A numbers game:
people need to be able to think mathematically
in order to grasp the Obscene Geometry:
Hard Facts about Death and Injury from Nuclear Weapons
(c) Physicists count stuff. The run-of-the-mill nominee for Secretary of Defense probably can't be expected to explain the relationship between the couple of kiloton-scale nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in 1945 and the thousands of megaton-scale nuclear weapons that are poised worldwide today. A line of questioning about the scale of potential destruction from on-alert nuclear arsenals would be constructive in the hearings for physicist "Ash" Carter.

(d) Physicists are adept at deal time as a dimension in our dealings. The biggest difference between physicists and members of the general public, in my opinion, is that physicists are able to think in four dimensions -- the fourth dimension, of course, being time.

The reason this is important in trying to solve the problem of nuclear weapons is that most of us can't locate within the passage of time that we experience as our lives the relative magnitude of a one-time event, such as an exchange using nuclear weapons. (Hell, most of us struggle to imagine much smaller outcomes, like that possible hip-replacement 15 years from now.)

"5 minutes to midnight?"
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publisher Kennette
Benedict, with the "Doomsday Clock" in the background
This line of questioning needs some development, but what I would be interested in seeing are questions that require the physicist nominee to characterize risk from nuclear weapons relative to some other forms of risk -- the risk of being killed in a car accident, or the risk of getting heart disease.

(e) Physicists value life. An under-appreciated fact about scientists is that, as a result of their observation of how nature works, they tend to be deeply appreciative of, and have a profound respect, for life. Where most of us take it for granted that human life -- not to mention all the other forms of life -- just is, physicists and other scientists tend to live in a near-perpetual state of wonder that this unlikely circumstance has come into being, and can testify to the unlikelihood of it ever being replicated.

What is the value of a human life? What is the value of millions of them?

Who Will Lead the Questioning?

It is important that one or more members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee prepare to pursue this line of questioning during the "Ash Hearings." (For reference, here is a overview of the senators who were involved in the Hagel hearings.) The committee membership will be updated in light of the new membership beginning in 2015.

Hearings are for getting at the truth
The late Senator Arlen Specter was known
for pursuing lines of tough questioning
Everyone should examine the list of committee members and consider how they might influence members to bear down on the question of nuclear disarmament.

I know who I have my eye on: Tim Kaine, Democratic Senator from Virginia. Kaine is unique in the Senate for his serious attention to the question: Who has the power to take us into war? -- even to the point of challenging a President who comes from his own party.

Let's hope one or more senators with a touch of the litigator in them take on this questioning. Done correctly, the questioning of physicist "Ash" Carter will allow for one of only two possible conclusions:

(A) The continuance of the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons renders the U.S. unsafe; OR
(B) This Secretary of Defense nominee is not really competent as a physicist, as he claims.

So, "Ash," . . . which is it?


Participate: Write to your senator.   
Tell him/her you want a Secretary of Defense
who is committed to nuclear disarmament.

Organize: Find others in your area 
and be part of the 
2015 mobilization for disarmament!

Share: Tweet on #NoNukesTuesday

Related posts

The decision about whether to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation is our decision. And that is why the entire country is mobilizing for mass action for nuclear disarmament in 2015. Are we capable of making sure the messengers -- Obama, Putin, the other agents of government -- hear their instructions from us clearly?

How do you formulate a statement that can somehow convince the United States to eliminate its threatening nuclear weapons?  How do you formulate the 10th request? Or the 100th? Knowing all the time that the United States is in the position -- will always be in the position -- to say, "No" ?  At what point does it dawn on you that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has the power and the rest of the world doesn't?

Elaine Scarry demonstrates that the power of one leader to obliterate millions of people with a nuclear weapon - a possibility that remains very real even in the wake of the Cold War - deeply violates our constitutional rights, undermines the social contract, and is fundamentally at odds with the deliberative principles of democracy.

Any advocacy for the elimination of nuclear weapons must sooner or later get around to the specifics of the steps by which we get to zero. U.S. nuclear strategists recognize that 311 is still a large number of strategic nuclear weapons for the U.S. to hold. Shouldn't our minimum demand be to get U.S. to this level (or below)?

(See Why Are These Military Experts Saying CUT CUT CUT Nukes? )