Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Nuclear physicists no longer speak of the possibility of a nuclear exchange. Research today is asking what will happen “when” it happens. Nuclear technology is out there, the science is known, and as much as we might want to put a cap on it, well, shall we ask Pandora how well that works?
For example, in one calculation, they asked the question of what happens to the GDP after a limited nuclear exchange. A limited exchange assumes that there is sufficient restraint to avoid just unleashing everything and wiping out the entire earth. Instead, the exchange is limited to major population centers like New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles (all harbor cities) and the like, killing only maybe a few tens of millions of people. Hardly anybody at all, actually, with the goal being to decimate the US economically. In this calculation, it showed that five hundred years after this tiny war, the US GDP will only be half of what it was before the exchange. The US would be destroyed, even with survivors, economically and beyond repair. Think of President George W. Bush, but radioactive.
These calculations show that in an all-out nuclear holocaust, the last surviving humans on earth will be in New Zealand. My friend Kosta pointed this out to me, saying that the two contributing factors are that, first, there is no strategic purpose to target New Zealand, so they have no nuclear missiles targeting them. Second, because of the planetary Jetstream, the final place on earth for lethal levels of radiation to reach it is, as you’ve guessed, New Zealand.
“Oh, is that what they say?” I asked.
“Yes, that is what WE calculated,” he replied.
I hadn’t known him well enough at that point to realize that I was actually speaking with the foremost civilian expert on nuclear arms policy in the nation. It’s astounding to me how many incredible people cross our paths, nearly on a daily basis. It’s so easy to ignore that old man who can’t drive as fast as we feel he should, slowing us all down and making us all angry, that man who marched with the Allies and saved his platoon in a heroic act that we cannot even imagine.
I’ve known some incredible people in my day. My life journey plotted out a path for me to give me the opportunity to press palms with Nobel Laureates and incredible scientists, but if you met them, you would have no idea who they are. Some of the most accomplished people I’ve had the honor to know are also the humblest. Maybe they don’t have to brag. After all, they’ve made it to the apex, so perhaps that’s enough. They know what they’ve accomplished, so what does our attitude towards them matter?
In the height of the cold war, when the iron curtain was so firmly down that almost nothing could get through, two remarkable Russian scientists were too great for the world to ignore. Landau and Lifshitz were world-renowned physicists and their publications “tunneled under” the iron curtain (a quantum physics joke for those who understand). I’ve purchased several of their books myself. They were considered to be the best of the best of theoretical physicists. Until the accident.
A car collided with that which had Lev Landau in it. He suffered extreme injuries that put him into an extended coma. His reputation was so well known, and injuries so dangerous that even in 1962, the Soviet Union put out worldwide call for help, and the world responded sending the absolute best medical experts every nation had to offer. Landau survived, but had lost most of his extraordinary cognitive abilities, leaving him with an intellect comparable to, well, most of us. Some time later, he went to a lecture where a probably brilliant rising American physicist, whose arrogance matched his likely intellect, was interrupted by an unknown audience member who asked a fairly basic question.
The speaker went off to renounce people in the audience, asking why they permit people without appropriate background into the lecture. The unknown audience member sat, quietly, being insulted by the speaker until he was done with his rant when, quietly, he introduced himself as Landau, and asked what he should do since he lost most of his cognitive abilities in the accident.
The speaker, of course, was mortified. The incident had garnered such international attention that it became an international political incident. The United State issued a formal apology to the Soviet Union for the incident. And it happened because, sitting in the audience, asking a question, he seemed just like a normal person. He was dismissed, as many of us tend to do when we see other people. The reality is, we, including me, do not know the story of that person we’re honking at, or ignoring in the grocery store. And the reality is, even if they have nothing extraordinary in their history, they’re still a hero in their own right. And it would do us well to remember that.