By Taylor Owen & Robert Gorwa
On August 2, 1939, at the dawn of World War II and six months after the discovery of uranium fission, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Building on Szilard’s work, which had resulted in the first nuclear chain reaction and a patent on the first nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi in the 1930s, Einstein warned Roosevelt that uranium could likely be used to build an atomic bomb. Even more worrying, as U.S. scientists wasted time doubting the potential of nuclear energy and weapons, Germany’s program was advancing rapidly and the country already had access to Czechoslovakian uranium. It is this critical historical moment that the political theorist James Der Derian uses to frame Project Q, an ambitious research project, symposium series, and documentary that explores the international relations implications of a new generation of quantum technologies.
Nearly a century ago, the giants of physics were surely conflicted. Einstein was a noted pacifist. All were developing a field of research that fundamentally challenged Newtonian physics and the positivist certainty and existential grounding that it provided. The world, they discovered, was not logical, predictable, and measurable. At the smallest level, matter behaved differently. Atoms, photons, and electrons could be waves and particles at the same time. They could be connected to one another over vast distances. Although many saw disquieting randomness in this behavior, Einstein and the other leading physicists of the time debated the exciting possibilities for various configurations of this quantum matter. Their theories led to the development of nuclear fission and the astounding power that it promised. They also ultimately led to some of the great technological breakthroughs of the twentieth century, including transistors and lasers.
At the same time, the community of scientists saw the potential of these new discoveries as tools of war. Having lived through a war that saw new, experimental weapons unleashed to horrifying consequence, they were torn by the difficulties of reconciling their science with the potential impact of its application. Instead of calling for a ban on the use of this technology, however, engaged scientists lobbied the United States to weaponize it themselves as a counter to Nazi German advances. Acutely aware of the potential of what they were developing, and strategically prescient enough to share their knowledge with the United States, they urged Roosevelt to acquire uranium ore and establish a government nuclear weapons research program.
Initially, Roosevelt was cautious, establishing a “Uranium Committee” that purchased $6,000 in graphite and uranium for the experimentation. A large-scale atomic project did not begin for two more years, until December 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor. Within a year, the program had expanded to become the Manhattan Project, and as the scientists had anticipated, the nature of power in the twenty-first century would be largely defined by the development and influence of nuclear weapons.
And so is the case again as a new generation of quantum research is being developed in research labs around the world. Again, a scientific community is making striking breakthroughs in both theory and application, and once again, the implications to global peace and security are profound.
Picture: National Institute of Standards and Technology [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons