SCIENCE: Researcher discusses history of nuclear weapons at Rutgers talk


Nuclear weapons have been a part of society since the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and despite their dormancy for more than 70 years, their use is still a major problem facing the world today.

On March 23, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rutgers hosted professor Aron Bernstein from the Lab for Nuclear Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to discuss the problems nuclear weapons pose.

Bernstein described his work with Congress on nuclear arms control issues as a member of the Board of Directors for the Council for a Livable World. The Council is an organization that aims to promote the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, according to their website.

Bernstein focused on specific events that explained the science and history of nuclear weapons. He emphasized its destructive and threatening use during World War II and the Cold War, focusing on key aspects such as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Bernstein began his presentation by describing his personal work experience with a Russian colleague during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“It was terrifying," he said. "The two of us were huddled together, shaking like leaves. We thought a nuclear war was about to happen. Each of us blamed the other side more.”

Tensions between the United States and Russia during the time of the Cold War escalated rapidly. As quickly as one nation built its nuclear arsenal, the other nation followed, he said.

In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis not only increased tensions between the United States and Russia, but placed the entire world into fear, Bernstein said.

“(The United States) had missiles in Turkey and they were trying to put missiles into Cuba,” he said. “Castro obviously wanted nuclear weapons, and the Russians were politically caught in a bind that they shouldn’t have been in.”

Bernstein then shifted focus to how the nuclear arms race began. He described the use of nuclear weapons during World War II. The bombings of Japan to hasten their surrender initiated the start of the arms race between the United States and Russia.

“Stalin was terrified of nuclear weapons,” said Bernstein. “When he realized the United States had this weapon, he immediately ordered his government to build one.”

Bernstein also focused on the science behind the two bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear weapons liberate between 200 and 250 million volts of energy. When charged particles reach their supercritical mass, they accelerate a chain reaction, which leads to a doubling of neutrons. Such a reaction, which takes a minimal amount of time to occur, causes the detonation of a nuclear bomb, he said.

The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium-based device, which released 15 kilotons of energy. The Nagasaki bomb, which was much more advanced in comparison due to its use of plutonium, was responsible for releasing 20 kilotons of energy, he said.

During the Manhattan Project, famous atomic scientists including Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, were firmly against its use, he said. Most scientists held the view that such a nuclear weapon should not be used.

Bernstein said he was unsure about how history would have been different if the United States had never dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.

Due to the recent collapse in cooperative relations between Russia and the United States, and with ongoing terror attacks throughout the world, the threat of nuclear weapons is becoming much stronger than it was during the Cold War, Bernstein said.

The United States has signed a comprehensive test-ban treaty but has not yet ratified it. Some solutions to reduce the threat of nuclear attack include reducing the number of American and Russian nuclear weapons to about 1000, reducing tensions in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia, he said.

The most important solution is educating students and the public about nuclear dangers, he said. Public opinion can truly have an impact on government and society, and should be the best way to reduce nuclear weapons.

Stephen Schnetzer, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said he hoped to educate students on the dangers of nuclear weapons by coordinating this lecture.

“There is this danger of nuclear weapons that people seem to have forgotten about,” Schnetzer said. “But it is very real and is more immediate, it is something that can happen tomorrow.”

Hamza Chaudry, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, enjoyed the lecture on nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

"(The lecture was) very well perceived, well given and a lot of material that we could all learn from,” Chaudry said.


Shivang Pandya is a School of Engineering sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. See more on Twitter @ShivPandya3.


Shivang Pandya

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