Winter 2014

Science and Environment

A Line in the Sand

Dan Cloer

Life on earth has experienced many close calls with mass extinction. But until our arrival on the scene, there was never a life form that could choose to cross the line of self-destruction.

There is a line in the sand that geologists call the K-Pg boundary. It marks the time of a great disaster when the earth encountered an alien from space: an asteroid. Estimated to be about 6 miles (10 km) wide, its impact along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula may have released more than 100 million megatons of energy. One megaton is the energy equivalent of about a million tons of TNT.

The asteroid itself vaporized in an instant and blasted soot and dust into the atmosphere. As its shockwave rippled away, immense earthquakes and tsunamis followed. A veil of debris soon shrouded the planet. Great fires, acid rain, climate change and sea level shifts all contributed to the extinction of 70 percent or more of the earth’s species. As the dust slowly settled, a thin layer of iridium—an element rare on earth but common in asteroids—was laid down, memorializing the event in the rock record.

The K-Pg boundary is significant because it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. Below the line, dinosaur fossils tell the story of their dominance; above it, mammals become common. For T. rex and his cohorts, who thrived in the Cretaceous (the K), it was the end of the world. For mammals in the newly forged Paleogene (the Pg), it was a fresh start.

But it no longer requires an asteroid to create planetary havoc. Our entrance into the atomic age also created a line in the sand. We crossed that line in 1945 when the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert turned sand to green glass. Day by day our position on this side of the line becomes more precarious. Our concerns over nuclear proliferation—that Iran or North Korea, or any other nation for that matter, may develop nuclear arms of its own—are real and unsettling.

Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”

John F. Kennedy, Speech to the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 1961

Today it is estimated that the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France control about 17,000 nuclear weapons. If each carries, on average, a 300 kiloton yield (the equivalent of 300,000 tons of TNT and the reported average size of US nuclear arms), we have amassed 5,100 megatons of destructive power. To put that in perspective, consider that a one-megaton bomb could destroy 80 square miles (more than 200 square kilometers) if detonated on land.

What will come of this tremendous power?

Chain Reaction

The run-up to our current level of destructive capacity has been surprisingly easy. Developing the stalemate position of mutually assured destruction—the idea that my power to retaliate will deter your power to decimate me—was not difficult. It was merely a child’s playground tactic ramped up and applied to geopolitics. The novelty was in the transition from troops, munitions and transport to the application of Einstein’s E=mc2 to atom-splitting.

Once Enrico Fermi achieved the first atomic chain reaction in 1942 and the potential for ever-greater weapons was recognized, the next logical step was to package it for delivery as a bomb. Albert Einstein’s letter to Franklin Roosevelt, drafted by fellow physicist Leo Szilard, led to the Manhattan Project, the official US effort at atomic bomb–making.

As former bomb designer Thomas Reed and physicist Danny Stillman recount in their history of nuclear proliferation, it was Nazi anti-Semitism that drove German physicists to America and Britain: “By the summer of 1942, the European scientific diaspora had temporarily settled into Berkeley, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. Fearing Berlin’s capabilities, these refugees and their American hosts were determined to beat Hitler to the nuclear punch” (The Nuclear Express).

The race to discover the secrets of atomic energy had begun. Historian Ferenc Szasz argues that once the project was launched there was no going back, and “it became almost a foregone conclusion that some action would follow immediately after the bomb’s completion. . . . The decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of the Japanese was never really an issue.”

Even Szilard, who diligently petitioned against using the bomb on a city, believed that its power must be demonstrated publicly in order to generate consensus for future supranational control.

The End Was Near

On July 16, 1945, two months after the Allied victory in Europe, Harry Truman wrote in his diary, “I hope for some sort of peace—but I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll [be] no reason for any of it.” By this point they had crossed the line of no return; General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, characterized Truman as a “little boy on a toboggan,” writes Szasz. All the pieces were in place and, in a figurative sense, the fuse was lit. The end of the war in the Pacific was at hand.

Although some had suggested a high-altitude (and therefore nonlethal) nighttime burst over Tokyo, others believed that the United States would have more leverage over the postwar Soviets if the bomb’s destructive power could be plainly seen. “There was,” Winston Churchill later wrote in his memoirs, “unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table” to use the bomb on a city. He alluded to it as a kind of healer; after the successful Trinity test in the New Mexico desert, it seemed “a miracle of deliverance” that “at the cost of a few explosions” the American and British as well as the Japanese forces could “avert a vast, indefinite butchery” and “lay healing hands upon its tortured peoples by a manifestation of overwhelming power.”

And so the first bomb fell. But because Japanese scientists understood the difficulty in refining the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb, they believed it to be a one-time event and stubbornly ignored further warnings of “prompt and utter destruction.”

Luis Alvarez, a future Nobel laureate in physics, had worked with the Japanese prior to the war. Anticipating the Japanese physicists’ assessment that the Hiroshima bombing would be a difficult thing to repeat, he joined two other physicists in writing an advisory to his former colleague: “We implore you to confirm these facts [i.e., that America is making many more bombs] to your leaders, and to do your utmost to stop the destruction and waste of life which can only result in the total annihilation of all your cities, if continued. As scientists, we deplore the use to which a beautiful discovery has been put, but we can assure you that unless Japan surrenders at once, this rain of atomic bombs will increase manyfold in fury. To my friend Sagane, With best regards.”

The Japanese finally agreed to unconditional surrender, but not until six days after a second atomic bomb was dropped. As many as 200,000 people are believed to have died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” together released no more than 40,000 tons of energy (.04 megaton).

Bombs Away

Unleashing the atomic genie did not generate universal agreement for its control as Szilard and others had hoped. Rather than showing the need for international control of atomic energy, the Americans’ use of the bomb on cities may actually have intensified the Russian perception that they could be the next target if they refused to cooperate in U.S.-dominated postwar planning, especially in Eastern Europe.

I believe that there is a general uneasiness among the scientists. It is easy for them to agree that we cannot trust Russia, but they also ask themselves: To what extent can we trust ourselves?”

Leo Szilard, February 1950, Quoted in Toward a Livable World

Rather than moving us toward peace through cooperation, the power of atomic fission became the new geopolitical lever. “We have emerged from a war in which we had to accept the degradingly low ethical standards of the enemy,” Einstein lamented in 1947. “But instead of feeling liberated from his standards, . . . we are in effect making the low standards of the enemy in the last war our own for the present. Thus we are starting toward another war degraded by our own choice” (“Atomic War or Peace”).

Working more rapidly than the United States publicly expected—notably through espionage—the Russians detonated their first A-bomb in 1949. Superiority took center stage as nuclear relationships moved forward, and the word overkill entered our vocabulary. Only the doctrine of mutually assured destruction held nuclear weapons in check.

From the point when scientists understood the physics, historian Richard Rhodes notes, bomb-making boiled down to “the essentially trivial problem of figuring out how to make the physics into machines.” Physics had made the A-bomb a reality; the next “machine” to be made was the H-bomb. This would boost destructive potential from kilotons to megatons, from the splitting of uranium and plutonium to the sunlike fusion of hydrogen; in other words, a superbomb that would ensure a nation’s superpower. Future chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Lewis Strauss recommended that America proceed immediately with thermonuclear designs, writing that “we should now make an intensive effort to get ahead with the super.”

Many scientists were reluctant, however. In an appendix to the AEC report, Fermi and Isidor Rabi soberly sought not to cross that line: “We think it wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate a program of development of such a weapon. At the same time it would be appropriate to invite the nations of the world to join us in a solemn pledge not to proceed in the development or construction of weapons of this category.”

And the End Was Nearer

By 1952 the British had joined the atomic club with a test in Australia. On the fusion front, Andrei Sakharov led Soviet work at a hastily built research city near Moscow. In 1953, less than a year after the first US fusion test in its Pacific-atoll testing ground, Russia successfully exploded Sakharov’s “layer cake” gadget in Kazakhstan. Its yield was much lower than that of American bombs, but by 1961 the Soviets unleashed the single highest-yield explosion ever created: 50 megatons.

By the end of 1961, the United States was poised to increase its nuclear warhead stockpile from 22,000 to 27,000, while the Soviets increased theirs from 3,300 to 4,200. In an address to the United Nations, John Kennedy warned: “Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. . . . The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” But his words had little effect as nuclear stockpiles continued to grow.

You can certainly destroy enough of humanity so that only the greatest act of faith can persuade you that what’s left will be human.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, in a 1955 Inerview with Edward R. Murrow

The destructive potential was incredible enough, but by this time the danger of radioactive fallout was also becoming well known. Yet in 1962 alone, the USSR conducted 79 tests, only one of which was underground; the American total was 98 detonations, about half of which were below ground in the Nevada desert.

In July that year, the Americans also examined the effect of an explosion in space for possible use in an anti-missile defense system. The test, named Starfish Prime, created a nuclear explosion of 1.5 megatons 248 miles above the earth—slightly higher than the International Space Station orbits today—and visible for many hundreds of miles. One military observer described it as a “brilliant white flash [that] burned through the clouds, rapidly changing to an expanding green ball of irradiance. . . . As the greenish light turned to purple and began to fade at the point of burst, a bright red glow began to develop on the horizon . . . expanding inward and upward until the whole eastern sky was a dull, burning red semicircle.” Radioactive fallout trickled down for the next 14 years.

If cooler heads had not soon prevailed, a wrong move in the Caribbean a few months later might have left few to experience those years. On the other side of the globe, at about the time of Starfish Prime, the Soviets were determining to move nuclear missiles across the Atlantic to Cuba.

In 1987, at a symposium marking the 25th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, Georgi Shakhnazarov, an aide to then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, declared that “the deep cause [of the crisis] was American policy toward the U.S.S.R., socialist Cuba, and other socialist countries. The United States did not want to recognize others’ rights to equal security. It desired to keep its superiority.” An American first strike was taken as a serious threat. “The main idea was to publicly attain military parity,” he continued. “ . . . But one of the most important lessons is that in the nuclear age it is impossible not to be honest and moral, because both sides are interested in survival.”


Since the 1930s the Nuclear Express has “picked up steam, but it never came off the rails,” conclude Reed and Stillman. “Rational people, concerned about the well-being of their children, held differing views about the social system that would best assure their future, but the initial use of nuclear weapons was never an option.”

What has been suggested is that nuclear weapons could one day be used to save the planet from the next asteroid. In a paper from the Iowa State University Asteroid Deflection Research Center, physicists suggest using nuclear explosions in what they call a “hypervelocity asteroid intercept vehicle,” a kind of nuclear projectile, to deliver a megaton or two. Theoretically that could be enough to nudge an asteroid’s orbit and save ourselves from the nasty fate of the dinosaurs, with ample megatons left over to safeguard the line in the sand called deterrence.

Still, according to the Bible an asteroid will not be the ultimate target of our weapons. As new geopolitical and economic alliances ebb and flow in the 21st century, how long will the nuclear status quo endure? Will we be able to keep our destructive power in check? It’s not a new question. Jesus’ disciples asked a first-century iteration of it. The world seems rather stable, they said, but you say it will not always be so: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). 

That future time will come suddenly, Jesus said, when world events seem to be following the normal routine (verses 36–39). Although the exact timing is not predictable, the overall outline of human history was given in a king’s dream more than 2,500 years ago. 

As Daniel explained to King Nebuchadnezzar, “there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (Daniel 2:28). Daniel explained that a succession of empires would arise one after another, symbolized as a great statue topped with a head of gold and degrading into progressively less precious materials; the feet were nothing more than a weak amalgam of iron and clay. 

You watched,” Daniel continued, “while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (verses 34–35). 

That will be a time of greater horror than anything the world has ever seen or will ever see again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, the entire human race will be destroyed. But it will be shortened. . . .”

Matthew 24:21–22, New Living Translation

That stone, Daniel went on to explain, represented the kingdom or government of God that will be established on the earth (verse 44). It will replace human governments, but only after they have come to the point of self-destruction. At some time in the future, “cooler heads” will not prevail and nuclear weapons will be unleashed. Humankind will be pushed not only to the proverbial brink but to the very point where, as Jesus warns, “there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive” (Matthew 24:21–22, New International Version). That is the point when Jesus Christ will return to rescue us from ourselves. 

Humanity will have damaged the earth horribly yet will be perplexed and angered at His actual return (Revelation 11:15–19). The death and destruction associated with this time is hardly imaginable, yet those who remain will rally against His intervention. Ironically, using whatever weapons remain, some will unite at a place called Armageddon and turn them on Christ Himself in a final power play to repel God (Revelation 19:19; 16:16). It is not the place where we will be destroyed, however; rather it is where renewal will begin (Zechariah 14). It will be the ultimate line in the sand that marks a new era.

The specter of nuclear war is a part of our world; it will remain until only God can block our self-annihilation. Collectively we have chosen this precarious path; we hoped it would make us safe, cure our “nakedness” and provide security (Genesis 3:10). Instead, the menace of the mushroom cloud will hang over us until finally, in one great catharsis, our utter failure to rule ourselves apart from our Creator will be gruesomely evident.

It is at that point when we will recognize the failure of our human ability to manage ourselves on a planetary, national and even personal scale. We will be ready to change. Finally we will understand that the ultimate line in the sand is the boundary between a contrived peace—the best that can be achieved through human power—and the true peace of God.