Never mind, Hamming

Shortly before the first field test (you realize that no small scale experiment can be done—either you have a critical mass or you do not), a man asked me to check some arithmetic he had done, and I agreed, thinking to fob it off on some subordinate. When I asked what it was, he said, “It is the probability that the test bomb will ignite the whole atmosphere.” I decided I would check it myself! The next day when he came for the answers I remarked to him, “The arithmetic was apparently correct but I do not know about the formulas for the capture cross sections for oxygen and nitrogen—after all, there could be no experiments at the needed energy levels.” He replied, like a physicist talking to a mathematician, that he wanted me to check the arithmetic not the physics, and left. I said to myself, “What have you done, Hamming, you are involved in risking all of life that is known in the Universe, and you do not know much of an essential part?” I was pacing up and down the corridor when a friend asked me what was bothering me. I told him. His reply was, “Never mind, Hamming, no one will ever blame you.”[5]

This

“Never mind, Hamming, no one will ever blame you.”

Such is the nature of our moral intuitions. The idea of destroying all life on Earth looms less important than whether or not monkeys up in the tribal hierarchy are going to blame us.

In Moral Tribes, Josh Greene argues that making progress in understanding and changing our morality requires
  1. The structure of the moral problems that our brains evolved to solve, an
  2. How modern moral problems differ from the

I can think of no better illustration of this: from damaging your camp by messing up the campfire to destroying all life on Earth.

I find it interesting to imagine myself in that situation. In fact, I have a huge respect for Hamming. He demonstrated a bunch of unnatural virtues that he should get credit for:

  • Scope sensitivity
  • Scientific mindset and skepticism
  • “Point of view of the universe”

But still, even this well-trained mind of a well-intentioned person failed at the test moment, letting conformity pressures fomiante over keeping humanity safe.

Image result for isildur mount doom

Painfully, one person who got this right is Hitler. Daniel Ellsberg in his interview with Rob Wiblin:

Daniel Ellsberg: When Speer told him about it Speer says Hitler was not delighted with the idea that his might be the cause of destroying life on earth. He didn’t like that idea. And he went on to say someday he said, the scientist will in his egotism and their pride and everything else, be setting the possibility of setting the earth on fire. He said someday. He said it won’t be in my lifetime, he said. Well, it wasn’t exactly in his lifetime. He died the first week of May 1945, but two months later they were making that experiment.

I’m creating a locked chamber in my mind around the concept of judging people based on how they affected the expected well-being of civilization. My approach here aligns with Rick’s:

Rick: “What about the reality where Hitler cured cancer, Morty? The answer is: Don’t think about it.”

In fact, it turns out that Hamming was right about the uncertainties involved in physics. Toby Ord:

screenshot_2018-08-08-21-23-33-871

So much for model-level uncertainty.

The whole interview with Ellsberg changes how I look at our civilization. I should look at this sample at least once a quarter to remind myself the craziness that we’re all up against:

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Another example where Hitler comes in is that when we detonated the first bomb during the testing in 1944 or 45 –

Daniel Ellsberg: 45.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. They weren’t actually certain that this wouldn’t ignite the atmosphere and lead to the destruction of all life.

Daniel Ellsberg: That’s right. It’s something we go into in some length in the book, because I find it so emblematic of the situation we’re in today. The fact is that the scientists who exploded that bomb, the first so-called Trinity Test in July of 1945 knew they were gambling. They thought it was unlikely, but possible that that would ignite the atmosphere and the nitrogen in the atmosphere and the hydrogen in the water and destroy all life on earth. All life. Even microscopic. In a fraction of a second. And indeed the most distinguished experimental physicist of them all, Enrico Fermi, while knowing that their calculations indicated that that was extremely unlikely, also knew that those calculations aren’t that reliable.

Robert Wiblin: It assumed that their model was correct. That they hadn’t missed anything out.

Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah. That assumed that the model is correct, but he understood that as an experimental physicist that there was a good possibility that they had overlooked some major interaction, some effect of some kind. And he thought the probability of that was ten percent. Now, that’s not small at all, and yet he went ahead with it. In fact, the very first bomb that I described earlier there was a test explosion in 1952 of a hydrogen device, but it was not a droppable bomb. It involved liquid tritium and a very huge apparatus, many tons, stories high. It wasn’t a real bomb.

But the first droppable bomb with dry lithium deuteride in 1954 was three times the yield that they had calculated as its largest possibility. Now, the zone of danger from which shipping was to be excluded near the atoll, was based on this worst case they thought estimate of I think something like five megatons, five million tons of TNT equivalent. In fact, it was 15 million tons and that resulted in fallout not only on many islanders in the Marshall Islands, but on the crew of the Lucky Dragon Five, Maru fishing boat of Japan, which came back into Tokyo with one sailor dead from radiation the others all injured by it and a boatload of tuna that had been iradiated, which went into the market, and when they realized that had to cut off the sales of all the available tuna at that point. And that in a way evoked the modern anti-nuclear movement and the anti-testing movement all together.

This was in 1954, but how did that happen? Well, the initial reaction of American officials was, well, it must have been inside the danger zone that had been forbidden, but it wasn’t. It was a hundred miles away. And how did that happen? Well, there was in fact an interaction that they had not foreseen. The fuel for the hydrogen reaction, the fusion reaction, lithium deuteride, involved a compound of lithium 6 and lithium 7 and one of those, I think it was, I forget, but lithium 7 was believed not to contribute to the explosive yield. It was just there because it was too hard to separate. And in fact, under the conditions, on the fission explosion of the trigger, it did interact. It did provide neutrons and it tripled the yield of the explosion.

Now, that was exactly the kind of effect that Fermi had feared just nine years earlier when the Trinity Test went off. That’s something that they had thought was impossible. Might not be impossible and might occur. And yet, it went ahead. He didn’t say, “There’s a ten percent chance here of blowing …” he did offer odds actually of the chance that the state of New Mexico would be incinerated. And different odds, presumably somewhat lower that all life on earth would be burned. And we don’t have a record of who, if anybody, took him up on that or exactly what the odds were that he offered. But we do have this quote that he said that day that he thought there was a ten percent chance.

Did Truman know that there was ten percent chance? As close to certain as we can be, not. There’s no evidence that anyone at the high levels in Washington was told that there was a real chance, however small. And that was not small of course, ten percent. But even if it was three in a million or two in a million, as some thought, nevertheless, a chance. Remember and a point in the war when victory was assured. The Germans had already surrendered. The Japanese were known at the high level to be negotiating for surrender, terms of surrender and were certain of being defeated at that point by blockade or otherwise with or without an invasion. So, the reason for taking even a one in a million chance of this happening was not justifiable I would have to say. Certainly was problematic to say the least.

The idea of taking a ten percent chance is hair raising and granted, as far as we know, no one else thought the chance was that high, but this was the best experimental physicist in the world, Enrico Fermi, who thought that. And at the other extreme, [inaudible 00:49:26] who got a Nobel Prize for this kind of process later, thought there was no chance. There was no chance. But he was alone in thinking that. Almost nobody else believed that with his confidence. So, this is the chance that was taken.

What I’m saying is our leaders and our scientists had been taking gambles like that ever since without telling us and it was 30 years before, well, let’s see, 40 years, 1945 to 1983, almost 40 years, before people realized that the smoke which had been ignored as a factor, a miscalculation, would have this effect. Sort of like ignoring lithium 6, you know, or something for the whole period. But that was 35 years ago and we’ve lived ever since with the knowledge that to say the least, there is a possibility that our war plans would destroy life on earth. But does that keep people from preparing it, or threatening it? No. It doesn’t.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just mentioned Hitler there ’cause apparently this concern about igniting the atmosphere was one reason that Hitler didn’t want to pursue an atomic bomb, which curiously didn’t stop us though.

Daniel Ellsberg: When Speer told him about it Speer says Hitler was not delighted with the idea that his might be the cause of destroying life on earth. He didn’t like that idea. And he went on to say someday he said, the scientist will in his egotism and their pride and everything else, be setting the possibility of setting the earth on fire. He said someday. He said it won’t be in my lifetime, he said. Well, it wasn’t exactly in his lifetime. He died the first week of May 1945, but two months later they were making that experiment.

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