Samuel T. Cohen
Samuel Theodore Cohen (January 25, 1921 – November 28, 2010) was an American Jewish nuclear physicist. A former employee of RAND, he is most famous for being known as the inventor of the Neutron Bomb.
F*** You! Mr. President: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb (2006)
- Knowledge or no knowledge, the intelligence community is obliged to furnish estimates to military planners, even if they’re worthless and very possibly misleading. If you are one of those strange ducks trying to understand what this nuclear business is all about and read the “respectable” journals the CIA leaks information to, please don’t get the idea this makes you a more respectable arm chair analyst than anyone else.
- He was all in favor of fighting an all-out thermonuclear war that might devastate a fair fraction of civilization, to settle an argument with the USSR, but was dead set against using discriminate nuclear weapons that could settle arguments on the battlefield without devastating everything in sight. Genius, when applied to human problems, can manifest itself in strange ways.
- (Speaking about Edward Teller)
- As you can well imagine, any nuclear bombing study that neglected to target Moscow would be laughed out of the room. (That is, no study at that time; 10 or 15 years later senior policy officials were debating how good an idea this might be. If you wiped out the political leadership of the Soviet Union in the process, who would you deal with in arranging for a truce and who would be left to run the country after the war?) Consequently, two of RAND’s brightest mathematicians were assigned the task of determining, with the help of computers, in great detail, precisely what would happen to the city were a bomb of so many megatons dropped on it. It was truly a daunting task and called for devising a mathematical model unimaginably complex; one that would deal with the exact population distribution, the precise location of various industries and government agencies, the vulnerability of all the important structures to the bomb’s effects, etc., etc. However, these two guys were up to the task and toiled in the vineyards for some months, finally coming up with the results. Naturally, they were horrendous. (Harold Mitchell, a medical doctor, an expert on human vulnerability to the H-bomb’s effects, told me when the study first began: “Why are they wasting their time going through all this shit? You know goddamned well that a bomb this big is going to blow the fucking city into the next county. What more do you have to know?” I had to agree with him.)
- The next day, I called one of them and asked if I could come to his office to discuss the briefing. Fine with him, so off I went. I sat down and asked him a question: “Norm, how did you decide so exactly where the bomb would explode?” He looked at me as if I were a country bumpkin and explained how SAC calculated its bombing accuracy and he had gotten the accuracy of this particular drop straight from the horse’s mouth. Now I don’t want to bore you with how SAC arrived at planning estimates for the delivery accuracy of its nuclear bombers, except to say that it was a statistical process based on thousands of practice sorties, whose results would be mathematically analyzed to allow estimates to be made of the results of a large bombing campaign; not one bomber flying over one city and one bombardier, with the lives of perhaps millions of Muscovites at his fingertips, dropping one bomb. This I pointed out to Norm, implying that he had gone to all that fuss and bother for naught. His response was that in doing his calculations as a mathematician, he was going by the accepted ground rules. The bombing accuracy he had assumed had been provided to him by others. His was not to reason why.
- People are people, and all people have emotions and biases, rarely understood: intellectual and emotional behavior don’t necessarily have an inverse correlation. Oppenheimer, as superhuman and wise as he was in so many ways, was still a human being. Depending upon the occasion he could be as human (dramatic, overwhelming, megalomaniacal, self-serving, and even downright dishonest, as his arch-rival Edward Teller was accused of being, and was) as most of us. Like most of us, depending upon the circumstances, he could change his personality and alleged beliefs at the drop of a hat.
- The briefing was over, there were lots of questions that Teller handled with aplomb, knowing far more about the subject than most in the audience. Finally there came a question that had nothing to do with whether or not his bomb was feasible. Instead, it was whether it would destroy the world by causing uncontrollable thermonuclear reactions in the earth’s atmosphere that would cause it to burn up, plus you and me and everyone else. Teller was on his game, as he always was, and replied that he had estimated this terrible possibility and we were quite safe — by about a factor of ten. Now there aren’t too many people who rest comfortably with assurances that mankind’s fate, let alone their own, is on the safe side by a factor of ten, although there are millions of smokers, including myself, drug addicts, sex addicts, who take much greater chances than that with their lives, and they know it. Except that they know it won’t happen to them, which is why many soldiers, at least as stupid as they’re brave, get Congressional Medals of Honor.
- Naturally, the next question was: “How accurate is the nuclear data you used in your calculation?” As only Edward Teller is capable of doing, he replied, with a smirk-smile going from ear to ear: “Well, it’s possible that the data might be off by a factor of ten.” Which way, he didn’t profess to know, but I suspect that much of the audience didn’t sleep too well that night. (If you’re beginning to worry that you might not be sleeping too well from now on, I have to tell you that as it turned out, after careful nuclear measurements and detailed calculations were made, we were safe by far more than a factor of ten. It simply couldn’t happen.)
- Teller’s irascible behavior forced him out of the mainstream but not out of the lab, thanks to Oppenheimer who didn’t think we should be without geniuses, even those whose enormous egos caused serious friction. As bright and innovative as Teller was, his overall performance during the war left a lot to be desired. He was not content to be part of a team effort (like yours truly) and preferred to work off to the side on new and different and sometime pretty far-out ideas (like yours truly). This caused considerable resentment. After all there was a war going on and most people thought future nuclear weapon concepts should be worked on sometime in the future, after we had finished our primary assignment. Edward’s behavior was like a colonel on a planning staff during a military campaign who tells his commanding general that he’d like to plan for the next war. That would be the end of the colonel, who would be demoted and shipped off to some base in the Aleutian Islands.
Oppenheimer, however, realized that guys like Teller, despite their shortcomings, were necessary to have around; one never knows when a guy like that can be worth his weight in gold, which to the best of my recollection never happened with Teller. So an arrangement was worked out where Teller and a handful of like-minded theoretical physicists, willing to put up with his domineering ways, formed a small group dedicated to doing what they pleased, realizing their efforts stood precious little chance of impacting on the project.
The one idea dearest to Teller’s heart was the H-bomb. He and a couple of his cronies applied themselves to devising various schemes on designing such a weapon. All of them turned out to be impractical and most of them unworkable. Which never slowed him down in the slightest for reasons we’ll never know nor will he. I’ve known Edward for a very long time and although I’ve never known him well, one thing about him became clear to me from the very beginning: he was a creature possessed. By what? Again, who knows? Many, if not most, who have read about his life and what he has done, plus those who have known him directly and observed him close at hand and at great length, would say by Satan (which has been said all over the world about me). I wouldn’t go along with that and although I have seen Teller give some of the most impassioned statements morally defending his positions, some of which I have found deeply moving and thoroughly convincing, I would not say that the God I’ve been told exists has had a tight hold on him. If Edward has been possessed by anyone it’s been himself. I’d say the same for myself, and I’ve given you some reasons why, but hardly all of them. I don’t know all of them and would be ashamed to tell you if I did.
Quotes about Samuel Cohen
- 5. He changed the title of his book Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb to Fuck You! Mr. President after the U.S. under George W. Bush dismantled its neutron bombs.