Wednesday, October 22, 2008

When Experience Counts - Gliding Towards Nuclear War

Soaring, cryptography and nuclear weapons

This is a long, sometimes tedious, but extremely thought provoking article by Mark Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, Stanford University. The renowned mathematician is best known for inventing public key cryptography, the basis for secure transactions over the Internet, among others. Hellman has worked for over 25 years to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons and his current project is described at He is a glider pilot with over 2,600 hours in the air.

The entire article is posted at Asia Times. While US news is reporting about the unequaled campaign contributions to The One, some news outlets, mostly foreign, are actually doing their job. You won't find this article at MSM and I urge you to read it through to the end.

History shows that people have tremendous difficulty envisioning both negative and positive possibilities that are vastly different from their current experience. Therefore, even if I had a crystal ball and could predict the sequence of substates (steps) that will take us to the state of acceptable risk depicted in Figure 4, very few would believe me. As an example of the difficulty, imagine the reaction if someone, prior to Gorbachev's coming to power, had predicted that a leader of the Soviet Union would lift censorship, encourage free debate and not use military force to prevent republics from seceding from the union. At best, such a seer would have been seen as extremely naive.

I had a milder version of that problem in September 1984 when I started a project designed to foster a meaningful dialogue between the American and Soviet scientific communities in an attempt to defuse the threat of nuclear war, which was then in sharp focus. I was aware of the limitations that Soviet censorship imposed, but believed there still was some opportunity for information flow, primarily unidirectional. It had been eight years since my last trip to the Soviet Union and this visit was an eye-opening experience. While I did not know it at the time, I was meeting with people who were in the forefront of the nascent reform movement which would bring Gorbachev to power six months later, with some of them directly advising him.

Censorship was still the law of the land, so the scientists with whom I met could not agree with those of my views that contradicted the party line. But neither did they argue. I sensed something very different was brewing, but on returning to the US. I was often seen as extremely naive for believing that meaningful conversations were possible with persons of any standing within the Soviet system.

The steps leading to a truly safe world in Figure 4 would sound similarly naive to most people today. It is therefore counterproductive to lay out too explicit a road map to that goal. But how can one garner support without an explicit plan for reaching the goal? Until I realized the applicability of risk analysis, I didn't see how that could be accomplished, but risk analysis provides an implicit, rather than an explicit map. No single step can reduce the risk a thousand-fold, so if the risk analysis approach can be embedded in society's consciousness, then one step after another will have to be taken until a state with acceptable risk is reached. Later steps, which today would be rejected as impossible (which they probably currently are) need not be spelled out, but are latent, waiting to be discovered as part of that process.

The first critical step therefore is for society to recognize the risk inherent in nuclear deterrence.

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