The little picture of me in the left sidebar was taken on the northeast shore of Arkansas’ Lake Ouachita two summers ago. It’s a beautiful place where you can experience nature in a peaceful and quiet way.
There were several of us who went, and one of them gave me a book of his that he’d finished: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s not the book I’m reading in the picture, and while I’ve still not read it all the way through I often pick it up and read a few pages. Tolkien is someone who I admire immensely, and he was an example of a sort of person who was rare enough in his own day and is practically extinct now.
In a letter of his to his son dated 9 August 1945, I learned he was not a fan of my profession.
The news today about ‘Atomic bombs’ is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope ‘this will ensure peace’. But one good thing may arise out of it, I suppose, if the write-ups are not overheated: Japan ought to cave in. Well we’re in God’s hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders.
Tolkien was no pacifist either, having both fought in WWI and supported the WWII effort in which his son was fighting. He did however have a sharp and visceral loathing of the new mechanized and technological total war which had enveloped the planet. He was particularly repelled by the very concept of an Air Force. One can hardly blame him.
Objectively there’s plenty of things physics in particular and science in general can say in their defense. The increasing lethality of weaponry has tended to bring about a decrease in the percentage casualties even on the losing side by virtue of compelling speed and dispersion as tactics. A resident of Dresden during the famous bombing was much more likely to survive than a Carthiginian during the sack by Rome. (Good data is hard to come by, but rough consensus figures suggest that the death rate in Dresden was under 3%)
Nonetheless it’s impossible to argue that the entire concept is aerial bombardment isn’t horrifying. With a few caveats about its author, I find Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire to be an excellent and fairly dispassionate look at exactly what horror the air war entailed. And I say this as someone who does not accept that the bombing of civilian population centers was in all cases wrong in the context of WWII. Nonetheless from radar to bombsights to The Bomb itself, it was scientists and engineers that made the air campaign possible. Tolkien had a right to regard our predecessors in physics as Babel-builders, even if the Babel they created was in some sense the lesser evil.
And so it will continue to be. Babel will be built by one nation or another, for nothing in science remains unknown forever. Alas, Babylon.