Built on Facts

Physics, Tolkien, and the Bomb

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.


  1. #1 Bob Sykes
    May 12, 2009

    This summer, you should read Nial Ferguson’s “World at War,” which describes the utter hatred that motivated nearly all the participants on both sides. Considering our current moral aesthetic concerning collateral damage, it is sobering indeed to realize that the mass murder of enemy civilians was regarded as a positive good on all sides.

  2. #2 ppnl
    May 12, 2009

    Alas, Babylon. By Pat Frank. For its time a very realistic view of nuclear war. Read it if you have not already.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    May 12, 2009

    British infantry marched Napoleanic shoulder to shoulder in the Battle of the Somme, uphill through barbed wire into German machine gun fire. Repeatedly. In Gulf Wars I and II American precision bombing neutralized enemy government in the first 24 hours. A month of massive heavy bombing thereafter changed little – and resulted in American defeat, twice. One posits that defective mentality not effective instrumentality is the villain.

    WWII Japanese accepted 90% battlefield casualties. Curtis LeMay melted almost every major Japanese City and still they fought. Housewives and sharpened bamboo stakes (pro-active Gandhi-esque) would meet a million-man US land invasion. Technology provided a common language for diplomacy. Peace was secured for a trivial incremental civilan death toll.

    Had Bush the Lesser air-burst thermonuked +21.422518 +39.826154 on 18 September 2001 this would be a very different and much better world. He instead continued to read My Pet Goat to Florida kindergarteners for 20 minutes after being informed the World Trade Center was hit.

  4. #4 Pete B
    May 12, 2009

    There was a dirty little technical secret behind the switch to area bombing – the Butt Report and other later assessments showed that dropping bombs from planes was (is) wildly inaccurate. Precision bombing was not possible and saturation bombing of city-size targets was a direct response to this realisation. Also, victims of this technical failure were at both ends.

    As a small anecdote, I knew slightly a guy who flew in Lancaster bombers in the war. Recconnaisance photos the day after one flight showed the damage the plane’s bombs had done to a large building. They also clearly showed red crosses on the roof. Because of some kind of mistake, somewhere they had bombed a hospital: he was navigator and bomb aimer. During the time I knew him, he hmade his 4th or 5th attempt at suicide (this time with a 1 inch wood chisel). This was 20-odd years after the end of the war. His attempts always came at the same time of year.

    Matt, you make Tolkien out to be anti-Science. Maybe he was, but perhaps there is another message in his letter. That man had not developed morally as he had scientifically. Perhaps from where we are, that we need more self-knowledge and that sciences like psychology, anthropolgy and sociology and non-sciences like morality, politics and (dare I say) religion have not been resourced, studied and developed as rapidly or as effectively as Physics.


  5. #5 Sudarshan
    May 13, 2009

    @Uncle Al:

    Tolkien says:
    “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’.”

    After reading your comment, I think he was talking about you and your ilk.

  6. #6 Carl Brannen
    May 13, 2009

    Tolkein was wrong about the moral and intellectual status declining. People have been steadily becoming more and more nice. Probably due to some subtle ancient genetic effect; a gene turned on by improved nutrition. If you want to make a culture really really mean, starve them.

  7. #7 Brian Schmidt
    May 13, 2009

    Interesting comment about Tolkien’s hatred of air forces. Puts the Nazgul attacks in a different context (yes he wrote much of LOTR before WWII, but air attacks started in WWI and developed further in wars in Spain and China).

  8. #8 Uncle Al
    May 14, 2009

    Tolkein’s suggestion is implemented at scale in the US prison system, the largest incarceration of people in the history of the world.

    Tolkein’s suggestion was applied at scale in USSR gulags. Management was incompetant and corrupt (100% qualified). Power devolved to the guards who delegated it to the few violent criminals as Trustees. They in turn lorded over a vast ocean of political prisoners who were productively worked to death, then resupplied by the courts.

    The US National Emergency Centers Act or HR 645 mandates the establishment of at least six “emergency” FEMA detention camps in military installations. When your door bursts at 0200 hrs please go quietly lest you be prematurely slaughtered and unbalance Federal spreadsheets.

    The United States Constitution (c)1791. All Rights Reserved. The Second Amendment is in place in case politicians or the Supreme Court ignore the others.

  9. #9 Kaleberg
    May 16, 2009

    It was hard to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in 1937, without thinking about the upcoming war. For crying out loud, look at the damned map up front. You can’t help noticing that it’s a map of Europe with the English shire, the French and Spaniards in the south, the idealized Middle Europeans to the east, and Sauron plotting and scheming in Berlin with the Ruhr iron works at the ready. (If I remember correctly, everyone emigrates to the U.S. in the end. I always imagined Gandalf out at the Rand Corporation.)

    Tolkien bothered me because at heart his attitudes seemed medieval. He was a Miniver Cheevy born out of his time. I gather that was a popular feeling in certain quarters at Oxford and Cambridge. I actually found him annoying as a thinker, though his stories were wonderful. Then I read Orwell’s essay on Kipling and finally understood. Tolkien, like Kipling, was a conservative. Orwell noted that most conservatives in England at the time were either Communists, Fascists or accomplices of the latter, but that Kipling was something else, much more benign, but also something much older and, even then, quite out of date.

    (I always like to think of The Hobbit as a Graustarkian novel. The Graustark books were usually set in some fantasy 19th century Mittle Europe, somehow not yet reached by Bismark. They usually involved disguised princes, beautiful princesses, sword fights, bandits, and so on. I think they were a reaction to the first world war, though my timing may be off.)

  10. #10 hiram
    May 22, 2009

    Kaleberg wrote: “It was hard to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in 1937, without thinking about the upcoming war.”

    It must have been VERY hard to read LotR in 1937, since it had not even been written yet! (Fellowship was published in 1954.) Hobbit was published in 1937, but with a very different map than LotR.

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