Sunday, February 05, 2006

If Switzerland developed nuclear weapons!

SWITZERLAND: Once examined the possibility of developing nuclear weapons but terminated the program.

Wm. Robert Johnston
M.S. (Physics), B.A. (Astronomy)
FO 23, Physics Department
University of Texas at Dallas
Box 830688
Richardson, TX 75083-0688

Ok – I thought this was a joke!

It started as a jokey comment I heard on TV last night. Apparently, in response to the news that Iran is in hot water with the UN for refusing to forego their nuclear research program, someone; presumably as a joke, was trying to defuse the situation by hypothesising about a Swiss nuclear weapon program. Would the west be concerned if the Swiss had nuclear weapons? Would the world suddenly become anti-Swiss if we thought the normally neutral gnomes were striving to become paid-up members of the nuclear holocaust club?

What seems to be ridiculous has a serious point. The West's anti-Islamic bias is already in the news this week with cartoons of the Prophet causing great offence in the Muslim world.

Should we be concerned if Iran becomes nuclear capable. Oh yes. What about Switzerland? Equally yes – no matter how improbable!

One of the great “triumphs” of the late 20th and early 21st century has been the absence of nuclear war. It's a miracle – and long may it continue!

When I was in my teens (a long time ago!) one of my favourite books was Alas Babylon, by Pat Frank. Set in 1959 Florida, this apocryphal tale concerns the efforts of a small group of nuclear war survivors to maintain civilization in the face of over-whelming adversity. This was one of the first works of fiction to deal with the threat of nuclear war.

On the Beach, Neville Shute, (1959), also a favourite, deals with the global effects of fallout and the extinction of the human race – indeed all animal life - and is one of the most depressing novels ever written – as mankind peters out in a welter of self-pity and resignation – the reader sees the inevitability of mankind's demise and the book's characters depressing inability to come to terms with the inevitable.

Trying to teach 14 year-olds about these important themes can be exhausting and challenging. Despite having spent eight or nine years at school; children have no real understanding of the science under-pining nuclear weapons. I'm not blaming science teachers. I'm just explaining why children today seem to have no real appreciation of the scientific principles of nuclear fission and fusion. Once they have some understanding, you can move on to the terrible effects of a nuclear explosion. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are instructive as the only examples.

When children are confronted with the effects of a nuclear explosion and are forced to think about the unthinkable; they are ready for the real clincher – nuclear weapons are still with us! (A lot of children don't know this!) Where I live they are very close – probably no more than 40 miles away at RAF Lakenheath. Now they are scared and ready to deal with this complex topic.

A good work of literature to introduce this topic, Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien, works very well in schools. This is a very flawed work of literature – but, what the heck – we often learn more by finding out how not to do something than by getting it right first time. Reviews are mixed to say the least:

Publisher's Weekly, January 27th, 1975, p.278

This tale of humanity after atomic war brings to mind "Lord of the Flies" and will have similar icy and compulsive effects on readers. Teenager Ann Burden loses her family in "the war." That is, they left their familiar Pennsylvania valley and never returned. Fearful that she is the only remaining survivor, the girl becomes "both excited and afraid" when a man appears wearing a protective suit. His name is Loomis and as a scientist he "won't just accept things." So he quickly makes demands--subtle and otherwise--which force the 16-year-old to choose between flight and servility. What ensues is a grim contest for survival with each, crazed by paranoia, thinking the worst about the other. As in O'Brien's "A Report From Group 17," the suspense is bolstered by just enough scientific data for the layman to handle.

Library Journal, April 1, 1975, p. 694

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien verges on science fiction. A young girl, apparently the last survivor of an atomic war, has been miraculously saved from radiation sickness in a hidden valley in the U.S. Her peace is broken by the intrusion of a man, a scientist who suffers from hallucinations or perhaps from memories of some wicked deed in the past. Efforts of joint survival go sour; the man becomes very peculiar indeed and the girl is forced to take direct action. The suspense is beautifully handles, frightening and all too realistic; the ending is inconclusive and all the better for that.

The Good and bad by Peter Ackroyd The Spectator, April 12th, 1975, p. 444 [text regarding 'A Proper Place' omitted]

Z for Zachariah -- a novel which seems to have nothing whatever to do with its title, by the way -- is in a different league [than 'A Proper Place']. It is an extremely good and interesting novel, and if it is good enough for children then it must be good enough for adults too. In fact, it is a great deal more adult than a lot of adult novels I have been reading recently; it is well written, with none of the pandering to the faux-naive, it had a certain imaginative strength, without degenerating into crude fantasy or adventure, and its theme is a resourceful one.

Actually Z for Zachariah is a wonderful tool for introducing 14 year olds to some of the skills they need to become literary critics. They are so used to teachers enthusing about the book the teacher has chosen to study that they find a chance to give some critical opinions of their own somewhat refreshing! Lots more reviews are on this web page.

What has this to do with Swiss nuclear weapons and anti-Islamic bias in the West? Plenty. The idea of the Swiss holding Europe hostage to nuclear weapons is probably absurd. For Iran it isn't. All nations must do everything in their power to ensure there is no chance of nuclear weapons spreading. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by the 50+ years of non-nuclear warfare. It only has to happen once. We may not get a second chance.

Therefore, all nation must assume an Iranian nuclear weapon programme is a real threat to the world. This is not anti-Muslim. This is pro mankind. Iran needs nuclear reactors like Switzerland needs more snow. The “laudable” goal of being fair to the Muslim world must not overpower the need to keep the world safe for our posterity.

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