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A Science Odyssey Title Physics and Astronomy Appendix Title


Appendix: Readings on the Manhattan Project

In July 1945, Leo Szilard, a physicist working on the atomic bomb, circulated a petition among his Manhattan Project colleagues. It asked President Truman not to use the bomb on Japan without first giving Japan the opportunity to surrender. The following is an excerpt from a letter requesting signatures on the petition.

However small the chance might be that our petition may influence the course of events, I personally feel that it would be a matter of importance if a large number of scientists who have worked in this field went clearly and unmistakably on record as to their opposition on moral grounds to the use of these bombs in the present phase of the war.

Many of us are inclined to say that individual Germans share the guilt for the acts which Germany committed during the war because they did not raise their voices in protest against those acts. Their defense that their protest would have been of no avail hardly seems acceptable, even though these Germans could not have protested without running risks to life and liberty. We are in a position to raise our voices without incurring any such risks. . .

The fact that the people of the United States are unaware of the choice which faces us increases our responsibility in this matter since those who have worked on "atomic power" represent a sample of the population and they alone are in a position to form an opinion and declare their stand.


The design and building of Manhattan Project bombs took place at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Edward Teller, another physicist there, refused to circulate Szilard's petition. In a letter to Szilard, he explains why.

First of all, let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls. . . . But I am not really convinced of your objections.

Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people [i.e., demonstrating the bomb]. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose, actual combat use might even be the best thing. And this brings me to the main point. The accident that we worked out this dreadful thing should not give us a responsibility of having a voice in how it is used. This responsibility must in the end be shifted to the people as a whole and that can be done only by making the facts known. This is the only cause for which I feel entitled in doing something: the necessity of lifting the secrecy at least as far as the broad issues of our work are concerned.


Atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities in August 1945. In November 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos facility, gave a speech to scientists who had worked on developing atomic weapons. The following is an excerpt from his speech.

In considering what the situation of science is, it may be helpful to think a little of what people said and felt of their motives in coming into this job. . . . There was in the first place the great concern that our enemy might develop these weapons before we did, and the feeling -- at least, in the early days, the very strong feeling -- that without atomic weapons it might be very difficult, it might be impossible, it might be an incredibly long thing to win the war. These things wore off a little as it became clear that the war would be won in any case. Some people, I think, were motivated by curiosity, and rightly so; and some by a sense of adventure, and rightly so. Others had more political arguments and said, "Well, we know that atomic weapons are in principle possible, and it is not right that the threat of their unrealized possibility should hang over the world. It is right that the world should know what can be done in their field and deal with it." . . . And there was finally, and I think rightly, the feeling that there was probably no place in the world where the development of atomic weapons would have a better chance of leading to a reasonable solution, and a smaller chance of leading to disaster, than within the United States. I believe all those things that people said are true, and I think I said them all myself at one time or another.

But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.

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Physics and Astronomy Program Contents


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Looking Back in Time
Stranger than Fiction?
In-Depth Investigation: Universal Proportions




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