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Professor Teller’s Infernal Machine

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments
This week’s task in INT 400 was to identify a technological advancement made since 1945 that’s held to have "changed the world" and then discuss whether we thought it actually had.  So I did.


It’s relatively rare to run across a technological advancement that is genuinely without precedent – though it depends on how one interprets "precedent".  Jet aircraft shrank the world, but no more so in their time, culturally speaking, than did proper seagoing ships (as opposed to the Mediterranean coastal vessels of Roman times) in the 15th century.  Satellite telecommunications and the Internet have only continued the "annihilation of space" begun by the Morse electric telegraph in 1844 (and Morse’s telegraph had forerunners of its own).  Computers can do a lot of math fast, but before them were computers – people who did a lot of math slowly.  Television is basically just radio with illustrations.  Even space travel is, at its heart, the same activity as the great exploratory sea voyages of the 16th century, only with smaller crews and in a different direction.

All of these technologies have a common trait: They’re held to have revolutionized the world, but if one looks more closely, one sees that what they’ve really done is enabled people to do things they were already doing, but faster, with greater efficiency, and/or on a larger scale than before.

Except one: the thermonuclear bomb.

"Hold on," I hear you say.  "Nuclear weapons are just bigger, more powerful versions of, well, bombs.  People had been using those for centuries before they came along.  Nuclear bombs allow for warfare with explosive weapons on a bigger scale than before – you just disproved your own point."  That’s true, but there’s an unintended consequence of that bigger scale that, I believe, is genuinely without precedent and qualifies nuclear arms for the unique status I’m ascribing to them here.  Before nuclear weapons, there was no way for human agencies, acting of their own accord, to threaten the entirety of human civilization.  We’d never developed a technology before that, if mishandled, could potentially end the whole story at a stroke.  No one had ever conceived of such a thing except in apocalyptic myth.  Not even its precursor, the atomic bomb – awesome in its own right – held the potential for such astonishing destruction… and then, in 1952, there it was.  Suddenly, with the push of a button at a testing range in the Pacific, the H-bomb was born and the whole game of international relations changed.

Thermonuclear weapons gave the world the concept of mutually assured destruction, which had never before been a factor in politics, military strategy, or civil policy.  It forced a near-total reassessment of what warfare was or meant.  Not even gunpowder did that.  Nothing ever had, and it’s unlikely that anything will again.  How do you top "total obliteration" on the potential-consequences scale?

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