Why I Work on Such a Frightening Topic

This week our featured book is Silencing the Bomb:
One Scientist’s Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing
by Lynn R. Sykes. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s final chapter, in which Sykes explains why he chooses to continue his work toward banning nuclear testing.

I am sometimes asked why I work on such a frightening and depressing topic. I explain to myself that this is the major issue of my lifetime. With my scientific knowledge, I hope to contribute in some small way to preventing the use of nuclear weapons. I regard this as my duty as an informed citizen, especially in a country that possesses vast numbers of nuclear weapons. I hope this book will convince others to learn more about these issues and to become more involved. I support the advice of Edmund Burke, the British-Irish orator, political theorist, and philosopher, who said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than the one who did nothing because they could only do a little.”

A major nuclear exchange would be a cataclysmic disaster with a level of destruction unprecedented in the entire history of our species. Some people have argued that because nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, the probability of their use is very small. The world has been fortunate that nuclear weapons have not been used since then, but this could end at a moment’s notice. False alarms, accidents, and the near miss of the Cuban missile crisis are not very reassuring about nuclear weapons’ not being used in the future. The probability per year of a nuclear exchange may be low, but if it happens, the consequences will be catastrophic. Getting the public and governments to deal with rare but catastrophic events is difficult but very necessary.

The Trump administration has made threatening remarks about nuclear weapons. As of mid-2017 it is not clear if it might either use nuclear weapons against an advisory such as North Korea or resume nuclear testing. If it resumed testing, the yields of explosions likely would be large, abrogating several arms control agreements, and other countries almost certainly would resume testing.

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