Michael KreponThe Bomb and the Common Cold

Thank you, Dear Readers, for responding so well to the Best Quips Competition. Our panel of judges will be sorely tested. It’s good to know that, in these hard times, some of you insist on keeping a sense of humor. You have one more week to submit entries.

My very first Shoebox entry paid homage to Enrico Fermi’s quip about nuclear energy in the summer of 1945: “It would be nice if it could cure the common cold.” Linus Pauling, the son of a druggist, did try to cure the common cold, proposing generous dosages of Vitamin C. Pauling won the Nobel Prize twice, first for Chemistry, then for campaigning to stop nuclear testing and to ban the Bomb.

In No More War! (1958), Pauling took particular aim at Edward Teller, a staunch advocate of nuclear testing. Pauling’s book tried to offer a science lesson on radiation effects and mutation to lay readers, and to rebut public claims by Teller, Willard F. Libby, and others that atmospheric testing did not pose a hazard to public health. One of their assertions was that radiation from a wristwatch with a luminous dial was ten times as great as from fallout. Their methodology was a bit dodgy. Teller, no slouch when it came to quips, asserted in a Life magazine piece published on February 10, 1958 that, “The worldwide fallout is as dangerous to human health as being one ounce overweight.”

Update, Nov. 24. Josh adds the following: Pauling’s immediate reply to Teller’s magazine piece is also worthy of note, calling various parts of the article “false,” “misleading,” “inaccurate,” and “pure propaganda.” The quippiest bit is this:

The whole article is an apology for evil, a plea for the continued use of force, an attack on the effort to introduce reason into world affairs.

The letters column also mentions that Teller and Pauling had held a televised debate on the subject — transcript available for $0.50 from KQED in San Francisco.


  1. Alex W. (History)

    In 1970, Teller was quoted in a nuclear trade publication referring to John Gofman and other nuclear critics in an unflattering fashion. Gofman wrote a rather amusing response to Teller (which is now on file at the Nuclear Testing Archive in Las Vegas):

    “Dear Edward: I note by ‘Nucleonics News’ that you refer to us as ‘ignorant, liars, and users of statistics.’ I haven’t yet decided whether you are _just_ ignorant, or both ignorant and a liar. I do know you don’t use statistics. Your compliments are much appreciated. With each utterance you succeed in adding countless thousands of scientists and citizens to the list of people who appreciate our efforts to prevent you from destroying life on earth. If you keep speaking out enough, there will hardly be any work left for us to do.”

    Teller wrote back, claiming he had been misquoted.

  2. FSB (History)

    There is reason that Edward Teller is rumored to be the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove.

    His animosity towards Communism and Fasicism drove his irrational love of more and bigger bombs.


    ‘ Teller’s persona–the scientist-cum-hawkish politico–is rooted in the upheavals that rocked Europe during the first half of the century, particularly the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1919.

    “My father was a lawyer; his office was occupied and shut down and occupied by the Reds. But what followed was an anti-Semitic Fascist regime, and I was at least as opposed to the Fascists as I was to the Communists.” ‘

  3. Carey Sublette (History)

    The obvious rejoinder to the claim that “worldwide fallout is as dangerous to human health as being one ounce overweight” is to point that, even if so, it does not give anyone the right to force the entire population of the Earth to gain one ounce of weight.

    The fact that people were not choosing to be exposed to fallout seems to have escaped test proponents.

  4. Alan Tomlinson (History)

    The obvious rejoinder to Teller would be that he was wrong. Clearly the man was traumatized and totally unable to see how it clouded his judgement.


    Alan Tomlinson

  5. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Re the one ounce overweight comparison: Nuclear testing fallout is only one of many factors to which the public is exposed which cause an individual risk that is very small but which will predictably lead to some not necessarily small number of deaths.

    How to regard this becomes a matter of philosophy. Is the a risk factor insignificant if it only poses a one in 10 million chance of killing me? Or is the fact that it will predictably kill 600 people what matters?

    This becomes even murkier when we are talking about something like low-level radiation which, according to the linear no-threshold model of carcinogenesis, will always cause some number of cancers no matter how low. Suppose we can reliably predict that some event, say the reentry of a satellite containing a Pu-238 RTG, will lead to the deaths of 1,000 people over 50 years. And suppose that number is so low, relative to the total number of cancer deaths, that we could not possibly detect the effect since it is much smaller than even the random statistical fluctuation in the cancer rate over that time period.

    1,000 deaths is more pain and sorrow than one can really comprehend. Yet it becomes something much smaller than the random fluctuations of chance. Is it still something to worry about, then?

  6. Jeannick (History)

    ” a man’s death is a tragedy ,
    a millions deaths are a statistic ”
    ….true… true
    but should this one life be mine , all equation about the public good would have to be revisited .

    I probably caused the death of some third world peasant by liking coffee so much

    I can live with that !

    we all help to kill about 5000 miners a year

  7. MK (History)

    Mark & Jeannick:
    You have just raised the bar for Shoebox commentary.

  8. Carey Sublette (History)

    Posters on this thread seem dismissive of the ethical distinction between hazards voluntarily assumed (and in exchange for a compensating benefit) and one imposed without consent and without benefit for those affected – but this is precisely why atmospheric testing was morally objectionable. The fact that it is statistically undetectable simply masks the moral question with “plausible deniability”.

    Risks imposed on the public through conventional air pollution from electrical power production for example are diffuse and victims cannot be specifically identified, but are in exchange for having electrical power — a vast benefit for human existence. Some pollution and risk is unavoidable for electricity with current options but the hazard justifies considerable spending to minimize it.

    Also consider Mark’s question (with its implied answer of “maybe yes”) of whether statistically undetectable risk (but whose existence science supports) excuses one from having to worry about it. (The argument Teller himself was clumsily making.)

    If you think a small individual hazard (imposed universally) is unimportant because it is individually small, and not worth worrying about if statistically undetectable, and the issue of risk “necessity” is irrelevant (or worse), then you must think Andrei Sakaharov a fool for anguishing over the “duplicate tests”.

    Sakharov devotes an entire chapter (appropriately name “The Duplicate Tests”) of his “Memoirs” to this issue . In 1963, after the collossal 1962 test series, the second Soviet weapons lab set off a series of tests that duplicated the achievements of Arzamas-16 the previous fall, but (shades of the U.S. weapons lab rivalry) they weren’t *their* designs. The tests simply satisfied Chelyabinsk-70 lab boasting privileges. So the test series imposed worldwide hazards but did not even benefit Soviet national security, much less the world population. The mere fact that the individual victims could never be identified did not give Sakharov any moral cover, since he had scientific certainty that they existed.

    In this judgment Sakharov gets every element of his moral analysis correct.

  9. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Maybe yes, maybe no. For what cause would we choose 100 people at random and kill them? For mere entertainment? Or to power our TVs with coal-fired electricity?

    If each of us already has about a 41.0484% risk of developing some type of cancer in our lives, do we worry about something that increases the risk to 41.0485%?

    Whether we think this is important or not probably depends on whether we agree with the justification. In reality, not only most people, but actually everyone, makes choices which expose them to much greater risks, in most cases without thinking about it.

    I would have agreed with Teller if I thought the greater danger was a Soviet attack and that we needed to develop new types of nuclear weapons in order to prevent it.

    But actually, I think the greater danger was, and is, nuclear war breaking out due to the madness and belligerence on all sides, and that the atmospheric test ban was an important step to getting this under control and the current test moratorium even more so, and the CTBT will be yet another step in the right direction.

    To my mind, the effects of fallout, while not nothing, were not the real issue. It’s ironic that people focused on that as a proxy for what was undoubtedly at a basic level a hawk-vs.-dove controversy. The real underlying fear wasn’t strontium-90, it was nuclear holocaust. But that is a more difficult subject to address directly.

  10. Carey Sublette (History)

    > Maybe yes, maybe no. For what cause would we choose 100
    > people at random and kill them? For mere entertainment?
    > Or to power our TVs with coal-fired electricity?

    The answer to this is definitely yes. This is the very calculation that regulators everywhere are called on to make every day. (BTW – It is easy to trivialize these assessments by picking some frivolous use while ignoring the essential economy that electricity powers, lifesaving heating and air conditioning, or the safe water, food and medical care that depend on it.)

    The point is: atmospheric testing is no more immune to this type of assessment than everything else – but as far as I can tell – Sakharov is alone in all of the atmospheric testing programs in the world in realizing this ethical necessity.

    Sakharov was not insensitive to the necessity of defense for the Soviet Union and was willing to support atmospheric nuclear tests – despite the fact that each one was a decision to commit thousands of present and future individuals to an early death – if they made a critical enhancement in Soviet defense.

    But he applied this rationale on a case by case basis – any superfluous nuclear test that did not actually and uniquely increase Soviet capabilities he rejected.

    How many of the U.S. atmospheric shots stand up to Sakharov’s rationale? As far as I know, no active participant in the U.S. program ever even attempted the same type of analysis as Sakharov.

    >I would have agreed with Teller if I thought the greater danger was a Soviet
    >attack and that we needed to develop new types of nuclear weapons in order to
    > prevent it.

    Teller was flatly opposed to consider the consequences of nuclear testing – he minimized it so that it could be ignored entirely. This is the antithesis of Sakharov’s example, not a realization of it.

    I have read Teller’s memoirs and three autobiographies of him and have failed to find any evidence of the moral calculus on this occurring to him (but do correct me if I have overlooked it).

    >To my mind, the effects of fallout, while not nothing, were not the real issue.

    Teller certainly did not want anyone to think this was a real issue, for sure.

    Was the threat of global thermonuclear war a bigger issue – absolutely!

    Does this mean that sentencing millions to an early death without even considering whether it could be avoided is NOT a real issue. Of course not.

  11. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Obviously, I chose the “frivolous example” to compare with choosing 100 people at random “for mere entertainment.” And obviously if you are balancing life-saving uses of electricity against the cost in lives of generating it, not only is this a different calculus but I’m sure the balance sheet is overwhelmingly favorable for at least some uses of electricity. OTOH, how many innocent (of choosing the risk) lives could we save by cutting all frivolous uses of electricity and many other things as well? Do we even ask this question?

    No doubt Sakharov deserves to be remembered as something of a hero and Teller as something of a villain. Both built thermonuclear weapons, but one sought the light while the other kept dishing out the darkness.

    However, I suspect that Sakharov, Pauling and others were more motivated (perhaps not consciously) by fear of nuclear holocaust than concern about testing fallout, i.e. that the latter was a proxy for the former.

    Not that testing fallout should not have been a real issue in itself. If atmospheric testing had continued at peak rates, it would have caused millions of early deaths, and it probably did cause some number of that order, although the number is likely to be endlessly controversial.

    OTOH, if you believed that continued atmospheric testing was needed in order to prevent a third world war that might kill almost everyone, maybe you’d think a small increase in cancer rates was worth it.

    The bottom line was that the weaponeers did not need aboveground testing and were quite able to continue plying their trade with underground tests only. Perhaps Teller himself understood this, and was only seeking to ensure there wouldn’t be a comprehensive test ban.

  12. Nobody (History)

    Let’s not inject absurd made up numbers about the health risks of RTGs into an otherwise reasonable discussion.

    The risks related to RTGs are vastly over-inflated, and tossing fake numbers out on the web cannot possibly help.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      My apologies for lazily making up a hypothetical number as an example; I don’t know what the actual risk from typical RTG reentries might be but I’ve seen large numbers quoted and apparently some people believe them.

      The number for average cancer risk (US men and women) comes from NCI, except for the last two digits which I made up to illustrate a one-in-a-million risk increase. The fact that I had to make them up kind of illustrates the point. But hey, that’s 300 Americans, isn’t it, or 6,000 worldwide.

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