In 1939, Albert Einstein on the urging of Leó Szilárd sent a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, in which the two physicists informed the U.S. President of a new source of nuclear energy that could lead to the ‘construction of extremely powerful new bombs.’ From the nuclear, a political chain reaction followed: the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, the first use of the bomb, an arms race, and the rise of the national security state; but also an end to WWII, ‘atoms for peace’, a cold war that never went hot and a global movement to control and reduce nuclear weapons.

Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt. Click to enlarge.

The dropping of the atom bomb was not the beginning nor the consummation but only one stage of a nuclear revolution that continues to shake the classical foundations of physics as well as to reconfigure the world order. The first stage came at the turn of the 20th century, with the discovery that energy consists of discrete packages called quanta; the second with the thought experiments and mathematical proofs of the 1920s that became quantum mechanics; and the third with the disruptive quantum technologies that emerged during and after WWII, including nuclear weapons but also radar, transistors, lasers and computers. Now, in the 21st century, a fourth and possibly final stage of the nuclear revolution is upon us. A combination of quantum innovations in energy and information that will transform computing, communication and artificial intelligence. We can now see how initial microphysical and micropolitical conditions, from a sub-atomic discovery and Einstein’s letter, can produce macrophysical and macropolitical consequences. The origins, complexity and convergence of these four stages of the nuclear revolution have fully earned the name of quantum age.

All things quantum come with caveats. Like ‘atomic’, the word ‘quantum’ has acquired a mystique attended as much by buzz as by comprehension. Moreover, linking ‘quantum’ to ‘event’, ‘revolution’ or ‘age’ begs spatial, temporal and cultural questions; it also suggests a technological determinism at work. Taking quantum for a spin outside of physics can elicit confused, skeptical or even hostile responses. Among themselves, physicists might call such quantum principles like complementarity, entanglement and uncertainty as ‘weird’; but they are reluctant to acknowledge as quantum any odd effects – especially those at the macrophysical level – that cannot be proven through mathematics. In light of how social scientists used and abused many Newtonian concepts to explain and predict political actions – states behaving as billiard balls come to mind – the physicists might well have a point. Conversely, security studies experts who insist on only studying the world ‘as it really is’ might be discomforted by the quantum probabilities of many worlds where the real is always observer-dependent.

But such caveats, like the cave hic dragones (‘beware, here lie dragons’) that once graced pre-Columbian maps, are also an incentive to go to the edge and beyond our disciplinary siloes, to see for ourselves but also through the eyes of others how maps and other modes of observation not only record but make and unmake our worlds.

Einstein peered over the abyss of the world as it was to a world as it might be, one in which nuclear energy could be harnessed to defeat the looming evil of Nazi Germany but also to establish a new global order. Seven years later, after the destructive potential of nuclear power was realized in Japan and before if fully metastasized into the cold war, Einstein issued a prescient warning: ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.’

Project Q is our coda to Einstein’s fears, hopes and ultimate lament, which will be distributed to world leaders as well as the general public through multiple media. With the support of the University of Sydney and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Project Q will engage peace and security scholars as well as physicists and philosophers, diplomats and soldiers, journalists and filmmakers, historians and futurists in a critical dialogue on the peace and security implications of a quantum age.

James Der Derian, Director of the Centre for International Security Studies and Principal Investigator of Project Q