Wars and atoms have, as it were, a conjugated history.
On the eve of the Second World War, physicists Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd wrote a letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt to inform him of the destructive potential of nuclear fission.
The letter would trigger a chain-reaction, as it were, beginning with the Manhattan Project and leading to the first use of nuclear weapons, continuing through to an arms race without end. Einstein later offered a baleful post-mortem: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
One hundred years ago, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg predicted on the eve of the First World War that the coming violence would “overthrow all that exists.” He could not possibly have known how right he was, as his prediction would be borne out by revolutions political, intellectual, and scientific. The war emerged from a Newtonian logic; one which ensured that trains set in motion would stay in motion, carrying unprecedented assemblages of violence across vast distances until they met equal and opposite forces and settled into the stagnant equilibrium of trench warfare. But these events would also enable a series of revolutions that made possible a paradigmatic shift to a new, post-Newtonian logic that led to the later discoveries in atomic physics.
These global events and their intellectual products changed the way we think about space and time, war and peace. But should we not also address Einstein’s lament and change the way we think about these events? When we keep notions of probability, entanglement and complementarity in mind, we must treat the relationship of their coterminous developments as more than coincidence and less than causal. The manners in which we conduct war and wage science are always entangled, so as science changes the ways we conceive of our world, so too must we reconsider the ways we perceive and commemorate our world wars.