Nuclear Humility

Can we learn humility from physics?

Castle Bravo Blast. Source: Wikipedia

70 years ago Harry Truman asked the leaders of the Manhattan Project to recommend how atomic power should be used. World War II was wrapping up. Germany had fallen. Japan was on its knees but still defiant. Millions of servicemen were preparing to be redeployed from Europe to the Pacific.

But the Bomb was ready. Its components had been tested. Some advisors thought a technical demonstration of the weapon could convince Japan to surrender; others advocated an immediate military application. They all knew that the advent of nuclear weapons ushered in a new age.

The scientists recommended dropping the Bomb on Japan, as they couldn’t envision any demonstration that would end the War. But when it came to other uses for nuclear power, they said something striking: “We, as scientific men, have no proprietary rights. We have … no claim to special competence in solving the political, social, and military problems presented by the advent of atomic power.”

When it comes to brain-power, these guys were rock-stars. Oppenheimer, Fermi, Livermore—they would receive multiple Nobel Prizes. They really were the smartest people in the room. But they recognized the limits to their competence. Even though they had just made a huge contribution to our understanding of the world, they didn’t think it gave them any right to comment other than that of citizens who had given thoughtful consideration to the problems.

Humility is a gem. It keeps us out of trouble—from making foolish suggestions or taking ill-considered actions. Just because we’re skilled in one area doesn’t mean we’re experts anywhere else. May we all be so humble, should we ever be so successful.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer
Phone: 603-224-1350
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