Whilst reading a draft paper [embargoed]: The Wisdom of Sages, nuclear physics education, knowledge-inquiry and wisdom inquiry, the title of an earlier paper by Alan Cottey caught my eye: The Shadow of the Bomb. Alan is a Fellow at the University of East Anglia and a member of Scientists for Global Responsibility. As a teenager, he was privately concerned about nuclear weapons. He became a physicist, at first of the head-down variety but later becoming publicly engaged in social issues.
He felt frustrated by the invisible barrier between academic physics and physics-related matters that affect the very survival of humanity and offered to teach the nuclear physics course in such a way that he and the students were able to see and take down the barrier. The present paper textual analysis of 57 nuclear physics textbooks for senior-level physics degree students from 1950 to 2010 is a part of the author’s continuing efforts to contribute to “an adequate response to the nuclear situation in which we all find ourselves”.
Nuclear weapons were developed in the greatest secrecy. Nuclear decisions were, and are to this day, taken without accountability, behind closed doors, by political elites. The public knows little of how such decisions are taken, of which individuals or institutions have influence, or even of what the policies and decisions are. This is the culture of reticence in which almost everyone is raised and which constrains virtually all discourse. It sits uneasily with other aspects of culture such as desires for democracy, freedom of enquiry and freedom of speech. The education of physics students and the production of nuclear physics textbooks take place in this culture.
Experts do have a special responsibility to ‘tell it as it is’. The analysis in this paper will, no doubt, lead many to conclude that in this case the experts – editors and marketers, etc, as well as authors and referees – have failed to discharge important social responsibilities. Nevertheless, he maintains that it is unrealistic to expect such specialist groups to act independently of the wider culture. An adequate response to the nuclear situation in which we all find ourselves, based on a rational programme for long-term survival, rather than on psychological defences, has to come from all.
The paper can be read here.