Carl Sagan | Critical Review by Alan Robock

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Carl Sagan.
This section contains 692 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Alan Robock

SOURCE: "The Imparsible Dream?," in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 47, No. 2, March, 1991, pp. 43-4.

In the following review, Robock offers praise for A Path Where No Man Thought.

Soon after the theory of nuclear winter was published, Carl Sagan gave a briefing on the subject on Capitol Hill. Sagan described how, after a nuclear war, the thick smoke from burning cities and industrial plants would block out so much sunlight that the earth's surface would become cold and dark. Agriculture would be impossible for years and most of the world's population would starve to death. After his presentation, one member of the audience called him aside. "Carl," he said, "if you think the mere threat of the end of the world is enough to change the way people in Washington and Moscow think, you clearly haven't spent enough time in either place."

Yet Sagan and coauthor Richard Turco are still determined to change the way people think. The first two-thirds of A Path Where No Man Thought is a description of the theory of nuclear winter for the nonscientist. The authors describe the climate system and the nuclear arsenal, and compare the effects of cities burning from non-nuclear causes, such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the fire bombings of World War II, to the nuclear-ignited fires at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They review climate model calculations and describe the effects of cooling caused by natural events such as forest fires and volcanic dust clouds, a memorable example of which occurred in 1816, the "year without a summer" following the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia.

Sagan and Turco, both prominent scientists, urge that for reasons of strategic stability, economic progress, and the threat of nuclear winter, the global nuclear arsenal should be reduced from its current level—approximately 50,000 warheads—to 300. Three hundred warheads would provide what they call "Minimum Sufficient Deterrence" (MSD). At such a level, they argue, stable deterrence is possible, yet no combination of computer failures, accidents, miscalculations, or insanity in high office could create a nuclear winter that would kill billions of people. The authors see MSD as only a step toward the goal of a world completely free of nuclear weapons.

Their continuing crusade also raises the issue of scientists' responsibility to society when, in the course of their investigations, they discover great dangers. In 1984, at one of the first conferences on nuclear winter, at the National Academy of Sciences, a scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory told me he thought that responsibility ended with the publication of results in scientific journals, and that it was up to the experts in politics to deal with the implications of those results. My response to such statements is that nuclear arsenals exist precisely because experts have been running things.

Sagan and Turco point out that scientists have been rewarded for creating weapons of mass destruction, but when they warn of the weapons' dangers, as Leo Szilard did in 1945, they have been ignored or considered unpatriotic. Still, the authors hope to enlist others in the effort. "It's hard to think of more worthy work. We hope that many established scholars, but particularly large numbers of young people, will consider devoting a part of their lives to finding the path" to an MSD regime, they write.

The theory of nuclear winter has provided a new context in which to examine existing assumptions about nuclear war. And that reexamination happened only because scientists tried to warn the world of the current policies' dangers. The world seems to be a much safer place than it was in 1982 and 1983 when the first nuclear winter papers were published. It is difficult to know how much of this change was induced by the theory of nuclear winter, although some future historian may be able to tell us. Certainly, the inclusion of the concept of nuclear winter in the speeches of Mikhail Gorbachev, the prime architect of improved East-West relations, suggests that it has played a part. The Cold War is over, but the arms race continues. Perhaps the ideas in this book will inspire continued progress toward a safer, more peaceful world.

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This section contains 692 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Alan Robock
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