Most people have heard some version of the “Einstein letter” story—about the famous theoretical physicist Albert Einstein warning FDR that the Nazis were about to develop a nuclear bomb, which so alarmed the president that he immediately started the Manhattan Project. From there, scientists created the atomic bombs that America dropped on two of Japan’s largest cities in order to end the war. That’s the story people have heard, in some fashion. It’s mostly wrong.
It’s true that Einstein was convinced by his peers, such as Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard, that very smart physicists in Nazi Germany were close to the then theoretical ability to split the atom and harness its energy. Einstein and Szilard desperately wanted to get President Roosevelt’s attention—to warn him of what might happen in the not-too-distant future should Nazi scientists succeed in that effort and create a weapon based on what was (at the time) a possible future built from math equations and theoretical physics.
The myth is that Einstein wrote his letter to President Roosevelt, warning him of the grave risk; that it was given to FDR soon after he’d written it; and that Roosevelt and his political and military advisors were so alarmed by it that they immediately charged the nation’s top scientists with developing an atomic weapon in a race to beat the Nazis. The Einstein letter triggered high-level action from the White House, swiftly leading to the Manhattan Project and the birth of the atomic age, the story goes.
The truth is that Einstein actually wrote three such letters in 1939 and 1940—each more insistent than the previous one—laying out the potential risks should Nazi scientists succeed in acquiring an atomic weapon before the United States did. What he and Szilard described was theoretical research from German and American physicists published in several prominent journals in early 1939 that explained the potential for nuclear fission and how to exploit it to create nuclear power. Szilard concluded from the research that a nuclear weapon was possible, and he convinced Einstein.
But Einstein was mostly an irritant to FDR and his senior White House staff with his warnings. FDR had a real war to consider—not some theoretical future threat. FDR’s political advisors did not believe the Nazis were close to splitting the atom and harnessing its power, and his military advisors similarly dismissed any potential.
What’s more, his first letter—the one known as the famous “Einstein letter”1—was delayed for nearly three months for political and military reasons. It was drafted by Szilard and Einstein in late July 1939 and then dated August 2. Their plan was to give it to FDR through an intermediary they believed had FDR’s ear. But Germany invaded Poland before the letter could be delivered. It wasn’t actually delivered to FDR by that intermediary, Alexander Sachs, until mid-October of that year.
“In the course of the last four months it has been made probable—through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America—that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future,” Einstein wrote.
“This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable—though much less certain—that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed,” he added. “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove too heavy for transportation by air.”
The immediate reaction from FDR and his senior White House staff wasn’t an alarming one. It was a bureaucratic one. He sent a polite note back to Einstein—thanking him for the warning—and set up a committee headed by the director of a very small science agency (the Bureau of Standards) and two lower-level military aides to study it. FDR’s response was a time-honored brush-off, typical of Washington then and now.
One of those aides—army lieutenant colonel Keith Adamson—was an ordnance specialist who had attended the meeting at the White House when Sachs delivered the first Einstein letter. When the small committee met, Adamson was one of two military advisors present. He was skeptical of the notion that an atomic weapon could be developed but signed off on a small $6,000 grant to Szilard and Enrico Fermi that allowed them to purchase uranium for an experiment at a lab that they had jointly created to test the theory.2
From this very humble and bureaucratic beginning, and the small grant to purchase uranium, Fermi was eventually able to prove his theory. Fermi created the first “atomic pile”—and the notion of splitting and harnessing the atom was transformed from theory to reality.
But the truth is that the government committee FDR set up after Einstein’s first letter didn’t lead to a vigorous effort to pursue and develop an atomic weapon. Einstein actually felt compelled to write a second letter in March of 1940 and then a third letter a month later. The truth is that a president consumed with war had no time, or need, for scientists and their apocalyptical warnings. Einstein pleaded with FDR to heed the science.
“Last year, when I realized that results of national importance might arise out of research on uranium, I thought it my duty to inform the administration of this possibility,” Einstein wrote in his second letter.3 “Since the outbreak of the war, interest in uranium has intensified in Germany. I have now learned that research there is carried out in great secrecy and that it has been extended to another of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the Institute of Physics.” Einstein then warned the White House that his colleague, Szilard, was about to publish new research describing “in detail a method of setting up a chain reaction in uranium.”
But the White House, and the committee FDR had set up, still didn’t act on the science. So Einstein wrote a third letter in April 1940. “I am convinced as to the wisdom and the urgency of creating the conditions under which that and related work can be carried out with greater speed and on a larger scale than hitherto,” Einstein wrote to FDR. He was so concerned at the slow pace and general lack of interest in developing an atomic weapon before the Nazis did that he proposed using money from “private sources” to accelerate efforts. An effort partially funded by such private sources “could be carried out much faster than through a loose cooperation of university laboratories and government departments.”
FDR and his advisors never truly acted on this or any of the letters Einstein sent, where he laid out the emerging science and its implications. The committee set up by his first letter was dead-ended and superseded by two other government committees and offices in 1940 and 1941. Only when it became apparent that Winston Churchill and the British were quite serious about the pursuit of an atomic weapon4,5 did FDR authorize full-scale development in January 1942—a full two years after the first theoretical physics research Einstein had brought to their attention was published in the peer-reviewed literature. Nuclear fission research was then taken over by a fourth government committee, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Manhattan Project began.6
While much has been made of the Einstein letter and the famous physicist’s later regret at having started the process that led to the creation of the atomic bomb, the truth is that physicists in Germany, Britain, and the United States were all competing with each other and publishing in the scientific literature. It was only a matter of time before someone solved the nuclear fission equation.
The great irony—and an important point—is that Einstein’s three letters show that politicians and leaders generally ignore scientists and research until something else compels them to act. In this case, FDR and the White House staff didn’t really jump into full-scale development and the Manhattan Project until it became apparent that Churchill and Britain were already committed. The science, in and of itself, was not sufficient enough to force FDR’s hand. Other events did so.
In an even further irony, Einstein was never allowed to work on the Manhattan Project. The army denied him the work clearance he needed to collaborate with some of his colleagues on the highly classified project. His pacifist leanings made him a security risk, the army concluded.7 Einstein actually wrote a fourth letter to warn FDR of the risks of using atomic weapons without adequate oversight, but it didn’t reach FDR in time. President Roosevelt died before Einstein’s fourth letter could reach him.8
That’s the sad, but true, story of the famous Einstein letter. Scientists are routinely ignored by political and business leaders in the United States and around the world—no matter how right and prescient they might be about any given subject.
Collectively, right now, thousands of modern-day Einsteins are yelling as loudly as they possibly can that we’re in trouble on our planet from Earth’s changing climate. The signs of that trouble range from massive species extinction and ocean system collapses to water scarcity and food insecurity that now threaten the lives of tens of millions of people in distant lands. But, like Einstein, they’ve become irritants to our collective political psyche. We’d like them to go away. Unlike FDR, we can’t throw a measly $6,000 at Enrico Fermi and tell him to prove the theory of catastrophic impacts on our habitable planet before we decide whether to take the threats seriously or not.
It’s an old story to the global media. It’s a tired, worn-out story for the public. It’s a deeply divided subject for politicians. It’s a largely irrelevant story for business leaders—at least, for now—who have to deal with quarterly earnings reports for their shareholders. And it’s a maddening story for scientists. Somehow, in some yet undiscovered fashion, we need to find our way out of this box canyon before it’s too late.
There have been thousands upon thousands of peer-reviewed research papers written about the indisputable science of climate change. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable. Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea levels are rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse, as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying. On every continent and in every ocean, animals and plants are moving toward the poles.
The science linking human activities to climate change is almost directly analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. For a long time, the tobacco industry paid scientists to question the science. It took years for scientists, journalists, and public health officials to successfully counter tobacco industry claims that smoking was not necessarily responsible for lung cancer. Eventually, physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts, and others all came to a consensus and agreed that smoking causes cancer. And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real.9,10
But, believe it or not, we still don’t completely understand how or why smoking leads to lung cancer. What we do know, however, is enough to conclude that smoking is, in fact, the reason that so many people die of small-cell lung cancer every year, even if we cannot show with 100 percent accuracy the physiological mechanism that leads from smoking to the advent of the cancer process in someone’s lungs.11
A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists … a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the principal cause. Thousands of scientists said precisely that in the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convened by the UN that has evolved in the same manner as the science of what we know has evolved. It is, for scientists, now beyond dispute—it is a “settled fact.”
We now see with clear, peer-reviewed scientific certainty that seventeen hundred species are moving inexorably toward both poles to escape planetary warming and that half of the known species on Earth are experiencing local extinctions right now; that CO2-driven ocean acidification is already destroying coral reefs and that big iconic reefs like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are almost gone; that we’ve lost more than one thousand cubic miles of ice on the planet, which is raising sea levels, according to NASA satellites; that the number of arid areas on the planet has doubled in fifty years; that large wildfires connected to climate forces in the American West have increased sevenfold in a generation; that the number of floods (connected to extra precipitation generated in a climate driven by warming) has tripled in fifteen years; that record-high temperatures in the U.S. are now twice that of record lows; that the number of climate-driven natural catastrophes worldwide has doubled in the past thirty years; and that the level of actual ice volume in the Arctic (not just the surface area) has shrunk every single year for the past twenty-five years and is now close to disappearing during summer months.
This last fact alone—that the sea ice volume in the Arctic is now a quarter of what it was just twenty years ago and is presenting us with an ice-free Arctic Ocean eighty years earlier than the Nobel Prize–winning IPCC report predicted in 2007—should be more than enough to tell us what we need to know about climate science. The Arctic sea ice situation is as clear a science canary in the proverbial coal mine as we’ll find … especially when we consider that what happens in the Arctic has profound implications for the rest of Earth.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Nesbit