Monday, March 21, 2011


German physicist Peter Heller makes a passionate plea for a return to science on the nuclear energy issue. He wonders if ignorance and fear will cause us to abandon the legacies of Einstein, Heisenberg and others.


By Dr Peter Heller,
Astronomer, Physicist

There’s no place on earth I would rather be right now than at Fukushima – right in the atomic power plant, at the centre of the event. I say this because I am a physicist and there is no other place that could be more exciting and interesting for a physicist. The same goes for many, if not most physicists and engineers, on the planet.

Already at a young age I knew one day I would study physics. As a boy, I received a telescope for Christmas, and from that point on my view was fixed on the night sky; gazing at star clusters, nebula and galaxies was my favourite preoccupation. It was only later that I learned that these lights and the twinkling in eyepiece were actually the expressions of a chaotic and violent force of nature – the direct conversion of matter into energy during the fusion of an atomic nucleus.

My curiosity carried me, as if on a high, through 10 semesters of study and subsequent graduation. It was a time of discovery that involved the tedious task of understanding. At times I felt exasperation and self doubt with respect to the sheer complexity and breadth of what there was to learn. Yet, there were times of joy whenever the fog lifted and the clarity and beauty of physical descriptions of natural phenomena moved in its place. It was a time that, unfortunately, passed all too quickly and is now some years in the past.

The great minds that accompanied me through my studies were Planck, Sommerfeld, Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and a host of others who, for us physicists, are still very much alive today. They are great thinkers who contributed to unravelling the puzzles of nature and the forces which keep the world together through the most minute structures. I devoured the stories of Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, of Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller – to name a few – and on how they created completely new technologies from theoretical concepts, how the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom could be used for the good of man and how it became possible in a single process to tap into this source of affordable, clean and plentiful energy on a large scale as never seen by man. Electricity illuminates our world, drives our machines, allow us to communicate over great distances, thus making our lives easier and more comfortable. It is a source of energy that staves off poverty and enables prosperity.

Electricity: manufactured by splitting atomic nuclei with neutrons, gained through the direct conversion of mass into energy. It is the principle by which (via the reverse process of fusion) the stars twinkle in the night sky, a principle by which our sun enables life on our planet.

As a physicist it fills me with great joy and pride to see how man is able to rouse this force of nature at the most minute structural level, then amplify, control, and use it for our benefit. As a physicist I have the fundamental understanding of the processes – I can imagine them and describe them. As a physicist I have neither fear of an atomic power plant nor of radioactivity. Ultimately I know that it is a natural phenomenon that is always around us, one we can never escape – and one that we never need to escape. And I know the first as a symbol of man’s capability to steer the forces of nature. As a physicist I have no fear of what nature has to offer. Rather I have respect. And this respect beckons us to seize the chances like those offered by neutrons, which can split nuclei and thus convert matter into energy. Anything else would be ignorance and cowardice.

Dark times in history

There were times in history when ignorance and cowardice overshadowed human life. It was a time when our ancestors were forced to lead a life filled with superstition and fear because it was forbidden to use creativity and fantasy. Religious dogma, like the earth being the centre of the universe, or creationism, forbade people to question. The forbiddance of opening a human body and examining it prevented questions from being answered. Today these medieval rules appear backwards and close-minded. We simply cannot imagine this way of thinking could have any acceptance.

But over the recent days I have grown concerned that we are headed again for such dark times. Hysterical and sensationalist media reporting, paired with a remarkably stark display of ignorance of technical and scientific interrelations, and the attempt by a vast majority of journalists to fan the public’s angst and opposition to nuclear energy – pure witch-burning disguised as modernity.

Freedom of research

So it fills me with sadness and anger on how the work of the above mentioned giants of physics is now being dragged through the mud, how the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century are being redefined and criminalized. The current debate in Germany is also a debate on freedom of research. The stigmatization and ostracism of nuclear energy, the demand for an immediate stop of its use, is also the demand for the end of its research and development. No job possibilities also means no students, which means no faculty, which then means the end of the growth of our knowledge. Stopping nuclear energy is nothing less than rejecting the legacy of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and all others. It is tantamount to scrapping it, labelling it as dangerous – all in a fit of ignorance. And just as creationists attempt to ban the theory of evolution from the school books, it almost seems as if every factual and neutral explanation in Germany is now in the process of being deleted.

The media suggests a nuclear catastrophe, a mega-meltdown, and that the apocalypse has already begun. It is almost as if the 10,000 deaths in Japan were actually victims of nuclear energy, and not the earthquake or the tsunami. Here again one has to remind us that Fukushima was first hit by an unimaginable 9.0 earthquake and then by a massive 10-meter wave of water just an hour later. As a result, the facility no longer found itself in a highly technological area, but surrounded by a desert of rubble. All around the power plant the infrastructure, residential areas, traffic routes, energy and communication networks are simply no longer there. They were wiped out. Yet, after an entire week, the apocalypse still has not come to pass. Only relatively small amounts of radioactive materials have leaked out and have had only a local impact. If one considers the pure facts exclusively, i.e. only the things we really know, then it exposes the unfounded interpretations of scientific illiterates in the media. One can only arrive to one conclusion: This sorrowful state will remain so.

In truth, this does not show that the ideologically motivated, fear-laden admonitions and warnings were correct. Fukushima illustrates that we are indeed able to control atomic energy. Fukushima shows that we can master it even when natural disasters beyond planning befall us. Still, at Fukushima the conflict between human creativity/competence continues to clamour against the bond energy in atomic nuclei. It’s a struggle that that shows what human intelligence, knowledge gained, passion, boldness, respect, and capability to learn allow us to do. Personally this does not fill me with apprehension, but with hope. Man can meet this challenge not only because he has to, but most of all because he wants to.

Even though I have not practiced physics for some time now, I will never be anything other than a scientist and researcher, and there would be no other place I would rather be than on site at Fukushima. There is no other place at the moment where so much can be learned about atomic energy, which keeps our world together deep inside, and the technical possibilities to benefit from it. Do we have the courage to learn? Do we accept – with respect and confidence – the opportunities we are confronted with? Fukushima will show us possibilities on how to use the direct conversion of matter into energy in a better and safer way, something that Einstein and others could have only dreamed of.

I am a physicist. My wish is to live in a world that is willing to learn and to improve whatever is good. I would only like to live in a world where great strides in physics are viewed with fascination, pride, and hope because they show us the way to a better future. I would only like to live in a world that has the courage for a better world. Any other world for me is unacceptable. Never. That’s why I am going to fight for this world, without ever relenting.

Translated from the German, with the permission of Peter Heller, by Bernd Felsche and Pierre Gosselin. Original text appeared here:

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