Alvin Weinberg

By: Alexis Madrigal
April 20, 2010

In the 1970s, when others were carrying on about OPEC-induced oil shortages, physicist ALVIN WEINBERG (1915-2006) authored a paper about long-term energy futures titled “Can the Sun Replace Uranium?” His answer was no; Weinberg believed that nuclear power was the existential technological fix for human society. As head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the booming nuclear reactor market of the late 1960s, he spun futurological nuclear fantasies grand and wonderful enough to redeem science itself from the dark, expanding shadow of Earth-ending weapons. However, unlike some hyper promoters of atomic energy (or its harsh critics), Weinberg thought deeply about the opportunities and dangers of each energy conversion system. In 1973, the Nixon administration fired him for not supporting the military-friendly reactor design that his overlords had selected. In subsequent years, Weinberg became disappointed with a society that could not seem to get its shit together and learn to handle the atom. “We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society,” he told fellow scientists. Nuclear power was roughly limitless and created few nasty emissions; however, “the price we demand of society for this magical source is both a vigilance from and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to.” There was no way to reengineer society’s messy mechanisms, he found; he died a disappointed man.

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  1. Fantastic! I’ve just finished teaching a course at Loyola University Chicago on how science is funded in this country. One of our main readings was an essay by Weinberg, from his collection “Reflection on Big Science”, concerning criteria for scientific choice. As far back as 1960 — maybe earlier — Weinberg was looking forward to a time when society would have to make difficult choices about what sorts of science it was willing to support. This was at a time when almost all worthwhile science was receiving the funding it needed. Scientists (especially physicists) were viewed with near-mystical reverence by the public because of their contributions to the war effort. But Weinberg and a few others followed the time axes of their graphs out past the present day and saw that this state of affairs couldn’t last much longer. The rate at which our society was producing qualified scientists would eventually strain the resources we could afford to make available for science. Weinberg and his colleagues prepared for this by thinking very deeply about how we should allocate our resources. The criteria he developed ensured that input from both experts and non-experts on a wide range of issues — technical viability, scientific merit, and social merit — were central to these decisions.

  2. Thanks, Robert! I was wondering about whether I should include Weinberg’s management thinking in my appreciation, but… He did so much that there was only room for so much. Really happy to see that you filled in that hole!

    Sidenote: I’d love to see that syllabus! Is it online?

  3. Alexis: if you send me an email address I’ll send you the relevant parts of the syllabus (it’s online, but only accessible to students with a password). The first part of my email address is rmcnees, and it’s at luc.edu.

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