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The Fire Next Time

The Dawn of a New Age

by Eugene Rabinowitch
To be published by the University of Chicago Press, in December, $6.95

The author of this collection of essays is known to his colleagues as an eminent biophysicist who has been concerned for at least the last twenty years with fundamental problems of photosynthesis. To a somewhat larger circle, he is known as the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the magazine of science and public affairs.” Rabinowitch has been the editor since the first issue, December of 1945. The Bulletin was born of the sense, developed during the wartime atomic energy project, of the importance of this development for the political organization of the world, the urgent sense of a turn for peace, of concern for the fostering and for the wise application of the growing and the great discoveries of science. These concerns, very wide-spread at the time, early expressed themselves in the Franck Report—to which Rabinowitch contributed—prepared under the leadership of James Franck at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago and submitted to the Secretary of War before the use of the bomb, and eloquent in arguing against its use; again in the McMahon Act which governed and still largely governs our dealings with industrial and military aspects of atomic energy, and in the Acheson-Lilienthal proposals, which Baruch introduced as part of the United States position on the international control of atomic energy in the United Nations. Most, but not all, of the essays in this book have appeared in the Bulletin. This reviewer finds the few exceptions also of very great interest.

The essays are divided into three groups, which must obviously overlap: prediction, comment on recent events or accumulated developments, and exhortation. Among the predictions, the first and last are of special interest, and neither has, I believe, been published before, The first is dated from the early days of the Second World War, and predicts on a grand scale, but with remarkable faithfulness to what was to happen, the course and outcome of that war. There is only one exception, noted by the author, and that is the development of the atomic bomb, to which, ironically, he himself was to contribute. The basis for the predictions which were to prove so accurate is described by the author in strangely Newtonian terms: knowing the masses and the velocities, one could predict the outcome.

After the war, and increasingly over the years, Rabinowitch has adopted more varied and more subtle grounds for assessment and prediction, but still, in talking of the future now before us, the arguments seem rather mechanical. For the United States, for Western Europe, and for the U.S.S.R., he sees the future as one of adaptation rather than initiative, of accepting the uneasy peace, of doing little to exorcise the weapons, or the causes and political machinery which in the past have led to war. Of the underdeveloped world, and of China, he writes with far more caution. He does not rate high the role of the Yevtushenkos and the James Baldwins in societies of mature economy. At the outset, and a thin black thread running throughout, is the caution: if war does not come.

The comments on the early political developments in the United States, on the Soviet bomb, on thermonuclear weapons and rockets, on the sputnik, on deterrence in action, and on much else besides, are a high and preceptive political commentary. They are characterized by a concern for the unity of the world, for the portent of technological changes past and future, for the value of international cooperation in science and in technology, for the importance and beauty of science, and for the overriding need not to make war or let war come. It is these pre-occupations which distinguish his comment from that of other experienced and thoughtful commentators, from Walter Lippmann, Max Friedman, Beuve-Méry, and the editorial writers of Le Monde.

The last section carries these preoccupations further. The first four essays are reports given at some of the ten meetings of the Council on Science and World Affairs, initially called the Pugwash Conferences. These, appropriately, concentrate on that considerable range of policies acceptable to Soviet scientists, and often, indeed, in conformity with pronouncements of the Soviet Government, if very much more rarely with its actions. In the remaining essays Rabinowitch speaks of the conditions of freedom in the sciences, of the freedom of movement and communication in science, of cooperation, of secrecy, of repression. He writes briefly but movingly of the arts and sciences, and again and again of the moral imperatives: to prevent world war, to unite the world, to encourage science and scientific cooperation. In all he accepts and he exhorts: the opportunities and the duties are peculiarly and particularly those of the scientists themselves. In this writing he is a prophet, not in the sense of saying what will happen, but in the sense of saying, with eloquence and fervor, what should.

Throughout, the author looks to the enlightened interest of nations—and beyond it, obviously, to the enlightened interest of man—to move and to guide history; and the mechanical and somewhat determinist framework of his first prophecy persists through his commitment and his exhortation. He sees little of the hopes, the faiths, and the passions of men, and much of calculated self-interest. Thus he has need of the occasional unpredictable “Hitler,” or madman. For this reviewer there are certain strains of madness, of love, and of devoition in most of us; he is thus more concerned with the national, historical, and cultural traditions which tend to embody, and often to civilize, them and whose reconciliation is today a terrible test of men’s political and human skill: that we be just to what we hate as evil, and cherish what we love. Rabinowitch has a more monolithic, perhaps a more truly rational view of history, of which this volume of essays is a record, and to which it is a monument. I have not been able to read it without admiring again the high consistency, the moral fervor, the assiduity, and the ruggedness which have sustained him during the years that this book records.

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