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The Legacy of Robert Jungk

Tomorrow is Already Here: Is It Too Late?

by JANETTE D. SHERMAN, MD

Robert Jungk influenced my thinking more than any other writer. I read Tomorrow is Already Here and Brighter Than a Thousand Suns in the late 1950s, as I held my infant son and tended my young daughter, two years before I applied to medical school. Even though I was a mother of two, I continued to work part-time as a chemist/ biologist, and looking back, I may have been a science nerd my entire life.

My first job, in 1952, straight after receiving my B. S. degree in biology and chemistry, I was hired by the AEC, to work at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley. I carried Geiger and alpha counters and measured levels of radiation in laboratories, around the Cyclotron, in various buildings on the university campus, and at a local hospital.

The use of radioactive isotopes to measure biological processes was just beginning. Prof. Melvin Calvin, his laboratory glowing with light, won his Nobel Prize for his work on photosynthesis at the “Rad Lab.”

It was at the “Rad Lab” that bismuth–209, bombarded by alpha particles in the cyclotron, and after the loss of two neutrons, produced astatine-211, with a very short half-life. Astatine belongs to the same chemical family as fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine, and when injected into animals, seeks the thyroid gland, a subject of continued interest to me.

Recently I read Tomorrow is Already Here - for the third time since 1958 and 1993, something I have never before done, and also re-read Brighter Than a Thousand Suns.

Robert Junk was born in Berlin in 1913 to Austrian Jewish parents, arrested at age 19 for anti-Nazi activities, after which he was somehow released.  After two years studying in Paris, he returned to Germany to start an underground press service, but had to flee again, this time to Czechoslovakia to start yet another press service.  When Prague fell, he continued to work in Paris, and when that fell, he worked in Switzerland, where he was arrested, because the Swiss authorities considered literary activity by refugees from Hitlerism to be harmful to neutrality.  An American friend gained his release and he became a correspondent for the London Observer and earned his PhD in modern history at Zurich University.  He became an American citizen in 1950.

Jungk said: “My most important aim is to work towards the humanization of modern technology.” His writing, whether of complicated science, or of people, it is clear, comprehensible, and fascinating.  His skill with and appreciation of modern history is very evident.

Jungk managed to get into sites, ordinarily closed to even high government officials… these included the White Sands Proving Grounds where missiles, powered by explosive toxic chemicals, were fired into the desert air to study the upper reaches of our atmosphere.  At this missile site, and already a graduate aeronautical engineer, my husband, Don Nevinger, was assigned as a missile mechanic, when he was in the Army. Jungk documented the lives of uranium miners in Colorado, and the workers at the RAND Corporation, founded by the US Air Force, in Santa Monica.

Jungk also gained access to Los Alamos, the center of the Manhattan Project, where the first atom bomb was constructed and exploded in 1945.  He documented the scientist’s concern of use of such a weapon on civilians, but as we know, politics interceded and both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed.

At Hanford nuclear site in Washington, he wrote: “The all-too-living atomic particles and rays are beating against the walls: it will be thousands of years before they lose their fatal power.”  Seven decades after Hanford was begun, it continues to leak radioactive materials into the soil and the Columbia River.  If Hanford and Chernobyl are any examples, it appears scientifically certain that Fukushima will never be “contained.”

Jungk described the lives of those doing factor farming in California and Iowa and the mechanization (and dehumanization) of employment, as well as TV’s monopoly of children’s lives while turning them into consumers.  (Sixty years later, in 2014, can we even describe what has happened to children with constant communication (iPhones, texting, etc.) since Tomorrow … was published?)

This month, I read The Big Machine, Jungk’s third book, not that I had any background in particle physics or in synchrotrons, but this is one of his books I had not read.  Originally published in German in 1966, as Die Grosse Machine, it was available two years later in English as The Big Machine.

The Big Machine site that Jungk described is at CERN in Meyerin, near Geneva, Switzerland and unlike earlier big machines, it was to do basic atomic, not nuclear research.   The idea is to accelerate and focus particles as they collide with various targets, such as metals, at a millionth of a millionth of a second (or faster.)  As of the late 1920s there were protons, neutrons and electrons – now there is an abundance of even small portions with marvelous names such as pions, anti pions, mesons, Higgs bosons, and so on.

At CERN, (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) or European Council for Nuclear Research, Jungk discovered and received free access to the people designing and building the ever-enlarging and increasingly complicated buildings and equipment.  Previous to the outbreak of World War II, scientists from Germany, Italy, Russia, England, the U. S. and elsewhere, had openly shared information about their basic atomic research.  The war blocked them from communicating basic ideas and research with one another, so at the end of the war, great enthusiasm and cooperation arose within the consortium of countries and people who planned, to build and to work together at CERN.

Jungk lauds not only the scientists and planners, but also the artisans, technicians, and skilled machine operators, who were tasked with building never-before-constructed, specialized equipment, including miles-long tunnels, powerful magnets, cloud chambers, etc,

Jungk gained access to the people and the facilities at Brookhaven on Long Island and Berkeley, CA, but the most amazing account was when he went to Dubna, and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, located less than 100 miles north of Moscow. The Big Machine at Dubna, a synchnophasotron, was the most powerful particle accelerator in the world for over three years (1956-1959) and contained some of the largest electromagnets in the world.

Jungk noted that unlike CERN, where women were employed in secretarial, library and the Data Handling Divisions, at Dubna, a third of the engineering and research employees were women.  (What a concept!)  Dubna became a research center for Czechs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Poles, Rumanians, Russians and ultimately scientists from Vietnam. Some Chinese scientists participated but they terminated their membership in 1965.

Soon after his visit to Dubna, a decision was made by various Russian scientific organizations to build a high-energy proton accelerator at Protvino, south of Moscow, and to include researchers from the international scientific community.

In chapter six of The Big Machine, Jungk described CERN as the place to find the “first Planetarians’, earth dwellers who no longer feel loyalty to a single nation, a single continent, or a single political creed, but to common knowledge that they advance together.”

He ends on a note of hopefulness, that the thinkers, technicians, and builders who seek understanding of the smallest parts of the atom can bridge the international community against conflict and war.

Given current affairs, will the community of scientists probing the origin of the atomic matter that constitutes our universe, be enough to save our earth?  Do we have the will to clean up the chemical and radioactive messes we have created?  Can we agree to limit fossil fuel development and use, and stop global warming? Or have we already sold tomorrow to the highest bidder.  Is Tomorrow Already Here?

Jungk’s books:

Tomorrow is Already Here
Simon & Schuster, 241 p, C. 1954

Brighter Than a Thousand Suns
Harcourt, Brace & Co.  New York 369 p., C. 1956.

The Big Machine
Andre Deutsch Ltd.  London.  245 p. C. 1968

Janette D. Sherman, M. D. is the author of Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer and Chemical Exposure and Disease, and is a specialist in internal medicine and toxicology. She edited the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature, written by A. V. Yablokov, V. B., Nesterenko and A. V. Nesterenko, published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009.  Her primary interest is the prevention of illness through public education.  She can be reached at:  toxdoc.js@verizon.net and www.janettesherman.com