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NEXT STORY

The nuclear test ban and the end of Project Orion

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Project Orion: the question of fallout
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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In Orion from the very first day of course, we knew that fall out was a major consideration. What we proposed to do was to take the thing off from the ground under nuclear power, so we'd be exploding bombs in the atmosphere all the way up, and we'd be plastering the ground with fallout, of course, and radioactivity would be spread far and wide. And you might say, 'Isn't that totally crazy? Isn't that totally unacceptable?' Well by present day standards, of course, it's completely unacceptable and it's absolutely clear we wouldn't want to do it. In those days it was different because it's a question of compared with what, and we were comparing this with a nuclear war, which in those times was, we felt to be a very real possibility. We were thinking of a nuclear war in which hundreds of megatons would be exploded on the ground, would be plastering the earth with fallout on a vastly larger scale, killing billions of people. But what we proposed to do was a few kilotons per shot, so as you go up through the atmosphere, maybe a few hundred kilotons total, and getting rid of the bombs, so we wouldn't have a nuclear war. I mean that was the idea. So our mindset was: You compare this with what the bombs could do if they were really used in anger. And in that case of course, what we were doing was tiny by comparison. In addition, in those times, there were bomb tests in the atmosphere going on all the time. There was a heavy testing programme, but what was actually being put into the atmosphere every year during that time was much larger than what we proposed in the total programme.

Born in England in 1923, Freeman Dyson moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He has published several books and, among other honours, has been awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Project Orion, Cold War

Duration: 1 minute, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008