Missing the Manhattan Project

What America has forgotten from a moment when we still knew that science could conquer — and sin
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Once upon a time, Americans followed the science. Bunsen burners burned, data clustered dutifully, hypotheses rose and fell. Experts knew what must be done, politicians did it, and the public never had any problem with this. People kept their lawns mowed and paid their taxes on time.

The New Atlantis at 20
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The New Atlantis at 20

Then something terrible happened. Maybe it was the banning of evolution from classrooms. Maybe it was celebrities turning parents against vaccines. Maybe it was SUV-brained consumers sticking their heads in the planet’s warming sand. After the catastrophe, people didn’t follow science anymore. And this was how America unmasked and beach-partied its way to Covid disaster.

Whether there is truth in this story or not, we can at least recognize that it is a story, a pervasive and tidy one that needs a better critical treatment. Here is one thing we can notice: As a story, it’s dramatically weird — a morality play with captivating villains but no clear hero. Sure, it has brave people in it: the scientists. But the real protagonist is Science itself, an abstraction that makes no decisions and has no awareness of its own actions. It just stands there, blank-faced, lording opaquely over events like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey while we apes gape dumbstruck and bash in skulls.

Stories shape us as much as they describe us, and this one guided us poorly through the pandemic.

Consider the confused health guidance. As Tiffany C. Li put it in January 2022:

Stay indoors. But also return in person. Wear a mask. Not that one. The expensive one, that you can’t find. Take rapid tests. Which you also can’t find. But if you find them, don’t buy them. Rapid tests don’t work. You need PCR. There are zero appointments in your area.

This was not a “messaging” problem, as we often heard. There was never a coherent message because there was never a coherent goal, even as public health leaders insisted that we simply must do what they said.

They justified much inaction in the name of science too. Respectable scientific message-setters spent precious early months scoffing that fears of a pandemic in the U.S. were hysterical. In January 2020, the FDA blocked labs around the country from developing tests by granting a monopoly to the CDC, which it wasted. The CDC’s test failed, blinding the country at the critical hour. In March 2020, private researchers developed cheap rapid tests and applied to the FDA, but the agency’s unrealistic accuracy standards delayed approval for a year or longer.

We also heard that the writ for the grueling disruption of normal life was signed, not by elected leaders, or political consensus, or plain material pressure, but by science. Only recently has the toll of, say, school closures been treated in mainstream discourse with full seriousness — mostly in headlines about what “mental health research now shows.” So is this merely one scientific discovery among many, like a new exotic quark? Is three years of dispassionate research the only legitimate vehicle we can allow ourselves for reasoning candidly about the likely costs of a grand national experiment in remote learning?

There is something more at work here than well-intentioned people learning as they go along and making inevitable errors along the way.

Consider a report by Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban. In October 2021, experts showed the Biden administration a plan to dramatically expand rapid testing production. The administration rejected it, according to Eban’s reporting, fearing it would sap the public’s incentive to get vaccinated, and swayed by a pervasive attitude in the medical bureaucracy that testing “should be used only by doctors as a diagnostic instrument, not by individuals as a public-health tool for influencing decisions.” Weeks later, the Omicron wave hit, and Soviets-in-breadlines reports of Americans scrounging for rapid tests on empty shelves followed.

Beneath the lofty idealism of “follow the science” lies something not just feckless but downright punitive. There was a war against Covid, we were told — rightly so — and it demanded wartime sacrifice. But now the logic of sacrifice was inverted. Science never owed us anything, yet constantly we heard of all the things we owed science.

This story about science is not serving us well. Awful tradeoffs, blind stabs in the dark, grueling least-of-all-evils choices were inevitably going to define pandemic governance. The trouble is that our leaders so steadfastly refused to describe these choices as choices, and invoked “science” as their universal get-out-of-jail-free card. Politics is where we decide, and then where we grapple with the fallout from what we decided. But our story about science is robbing politics of this vital function, and driving us all crazy in the process.

As I have written elsewhere, we must begin again to see science as something people do. We must stop seeing science as an alien force and admit it as a full participant in human affairs — a messy enterprise like all others, with its own distinct yearnings and vices.

It is with no small trepidation that I suggest the spirit of a rather different story: the Manhattan Project, whose proof of success, the first detonation of an atomic bomb, happened seventy-eight years ago this weekend, and will be depicted in Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer, set to be released next week. Here was an episode where America spoke of science not with the passive but the full active voice, as a powerful — and dangerous — ally.

Science has led America well through crises when it has eagerly anticipated needs and set ambitious, specific, achievable goals. The vaccine development, backed by Operation Warp Speed, was the proudest example during the pandemic. The Covid Tracking Project, which became our national data dashboard, nimbly solved a dire problem that the CDC wouldn’t.

This spirit was present in many other ways — but more often it wound up stifled. Health leadership and two presidents ignored ambitious plans to make mass-scale testing a game-changer. And why was there no federal crash program to put cheap, unobtrusive virus-scrubbing ventilation in buildings nationwide? Likewise, safe-enough, in-person, unmasked learning was an eminently solvable problem. It should have been an absolute national commitment from the start, with science showing how to do it rather than hemming and hawing over whether we could.

And it was not just apologists for the Covid regime who became captive to this passive story, but opponents too, who argued that scientists could stick to a purely neutral, advisory role at a moment when such urgent decisions had to be made and everyone in the world had so much at stake. Contrast this just-the-facts-ma’am view with the Manhattan Project’s origin. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard did not wait for President Roosevelt to call them up and ask for lists of pros and cons. Recognizing the distinct role they already played, it was the two scientists who presented the idea to Roosevelt in the first place, urging in a letter a month before the outbreak of war in Europe that this radical new technology was possible, and that America must beat Germany to the bomb.

But the Manhattan Project is fruitful also for suggesting a profound unease at doing all this, a needed spirit of soul-searching. “Now we are all sons of bitches” were the words of Trinity test director Kenneth Bainbridge watching that new sun rise over the New Mexico desert. He would spend the rest of his life working to end nuclear weapons tests and the nuclear arms race. And for the country too, many of the intense technology debates that would follow — over nuclear power, genetically modified agriculture, pollution, and climate change — were in some sense wounded referenda on that fateful choice to marry national exigency to scientific power in 1945.

It was for good reason that we entered a similar marriage during our own national emergency in 2020. But our marriage saw neither the remarkable level of focus of the Manhattan Project, nor the agonized introspection that followed it. It left us with the baggage of technocratic rule without even the consolation of its benefits. America will remain alienated from science until we can once again accept it as fully ours, in its triumphs as well as its sins.

Ari Schulman, “Missing the Manhattan Project,” TheNewAtlantis.com, July 14, 2023.

Header image: Department of Energy


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