Machine, in the hands of humankind, can be used as a tool to build wonders or weapons to bring down worlds. Ever since the first hand-ax was wedged and tied to handle thus creating the first hammer, a hand-ax was also wedged to an end of a pole pointed upwards to form a spear and, voila, the first aerodynamic weapon was forged. Death from above!
Throughout the millennia, inventors and innovators came and went, leaving behind what only they could have conjured with their clear visions. Such is the true fabric of civilization, fleeting as it may seem. Some of them have left more than an impression on us, others have killed while one in particular came to a push of a button away from wiping us right off the face of the earth.
But should inventors be responsible for what become of their inventions, whether long after they have died or by the hands of superpowers? Could the Wright brothers have foreseen the 19 hijackers and the looming towers? Could Alan Turing have foreseen unchecked activities of intelligence agencies? Could Robert Oppenheimer have foreseen Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Could Wernher von Braun have foreseen the embargo lines off the coast of Cuba? Or should some things never have been invented?It almost seem as though inventors were single-minded in their approach given what could have been done with their invention. But the gift of foresight is not granted unto all.
Titanomachy and Trickery
If there were one class of people on earth who seemed to have forewarned us about the shapes of all things to come, it has to be the Greeks. Classical Greeks, to be more precise. Not only did the Greeks helm the founding stones of modern civilisations, from democracy to philosophy to physics, they also boasted some of the most dastard deities.
Any mythological aficionados could tell of the great war between the Titanic gods and goddesses against their offspring, the Olympic gods and goddesses. Cronus, king of the Titans, fearing the stakes of his supremacy at the hands of his offspring as he did his own father, subsequently devours each of them. His youngest one, Zeus, was raised in secret by Rhea, his sister-wife. Zeus would later rescue his other siblings, Poseidon and Hades, along with several cousins and rebel against their father’s rule. The result of the war would see the Titans, particularly Cronus, torn limb from limb and locked away in the underworld, the pit of Tartarus.
Zeus replaces his father as king of the gods, places Poseidon as king of all seas and Hades as king of the underworld. During the war, just about the one Titan who switched sides was none other than the one that foresaw the outcome of the war – Prometheus, whose name translates as ‘foresight,’ ‘forethought,’ ‘fore-thinker,’ or ‘fore-seer.’ Needless to say, Prometheus was spared the pits of Tartarus.
Zeus, the god king of all and be-all, succumbed to perhaps the most human of all conditions – boredom! He was almighty, but no one to truly smite his will over. He orders Prometheus to create humans and populate the earth as to entertain the Olympians. Prometheus sets about his task to the ‘t.’ Whether poking fun at the Olympians or otherwise, he made his creation the splitting image of their gods and goddesses. He goes so far as to make man master of his domain, educating and enabling them to survive and thrive.
Prometheus, the Titan, had more than an inkling to test the might of the new all-king Zeus and thus conjures a trick. He presented Zeus two choice of gifts, one being delicious meat hidden inside the stomach of an ox, a symbol of repulsive exterior concealing desirable interior and the other being a bull’s bone covered in thick fat, a symbol of desirable exterior concealing repulsive interior. Zeus, setting the precedence for all tyrants to come, chose the latter.
In a fit of rage, Zeus snuffed all fire from the hands of humankind thus leaving them in the cold bleak earth, disabling them to rise above their primitive state. Witnessing his creation suffer and wither, Prometheus stole the secrets of fire from Zeus and delivered them to all of man thus allowing them not only to survive and thrive, but to build wonders.
For such crimes as stealing and trickery, Prometheus was punished by Zeus for all eternity. He was to be chained to the on the rocks of Caucasus where, everyday, vultures would descend and, with its talons, tear his liver from his torso and every night his liver would re-grow. To punish him even further, Zeus tasked Haephaestus to create a woman who would bring trouble to the lives of men and thus Pandora, the first woman, was created from the four winds and adorned by the goddesses of Olympus.
Pandora was also cursed with curiosity and was gifted with a jar that contains all troubles to the world of men. Although she was warned to never open the jar, her curiosity got the better of her and she peeked the jar just for the briefest moment and all manner of troubles were unleashed upon the world but one. As she closed the lid just in time, the deadliest of all that would bring about the annihilation of all mankind was left inside – Hope!
The tale is obviously fictional yet undeniably prophetic. Everything from a despotic tyrant to an arrogant inventor to the unforeseeable fate of what was created to the awaiting punishment that awaited all parties involved. The striking themes still resounds to this day. Pandora became the epitome of woman being the source of trouble among men and tyrants channelling their anger and frustration towards others because of their own faults and limitations and inventors being made to suffer for their creations and their creations being used and abused to entertain the powerful.
But who is to be the monster in this tale? Would it be Prometheus and his arrogance despite his creative task? Would it be Zeus for his tyranny despite his all-might? Would it be Pandora despite her cursed curiosity? Would it be Haephaestus who was tasked with creating woman to trouble men? Would it even be Cronus who started it all despite being dead?
According to several sources, Prometheus is often portrayed as much more than a trickster and a fire-thief but also the patron of mankind, teaching the arts of civilisation, everything from mathematics, medicine, writing, sciences and agriculture. During the Titanomachy, Prometheus was even claimed to have won a decisive victory for the Olympians. Zeus may be the god-king of all and be-all, but it is Prometheus who became the champion of man, the symbol of creation over suppression, of trickery against tyranny and the sacrificial suffering that awaited his conviction.
Little Mary Had a Nightmare
When she a young girl, Mary woke up one night with a start, her mind racing to what she had just witnessed in the dark attics of her sleep. It was ungodly yet she was certain as to what it was – alive!
The strange and terror of her dream laid dormant at the back of her conscience until one legendary evening in a year without a summer. By the fireplace of a Swiss mansion high in the Alps where Mary, her lover Percy and their best friends Byron and Polidori, lounged about. Bored or drunk, Byron had a sudden flash of inspiration and challenged the group to a story, the scariest tale anyone could tell. Shelly, Byron and Polidori set about their tale while Mary remained unwritten.
Their resident was not far from a runic castle where, centuries ago, a mysterious alchemist is rumoured to have re-animated a dead frog. Luigi Galvani was a real person while his ‘experiments’ were stuff of legends. Nevertheless the rumours spread of his ungodly practices thus forever branding his name to such a sadistic and nihilistic act – to galvanise.
But eighteen year old Mary, rather than shocked with outright terror, was utterly fascinated and more than fantasized. She named her protagonist the very same name as the castle which housed the legendary experiments – Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein at that, and the creature was christened with the very godly given name of Adam.
But instead of the lush garden of Eden for the creature to run free, Adam is borne unto an industrialising and scientific Europe, a continent where the Judeo-Christian god has been shifted further and further to the back of rural and uneducated countrysides and away from the progresses of civilisation.
Immediately after his success, Doctor Frankenstein rejects his creation and caste him away from his domain for the mere sin of existing. Adam traverse his godless world, bearing witness to the highs and lows of humankind with nothing but the words of his creator’s journal in his pocket as holy writ. Adam’s wandering and witnessing brought him to one fateful conclusion to satisfy his existence in such a harsh world – someone to share his pain of being.
Burned with new determination, Adam journeys back to his god and master’s home and demanded and Eve for himself, a sole companion to live with away from the eyes of man. Frankenstein, taken aback by the intelligence and near-human desire of his creation, is perplexed but agreed to this one small mercy
Upon the verge of his second creation, Frankenstein came to the realisation that both his creations could possibly procreate and could inevitably replace humankind in his place. Unable to proceed, Frankenstein destroys his laboratory thus leaving Adam all alone in the world. Enraged, Adam threatens his creator that should he not grant Adam his mate, Adam shall be with him on his wedding night.
Adam was as good as his word. On their wedding night, Adam slain Frankenstein’s newly wedded wife and fled. Frankenstein, having lost everything he has ever had, set chase of his creation to the frosted north pole seeking revenge.
Upon the last leg of his hunt, Frankenstein is picked up by one Captain Walton with his crew and his determination to reach the top of the world. Frankenstein recounts the captain the tale of all that lead to his presence before succumbing to the cold. Adam soon discovers and weeps over the body of his creator, claiming that his death has brought him no peace.
Having been told of the tale of the creator and re-affirmed by the creature’s existence, Captain Walton took it as warning about obsession and abandons his relentless journey. Adam refused to be part of man’s world and wishes to be forgotten. He is last seen floating on an ice raft disappearing into darkness.
Being the first parable to the dangers of inventions, the novel Frankenstein also helms the position of being the first work of science-fiction. Any literati who had ever held the novel in their hands would also know that Mary Shelly also christened her novel The Modern Prometheus. She also epigraph-ed her novel with biblical annotations from the works of John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Between Adam and Victor, who is the monstrous one? Or, perhaps, who is the more monstrous of the two? Is it the creator who created only to abuse, misuse and discard his creation? Is it the creature who would be an abomination and a murderer among men? The subtitle, ‘Modern Prometheus,’ obviously refers to Victor Frankenstein, having played-god with his creation. But the title ‘Modern Zeus’ would also apply as he created the creature for the sake of his amusement, curiosity and obsession going as far as to lose control of his creation. Like Zeus, Victor plays the single-minded tyrant, toying with his creation and, very much unlike Prometheus, was unable to foresee the consequence of his creation. It is perhaps worth noting it was never mentioned if Prometheus foresaw his fate having messed with Zeus. One wonders if Prometheus would have changed his mind if he did.
Perhaps the modern Prometheus, in this case, is none other than Mary Shelly herself, the very girl who invented the genre we now call science-fiction. A genre that would lay the founding stone for imagining how the future would turn out, good or ill, not to mention the various imaginative technologies and cosmic weaponries that would inspire the religious, political and business-minded to serve their mere profits.
Popular culture often regards Adam as ‘the Frankenstein monster,’ often mistaking his name thus whereas the subtitle ‘Modern Prometheus’ became mere trivia for bookworms and literature professors. The modern concept of Frankenstein is a lurching, dim-witted green monster with plugs on his neck reducing him to a mere zombie whereas Victor Frankenstein, rather than being an educated gentleman, is reduced to a mere mad-doctor with crazy-hair. Adding insult to injury, the creature’s name, Adam, is never associated with him due to Judeo-Christian reasons. Thank you, Holly-twats.
The Modern Frankensteins
As the world delve into the 21st century humankind has barely entered the shadow of Frankenstein. With the advent of modern technology to enhance our life, that shadow only gets darker and larger, especially in the realm of science-fiction. Sure, they have gotten more fantastic, more imaginative and far-reaching across parallel dimensions and edges of the known universe, but no one have been able to answer the prophetic calling of Mary Shelly’s masterpiece. Or, rather, no one dares to do so and who’s to blame them?
The novel Frankenstein was written during the age of reason, where science and industrialisation were spearheads of the modern world. Today, the rift between such religious notions and scientific progresses seem to have gone beyond repair (not counting pseudo-science or metaphysics which are nothing more than excuses and tools made by the religious to remain scientifically relevant). Of course, the novel Frankenstein is filled with religious and mythological undertones and serves as a tool for reflection and foreshadowing of Europe in its modern day.
But what of our modern day? Who would be the best sci-fi writer (or filmmakers, even) who foresaw our world today? The writer H. G. Wells and inventor Nikola Tesla easily fits the bill. In his novel, The Shape of Things to Come, Wells foresaw a second world war, a deadly plague that would dwell the world’s population and the rise of philosopher kings that would eventually lead to an egalitarian utopia. Unfortunately for Wells, his view appeared rather optimistic and thus nulled and voided. Although he himself foresaw the first world war and atomic weaponry, he did not account for the decades long cold war that nearly ended humankind.
As for Nikola Tesla, one of the most mysterious men who has ever lived, there are three Teslas to consider – first, there’s the Serbian inventor who moved to America and became a rival to one businessman Thomas A. Edison. The second Tesla is the inventor who spent his time alone in the mountains of Colorado, conducting strange and mysterious experiments that borderlines mysticism for its time, from radio waves to wireless fidelity that powers your smart-phones in your hand. Then there is the third Tesla, the one that truly fascinates people, the one that created the death-ray which was commissioned by the government, the one that could turn the world into a conductor providing unlimited free electric energy for all eternity, the one who refused to turn his invention for profit and died in poverty, the one whose mysterious journal was found with pages missing.
Of course Tesla was no sci-fi writer, more of a subject for the genre. As he single-handedly invented the wireless-fidelity, the inventor of the telephone was being tossed around until patented onto one Alexander Graham Bell. At the same time, one Guglielmo Marconi was perfecting the electromagnetic communication (a.k.a the radio) by which time the camera has replaced the oil painting as a form or art. The history of all these inventions has been reduced to mere trivia and the conflicts between who have real claims to the inventions seemed to have never taken place. These inventors were no sci-fi writers, after all they were pioneers and innovators to the scientific revolution of their day. Could they have foreseen that just over a century from their time, all their inventions could be fitted into the pockets of four year olds?
The inventor of smartphones is often affiliated with Steve Jobs who was not an inventor but a foreseer. In his lifetime, computers, mobile-phones, digital photography, the Internet, music CDs, laptops and touchscreens were already invented. All he seem to have done was not only made it accessible to everyone in a single device, but made it fashionable to the individual user. He turned these cold, bleak and lifeless devices into a smart, stylish and a personal window to the rest of the world. If he invented anything, it would have been mobile phone addictions, but is that really his fault?
Just about the greatest invention, or rather innovation, to compliment smartphones has to be social networking sites. As for who invented social networking is a rather vague question since telegram communication existed generations before the first computer. Today, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube rules the online verse (aside from the deep and dark web sites) but their creators could hardly be called inventors. Although they are pioneers and innovators to already-existing concept, they have come to dominate the very concept of social networking while the inventor of the computer is almost forgotten.
Killing Machines and Thinking Machines
The telephone, the camera, the radio and various other almost trivial inventions were invented and perfected over the course of 19th century. But if there was one phenomenon that would thrust inventors onto the top of their game within a matter of months has to be warfare. Weapons were perhaps the most obvious frontier for inventors and innovators, after all the most obvious way to win a war was by becoming the most efficient in terms of killing one’s opponent.
It would be ironic that the greatest wartime invention of all time would be one that would bring wars to their end but until then, humankind would have to settle for the Turing Machines. Today they are called computers.
At the dawn of the 20th century, European colonies were the rulers of the world since the United States still adopted an isolationist trait. But there was one nation that would rise among the ranks to rival and upheaval European supremacy that would bring two wars to the continent – Germany.
Because of its long history, people forget that Germany only became a nation-state in 1806 after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, later than the United States even. For a hundred years, Germany rose up just behind the industrialising Britain and barely began to colonise. Situated in the very heart of Europe, Germany eventually rose in population and unified under an identity unto themselves. This identity has always existed among the German peoples all the way back the rise of the Roman Empire as the Teutonic race across the Rhine.
It would not be until the second decade of the 20th century when Germany would place its hold on history as the allied opponent during the first world war. This war was unlike any that’s ever been fought. For the first time ever, technological enhancements became the weapon and modern technology with ancient battle tactics resulted in nothing more than the mountains of death on both sides of no man’s land. Tanks, planes, cannons and machine guns easily out-blasted any code of bravery on the battlefield leaving behind a century of warfare that rely almost exclusively on technological supremacy. The shear mountains of death was so severe that when it came to pointing fingers, Germany got the full blast of the Treaty of Versailles. No matter how they took it, all of Europe now know, Germany was a force to be reckoned with.
World War I prepared no one for World War II, except Germany. Within two decades, Germany would rise from the humility of Versailles to becoming the jackboot stretching from the North Sea to Saharan Africa, from the Atlantic coast to the frozen grounds of Siberia. No empire in history has risen with such a vengeance as Germany all thanks to technological innovations. Germany advanced every single level of technological warfare, from the formidable Panzers to phantom U-boats. With Panzers, the Third Reich dominated the entire North Africa and launched the largest inland invasion ever into Russia and, with the U-boats, the entire Atlantic ocean became death ground, not to mention the Luftwaffe raining down fire onto London, the heart of Pax Britannica.
For centuries now, Britain and her naval force was the world’s superpower, boasting that the sun never sets on her soil. Like the Romans who built roads for their legions, Britain built ships that could traverse all the oceans of the world. Their empire was almost exclusively backed by their industrialization with the East India Trading Company and its natural resources becoming its economic backbone. Their technological innovations revolved around communications across their vast empire and industrialization of their capital. While western history saw this great empire rise higher and higher, almost no one took notice of the greatest subjugation of the entire Indian subcontinent and called it out for what it was – crime against humanity. It is also worth noting that it was the Brits who invented concentration camps and the Americans also made good use of it during World War II.
In hindsight, the Third Reich’s rise to power came as a surprise to no historian. What is less known was the efficiency and effectiveness of the expansion. Their first real resistance came from Soviet Russia under Comrade Stalin who was yet to be formally allied with Britain, France and the United States. But their most formidable source of power came from the U-boats who stalked the Atlantic like specters. Before long, London was no longer safe from the Luftwaffe and the Brits began to starve since U-boats sunk their bread and butter on a daily basis.
By far the deadliest weapon the Third Reich possessed was the Enigma simply because it was indecipherable. With that, the U-boats were able to communicate in a manner that was easily alien to anyone even attempting to decipher. Of course, by all accounts, what the Enigma machine does is simply a scrambler of messages. Although the flaws of such a device was easily spotted by the Polish mathematicians, particularly one Marian Rejewski, who only theorized the flaw without either proving or testing it. It would be the English mathematician and logician Alan Turing who realized the limits of human capacity and that the only way to combat the Enigma machine was with another machine – a universal machine that could de-scrambler all of codes for all time and thus the computer came into existence.
His success is said to have shorten the war by two years, saving millions of lives. He even christened his invention Christopher, going as far as to give it a personality even though it remained inanimate. But the idea that intelligent machines would take over all of humankind was hardly far around the corner.
Imitation and Intimidation
Having crafted the Universal Machine, Alan Turing went as far as to conceptualize the possibility of ‘thinking machines,’ with his paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950), directly proposing the question “Can machines think?” With such a generic and close-ended question, he knew that the answer would be less than straightforward. He subsequently proposed an experiment to test whether machines are capable of some of intelligence.
The Imitation Game, as the experiment was called, consists of three people. A man (A), a woman (B) and an interrogator of either sex (X). The subjects (A and B) are separated in rooms which the interrogator cannot distinguish. The interrogator is given a task with his subjects – he is to determine which one of the two is of either sex. As for the subjects, one of them (say, A) is to help the interrogator while the other (B) is tasked with faulting the interrogator.
The interrogator has only one mean to distinguish A from B, he can only communicate via typewritten messages to each subject individually and he can propose any question he likes. At the end of the experiment he is to finally distinguish A from B. Such is the Imitation Game. Back to the question, “Can machines think?” Alan Turing simply proposed to replace a subject (either A or B) with a machine and the conclusion would prove whether the machine is of any intelligence. If the machine is able to fool the interrogator, it is considered intelligent (of sorts). Later experiments could replace the interrogator with a machine or even have machines compete with one another after which not only could machines be determined as intelligent but how intelligent.
Obviously Turing was no sci-fi buff and therefore any notion of machines taking over the world or bring the world to the brink of annihilation would have been laughable. It would be Hollywood who would spearhead such a notion onto the screens of all living rooms, the most notable being James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) (and its sequels) and War Games (1983). For all intense and purposes, these scare tactics ranged form cheap entertainment to invoking an existential fear. Whatever the reason, it is clear that super-intelligent machines surpassing that of humankind is no longer just theoretical but inevitable.
By all accounts, if there was one true existential benefit to come out of Hollywood it could just be a warning about the possible dangers of such intelligent machines. Several thought experiments have emerged to conceptualize not just the existence of intelligent machines, but what it’s motivation could be. By far the scariest one is said to be the Roko’s Basilisk thought experiment.
[Warning: the definition and explanation is within the next paragraph, read at your own peril.]
The Roko’s Basilisk thought experiment implies that not only will intelligent machines surpass that of humankind but it will achieve a near omniscient existence. At which point it would be able to distinguish those who aided it into existence (directly or indirectly and with any resources available) from those who opposed (same conditions). To protect itself and rid itself of any and all existential risks, said machine would move to annihilate anyone who opposed its existence while rewarding those who aided it. And because said machine is omniscient, said machine is supposedly cannot be fooled or tricked. As a result, each individual humankind would have to decide whether to support this inevitability and reap the rewards or oppose and risk their very existence. In fact, omniscient AI from the future is said to be so powerful that it could resurrect you in a transhumanist form, find out whether in life you supported or opposed its existence and thus decides your fate. Basically this is a futurist’s version of Pascal’s Wager.
Destroyer of Worlds
Ironically, just when the first computer shortened the war in Europe by years, another invention brought an abrupt end to the war in the Pacific with one minor flaw – that it could bring about the end of humankind.
At the sight of the fireball rising across the horizon, one J. Robert Oppenheimer knew that what they have just witnessed was the beginning of the end. Of all prophetic warnings about the end of humankind, for the first time ever, it was a possibility. As the second world war came to an end and the Soviet Russia also attained the same weapons, almost everyone unanimously agreed that there was only one way the Cold War could end.
Winston Churchill was so determined of such an outcome that he proposed launching first strike against the entire Soviet Union to avoid a worse catastrophe. His foresight would not go unheeded come October 1963. For thirteen days in that month, the very fate of humankind was tested like never before.
Having formally allied itself with Communist Cuba, the Soviet thought about what a pleasant idea it would be to give the Americans a taste of their own medicine. For over a decade now, the USSR was under direct threat from American Jupiter missiles planted in Turkey and Italy. With Cuba on their side, it represented a golden opportunity to shove back. Of course, at the time, such strategic location was just that – strategy, no one on either side had real intentions of launching first strike. No one was that stupid. Just like no one was that stupid to think that by outlining no man’s land between Germany and France as a check-and-balance, any direct conflict could be avoided. Idiots!
JFK knew better than to taste that medicine and he knew better than to launch first strike, despite the hardliners advising him. An embargo line was drawn with an ultimatum. Like JFK, Khrushchev was no fool and knew better than to launch first strike as well. In a political slight of hand, JFK sent his brother, the attorney general, RFK, to meet in secret with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and proposed the removal of Jupiter missiles six months later, which was already scheduled. The Soviet took the bait and human extinction was averted.
There was another story during those fateful days that only surfaced about a man who single-handedly averted nuclear war. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. The story goes that as the American USS-Beale were dropping depth-charges on the Soviet B-59 submarine designated Foxtrot, a submarine with nuclear-torpedo capabilities, even though they were in international waters. Having been on a run for a number of days without communication from Moscow, no one on board knew if total war has broken out. As the submarine began to lose battery and run out of air, the captain ordered to launch the first nuclear torpedo on USA. The requirement for a strike requires three people – the captain Savitsky, the political officer Masslenikov and the second-in-command Arkhipov who refused to launch. Because of his reputation on board the K-19, Arkhipov managed to subdue the argument between the three and convince the captain to surface and await orders from Moscow. A happy ending to an ending no one would live to know.
We all know what that it is no mere monster in this historical event but an apocalyptic abyss. Both JFK and Khrushchev were at the precipice, looking into the abyss and they knew that the abyss was looking back at them and the abyss was not going to blink first. In hindsight, the prospect of building such weapons of mass destruction almost happened to be the same as the prospect of not using them at all. What started with a warning letter delivered to FDR by notable physicists, one being the genius Albert Einstein, claiming that if the United States do not acquire enough uranium and develop the nuclear weapons first, the German’s Third Reich would certainly see to it. The notion of ‘if we don’t do it first, they will’ would echo in the mind of hardliners on both sides in terms of launching first strike only to be halted by the very men who had either the authority or the ability to do so.
Within a year of those thirteen days, JFK would be assassinated and Khrushchev would be sidelined. Albert Einstein would later recount that letter as the biggest blunder of his life. Vasili Arkhipov would only be recognized and honored with ‘saving human kind’ after his death. In an interview, Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, would describe himself as “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” a direct quote from the Bhagavad Gita, another religious text featuring Hindu deities. This comes in stark contrast to what he quoted by the same source just prior to the first atomic test:
In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.
By no accident, J. Robert Oppenheimer is often regarded as the American Prometheus with the ironic twist that instead of creation, he invented destruction. Like Prometheus, he had the foresight that a nuclear war could only end one way just as Szilard and Einstein had the foresight that a nuclear weapon of mass destruction was inevitable just as Churchill knew that if the west did not strike first, the consequence would be even worse just as JFK and Khrushchev knew that the abyss they were glaring into was not one to be trifled with.
In the history of nuclear warfare, just about the most glossed over man was none other than the United States President Harry S. Truman, the one man who has engaged in this WMD. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now synonymous with annihilation. Truman’s poor excuse for this was for no other reason than to win the war by accepting unconditional surrender of the Japanese empire. Before the Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima what is uncommonly known was that Japan was already losing cities by the number via American fire-bombing. The loss of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made little difference in terms of scale. By the time Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, something else was happening that is history is often ignoring. The Soviet, then US ally, invaded the Sakhalin islands with the threat of advancing towards the capital and capturing their emperor. To the Japanese, such a fate was far worse than watching their cities burn down. As a show of force to the Soviet, Truman green-lit Fat Man and annihilated Nagasaki, resulting in the Japanese immediate surrender thus halting the Soviet’s advancement. To this date, there is no peace treaty signed between Russia and Japan and the Sakhalin island remains a controversial topic.
UP, UP AND AWAY
Just as WWII produced the first thinking machine and the first weapon of mass destruction, there is one other invention that truly rings of science-fiction in terms of possibilities – the rocket. The credited inventor is non other than Wernher von Braun. Unlike other inventors, such as Oppenheimer, Tesla or Turing, he got first hand account of the dangers of his invention.
Before Braun, the dreams of space travel was merely that – dreams. The most famous sci-fi accounts of space travels (particularly to the moon) were H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Verne’s fictional piece is one that stood out and quasi-immortalised by the first generation French filmmaker Georges Melies in his silent film masterpiece A Trip to the Moon. But in both cases, the trip to the moon did not refer to a rocket, instead cannons were suggested as the means of transportation. Just months after the publication of Verne’s book, scientific papers were written indicating the impracticality of cannons as a mean of space-entry.
The invention of rockets must be donned on the Chinese as a means of warfare as far back as the 13th century with the use of gunpowder as incendiary. What Braun’s predecessors, Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth, conceptualized was aerodynamic vessels with liquid-fuel rather than gunpowder and voila, space just got closer to the ground. It would be Braun who perfected the rockets. Unfortunately for Braun, his innovation came into being at just about the worst time for any scientist or engineer (or anyone) to be a German.
As the Third Reich expanded it’s frontiers, one of their main agenda was the rocket and with the development of the V2 rockets, their favorite target would be London. Braun more-than consciously signed on with the Nazis with the sole purpose of forwarding his career to perfecting the rocket that could reach space. He had no political (or racial) motive to joining whatsoever. This was proven by his willing to surrender to the US forces rather than the Russian’s during Operation Paperclip which consisted of capturing as many German rocket-scientists as possible before the Soviet did so. Braun is also quoted saying, “The rockets worked perfectly, it just landed on the wrong planet.”
Not long after he was taken to the United States, he set about his real motive for reaching space. But the US congress had little-to-no interest in funding the space race since the Cold War had yet to fully come into being. When the Soviet successfully launched the first artificial satellite, the Sputnik, they rather bitingly sounded the “The Americans sleep under a Soviet moon.” Losing his patience and prospect of the space race, Braun did the smartest and boldest thing possible in America – he went on TV and explained the possibilities and opportunities of space travel. It worked. Almost immediately America entered the space race but always felt one step behind the Soviet who first put a living creature, a dog named Laika, into orbit. The poor creature did not survive the journey but Yuri Gagarin did and thus became the first man in space.
It would be none other than JFK who not only sought to win the space race but to successfully put a man (an American) on the moon. A bold claim, one he would not live to see to succeed as one of the greatest achievement of humankind. As Neil Armstrong descended the ladder and took the one big step for mankind onto the surface of the moon, the entire world was watching, bearing witness and being a part of an achievement only dreamed about for millennia.
Space travel became a new frontier full of possibilities which would run to only about a decade. The Apollo missions were aborted by 1979 for various reasons, the chief of them being the lack of financial incentives to the conspiratorial alien inhabitants. Today the concept of space travel and exploration have reverted back to science fiction in the realms of movies, novels and video games. Only Elon Musk, the visionary billionaire with any real plans to settle on Mars.
If the V2 proved anything it’s that a bomb can be transported at high speed across vast distances. And if a small missile can carry a small bomb, a big missile can carry a big one. Before long, with added computer technology, these ballistic missiles could be targeted anywhere at anytime by anyone. And what do you call the one man with the most powerful weapon in the world?
Wherever the United States’ President goes, the nuclear football accompanies him. Only he knows the launch codes given to him by his predecessor. That’s the power to destroy the world within the palms of one man. Some would say that that’s too much power for one man but so far the wold still live on. The POTUS plays the role of Zeus from the inventions and innovations of others who have seen first hand the destructive powers of their creations. But this Zeus did not steal power from a higher power, rather POTUS are elected by the people and, for better or worse, given the power to destroy the world.
According to Murphy’s Law, human annihilation is inevitable whether from the hands of the most powerful man in the world or some other sources. As mentioned, during the first years of the Cold War, most people believed that it would only end one way. The fact that we are here now proves something about our ability to survive and thrive even upon the brink of annihilation. People like Harry S. Truman lacks all gifts of foresight, often only seeing the tangible result they desire irregardless of the possible consequences whereas people like Churchill only foresaw the worst possible outcome and elects that as their sole rationale.
But then push comes to shove in the forms of Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy. By all accounts the Cuban Missile Crisis should have been the very end of civilization. If history has proven anything about human capacity to improve, it is usually after a truly catastrophic incident. It truly is a shame today that most people don’t know how close human came to extinction in those thirteen days, that one moment when one second-in-command sub commander disobeyed a direct order. One wonders if these were mere co-incidences or is the human race destined and programmed to avoid its own annihilation. One wonders…
It was hardly foresight that averted annihilation, it was the very visible abyss that awaited them. Murphy’s Law implies that there will be a next time, one worse and unforgiving. It started with visionary and pioneering men, one sought to break and unbreakable code, one aiming for the stars and the other hoping to avoid the enemy attaining such nihilistic capabilities. Some would argue that the existence of WMDs and the Cuban Missile Crisis means that warfare, from then on, have to be measured and, by all means, avoided. It is no accident that the world has not seen a total war since 1945, for, as Murphy implies, and Einstein agrees, the following total war would be with sticks and stones.
It may be a forgiving prospect that total nuclear holocaust would leave no one to carry the blame (unless a scorched-earth strategy is played) because such an act could not be laid onto to one sole fault. Who could be solely responsible for a nuclear war? The warmongering politicians? The terrorizing tyrant? The relentless inventor? Or should we take Mary Shelly to heart and conclude that some things should never be invented? Murphy’s Law implies that such a notion is merely wishful thinking. Technologies are advancing at a quantum rate. What was merely a vision could inevitably be a weapon. With the coming singularity and enhancing human augmentation, it is safe to say that a fork in the road is approaching in the form of Roko’s Basilisk – one leads to annihilation and the other to human transcendence.
With all that we have achieved as a specie, all our creations and inventions and innovations, all of which came unblinkingly close to annihilation in those thirteen days, what would happen next time we come to a single push of a button? Would we look back and say ‘damn, that was close’ or, like the creature not meant for this world, would we prefer to disappear into darkness, hoping to be forgotten? Hoping…