30 October 1959
Dr. A. E. Kerr, President
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Dear Professor Kerr:
I am deeply perturbed to learn from Professor J. Gordin Kaplan that Professor Eugene
P. Wigner should have written to you, complaining about an action that Professor Kaplan
had taken, in publishing a short article in the journal Science.
The article published by Professor Kaplan was a criticism of the announcement issued
by the General Advisory Committee of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission about the biological
effects of radioactive fallout from the testing of atomic weapons. It is my opinion
that Professor Kaplan was justified in publishing his critical statement about the
report issued by the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, and
that he rendered a service to the world by doing so. On the other hand, I deplore
the action taken by Professor Wigner, in writing to you. If he were dissatisfied
with the article by Professor Kaplan, he should have replied to it, in the pages of
Science. I cannot find ethical justification for his apparent effort to suppress free discussion
of an important matter by working through you, the President of the university in
which Professor Kaplan carries on his work.
Professor Kaplan is not the only one who has made strongly critical statements about
the action of the General Advisory Committee of the A.E.C. Very strong criticism
is made by Dr. Ralph Lapp in the last issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I myself, in an address to a public meeting of over 3,000 people in Carnegie Hall
in New York City, given on 25 October 1959 (last Sunday), also made very strong statements
about this action of the General Advisory Committee of the A.E.C.
I know the members of this Committee. I pointed out in my public address that none
of the members of the Committee is a biologist or has had a good background of experience
in biology. In particular, I know Professor Wigner, and I know that he does not have
the background of knowledge of biology and medicine to discuss these questions in
a very reliable way.
The statement made by the General Advisory Committee of the A.E.C. seemed to me to
be clearly a whitewashing of the atomic bomb tests, probably part of a propaganda
campaign to permit the resumption of atomic bomb tests by the United States. The
statements made would in general reassure the reader in an unjustified way. Many
of the statements are seriously misleading. For example, to say that fallout radiation
is less than five percent of natural background radiation, without also stating that
natural background radiation is responsible for a considerable fraction of all congenitally
defective children born in the world, is misleading. To say that the amount of strontium-90
found in food and water is less of a hazard than the amount of radium normally present
Dr. A. B, Kerr
30 October 1959
public drinking water supply in certain places in the United States, without saying
that nobody knows how many cases of cancer are produced by this radium in the some
hundreds of thousands of people who drink the water, is seriously misleading.
For five years, during the whole of the fallout controversy, the General Advisory
Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission remained silent about this question. Only
now, when an effort is being made by the A.E.C. to prevent the formulation of an agreement
to stop the testing of all nuclear weapons through the negotiations of the representatives
of the nuclear powers in the Second Bomb-test Conference in Geneva, has the General
Advisory Committee taken action, by the issuance of a statement that seems clearly
designed to work to prevent this agreement from being made and to permit the A.E.C.
to resume the explosions of nuclear weapons.
The situation seems to me to be made clear by the speech of Senator Hubert H. Humphrey
of Minnesota in the Senate of the United States on Tuesday 18 August 1959. Mr. Humphrey
voiced his grave concern lest through indecision and internal differences our government
might contribute to the breakdown of the negotiations. He said "Our negotiators
are burdened by obstacles which have been built primarily by the Atomic Energy Commission
and to a lesser extent by the Defense Department. The A.E.C. seems to have difficulty
in remembering that it was not created to be a policy-making body in the area of foreign
relations. Although I think that the A.E.C has overstepped the bounds of its functions
in this instance, nevertheless, I cannot dispute its right to argue its case. The
A.E.C. is allowed to continue to oppose the official position of the United States
and to inject its own views on foreign policy due to a lack of leadership at the top."
He also said "The A.E.C. and the Pentagon evidently are so eager to resume testing
that they are promoting and fostering newspaper reports to that effect," He further
said "We could conceivably claim that tests should be resumed because there are no
harmful effects of fallout and that the test ban talks are not asking progress, two
of the lines of argument being advanced by the A.E.C. The facts on the former are
uncertain, as I have said, and the facts on the latter are to the contrary."
I may discuss the two points raised by Professor Wigner. The first point refers
to the second paragraph of the article by Professor Kaplan. Professor Kaplan says
"That the total quantity of radiation reaching the whole body from outside is far
greater is largely irrelevant to the question of the potential dangers of fallout
from nuclear tests." He says that throwing rubber balls at a person is not an intelligent
way of finding out what would happen were he to swallow one. Professor Wigner says
that the rubber ball analogy is inept.
I am not sure myself that the rubber ball analogy is the best one that Professor Kaplan
could have used, but I am afraid that Professor Wigner does not know the facts about
biological damage by radioactive elements. For example, the damage done by carbon-14
inside the human body is without doubt greater than the amount that one would calculate
from consideration of the radiation alone: that is, if the same amount of radiation
came from outside the body.
Dr. A. E. Kerr
30 October 1959
There is another effect-damage to a molecule by the radioactive change of an atom
in that molecule. In my estimate of the genetic and somatic effects of carbon-14,
I decided that the latter effect is only ten percent of the former effect. However,
three Atomic Energy Commission scientists, Drs. Totter, Zelle, and Hollister, in their
discussion of carbon-l4 concluded that the latter effect is equal to the former effect.
Their estimates agreed closely with mine with respect to the damage done by the radiation
effect, but their estimate as to the second effect was ten times as large as mine.
Accordingly there is a greater amount of damage done to human beings by radioactive
elements inside the body than by radiation from outside equal in amount to the radiation
liberated by the radioactive elements inside the body.
Professor Wigner, in the third paragraph of his letter, also states that Dr. Kaplan
has uncritically accepted a single published number, which is probably incorrect.
It is not evident from Professor Wigner's letter what the possibly incorrect published
number is, but Professor Kaplan apparently thinks that it is the number 0.0001 microcuries
of strontium-90 per gram mentioned by Engstrom and collaborators as related to the
development of osteosarcoma in dogs three years after injection of the radiostrontium.
I am not able to say whether this number, which is correctly quoted by Professor Kaplan
from the book by Engstrom and associates, is correct or erroneous. From the paper
by Professor Kamb and me on the effects of strontium-90 on mice it can be seen that
a significant increase in incidence of bone tumors in mice is produced by injection
of 0.02 microcuries of strontium-90 per gram; that is, about 200 times the amount
mentioned. Probably dogs are more susceptible than mice because of their larger volume
and larger number of cells, any one of which may become cancerous. Accordingly I
think that it was justified for Professor Kaplan to quote the figure given in the
book by Engstrom and collaborators, even though there is the possibility that an error
was made in the book.
Professor Wigner concludes his letter with the sentence "What I am objecting to is
the tone of his article, which is abusive and lacks scientific spirit and detachment."
I have a very similar complaint to make about the report by the General Advisory Committee
of the Atomic Energy Commission: it is that this report lacks scientific spirit and
detachment and is immoral, in that it is worded in such a way as to seriously mislead
the people of the United States about a very important question.
Again let me say that I thoroughly approve of the action taken by Professor Kaplan
in publishing his article in Science, and I strongly criticise Professor Wigner for his apparent effort to cause trouble
for Professor Kaplan by writing to you.
Linus Pauling: jh
CC: Professor Eugene P. Wigner
Professor J, Gordin Kaplan
P.S. - Under separate cover I am sending a copy of my book No More War! to you