Published on January 31st, 2017 | by msalt


Bomb-Making Refugees

I’m not a big meme guy, in part because it’s hard for them to get into any reasonable level of nuance. Now that I made this one, here is some more detail.

— What’s your point?

Restrictions on refugees are being justified on security grounds, which is BS. (None of the attacks have been by refugees to the U.S.) There are other reasons to oppose this ban — Christian (or Buddhist) compassion, economic value that refugees contribute — but I wanted to tackle the justification head on.

It’s not just that refugees are grateful and often happy to help the U.S. security directly (though it’s worth remembering that they are fleeing the bad guys back in their home countries, so refugees are natural allies). But refugees are especially valuable because they take talent away from those bad guys.

The scientists who helped the U.S. develop the atomic bomb fled Germany and Italy at great risk, in part because they knew they had a place to go to. If selfishness and fear had blocked the US from offering haven, they would have had nowhere to go. (Remember that the Nazis controlled Europe, England was under attack and Japan controlled Asia.)

For people forced to stay home, the Nazis had many ways to force people to cooperate. They were already far along the path to developing nuclear weapons. With even a few of these great minds helping them (and not the Allies), the odds are good that they would have had nuclear weapons and the US wouldn’t have.

– Did the atomic bomb really end WW2?

Certainly against Japan it did. Germany is more complicated, but see the previous point about how much these scientists would have helped the Nazi effort to build a nuclear bomb.

– These scientists weren’t all German.

That’s true. Niels Bohr was Danish (he fled the Nazi occupation in 1943), Fermi and Segre were Italian (under Hitler’s ally Mussolini), and several including Von Neumann and Wigner) were Hungarian. But all would have been under German control had they not fled to the U.S.

– Who is Hornig? Never heard of the dude.

That is a lady, Lilli Schwenk Hornig, a Czech scientist who fled Berlin to work at Los Alamos. She is a Harvard PhD who went on to be a Professor of Chemistry at Brown, as well as a feminist leader. On the Manhattan Project, she worked on plutonium chemistry and then on the ingenious “explosive lens” that drove two spheres of plutonium together.

– Aren’t there more refugees who worked on the atomic bomb?

Sure, probably dozens. Stan Ulam and Gerhart Friedlander are just two I found out about after making this.

– The meme says 13 scientists, but you only have 12 pictures. WTF?

Good catch. There were only 12 slots for pictures in the 3×4 grid. The 13th is Josepth Rotblat, a Polish refugee (via Britain). He’s a bit more complicated because he had strong doubts about nuclear weapons. He joined the project fearing that Germany would develop the weapon, and that only an Allied bomb would deter its use. When Germany abandoned its nuclear program at the end of 1944, he left the Manhattan Project and returned to England. Later in life he was a peace activist opposed to nuclear weapons.

– What are the full names of the scientists in this meme?

John Von Neumann
Albert Einstein
Lilli Hornig
Niels Bohr
Enrico Fermi
James Franck
Hans Bethe
Rudolf Peierls
Eugene Wigner
Emilio Segrè
Leo Szilard
Edward Teller

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About the Author

Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Middlebury, Vermont. His improv show "Palindrome Fight!" will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Aug. 5-29th 2022 at the Kilderkin Pub, 67 Canongate, at 7:30pm each night except Tuesdays.

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