. . .on the bombing of Hiroshima:
I was on my way to Japan when that happened. I was absolutely delighted. I had been working for the British air force, and they had been bombing Germany for five years or so, and then the decision had been made after Germany surrendered to move a bomber force to Okinawa, where we would join the Americans and bomb Japan, and I was going too. By that point I was totally miserable because the whole bombing campaign in Germany had been such a dismal failure. Then suddenly the news came that we wouldn’t be going. I was just delighted that with one bomb you could put an end to all that.
But now we have some rather good evidence that the Russian invasion of Manchuria was really the decisive event. Ward Wilson, who lives nearby in Trenton, educated me about this, having studied it in detail. What’s striking is that we bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Japanese Supreme Council never met. They apparently just didn’t consider the bombing that important. They knew it happened, but it wasn’t worthwhile calling a special meeting. Then the Russians went into Manchuria and the Supreme Council called a meeting within a few hours, because the invasion affected the army. For them, the army was the only thing that mattered. They didn’t care about civilians. The [conventional] bombing of Tokyo had killed more people than Hiroshima, and that didn’t disturb them particularly. Killing civilians was just part of normal business. When they planned the defense of Japan, they were going to send civilians out onto beaches with pitchforks because they didn’t have enough guns to arm all the civilians. They didn’t care how many died; the important thing was to keep on fighting as long as you could. But the Russians moving into Manchuria was a very different business. They saw they couldn’t fight a war on two fronts, with the Russians in the north and the Americans in the south. So in that sense the atomic bombing was unnecessary. Of course we had no way of knowing that then.
. . .on nuclear weapons today:
They are terrible, by far the most serious threat to our existence. There are still more than 20,000 nuclear weapons. The United States has about 10,000, and the Russians have about 15,000. There are various other small players, but it’s basically us and the Russians. It’s enough weapons to destroy us both easily. And there is still a huge chance that some stupidity happens and they all get shot out. I still think it’s a far greater threat than anything else we have to face. People have more or less forgotten about it. I think it’s high time we had a new campaign to get rid of them. It’s not hopeless; there is a wonderful precedent with Richard Nixon’s renouncing biological weapons unilaterally.
. . .on the threat of dirty bombs:
There are problems there, but they are tiny compared with the big missile stockpiles. People have no sense of proportion. A dirty bomb could certainly be a tremendous nuisance. It could provide income for lawyers for a thousand years, but it wouldn’t actually kill a lot of people. Whereas the nuclear weapons we have could kill millions.
. . .on doing science:
When I’m doing science I’m just scribbling on pieces of paper. That’s all it is. On occasion I will compute something on a computer. I’m an old-fashioned mathematician who works with equations. My tools are just a pen and piece of paper. I’m 84, so I’m definitely over the hill. If I were starting today as a scientist, I’d certainly study biology. I’d probably be much better at doing biology today than I used to be, because it is now much more of a theoretical subject. Now you can do biology pretty well with computers. When I was a boy, you had to do wet biology, working with real animals. On the other hand, astronomy is still exciting too, and pure mathematics as well. All three are things I’ve been doing.
. . .on black holes:
They are highly significant: Every galaxy has one at its center, and they play a dominant role in the structure of the universe. You can’t understand anything about cosmology without understanding black holes. We now know that they are central to the whole problem of how galaxies are born and grow. Oppenheimer and Einstein missed their importance completely.