Science and Global Security (sciencesecurity) wrote,
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Could Nuclear War Be A Cosmological Event?



The first chapter of my Has Man a Future? Dispatches From the Second Nuclear Age is going to be a free for all where I’m gonna really let my hair down.

No one does this better I think than Martin Rees. He is the author of, amongst others, the very interesting and obviously relevant Our Final Century. Rees is a cosmologist (and arms control supporter) but he has a brilliant ability to cover huge ground, across the intellectual divide, in a very neat and precise way. In the above work he has a chapter on the cosmic significance of the extinction of the species Homo sapiens

This part of the book is done with reference to debates on the existence of extra territorial intelligence. If we are indeed alone, and there are some pretty good arguments due to the biologist Ernst Mayr and Enrico Fermi to suggest that this might well be the case, then our existence would have cosmic significance on grounds that the universe would no longer host intelligent life.

There is an interesting discussion on adaptation and Fermi’s paradox by Serbian scholars (in English)

Given that Rees is a cosmologist it is interesting that he does not pose the question; would the extinction of the species Homo sapiens be a cosmological event?

Cosmology deals with the study of the universe as a whole.

This means that the extinction of the species would have to affect the large scale structure of spacetime to be a cosmological event. Could nuclear war be a cosmological event?

It is clear that we are associating nuclear war with extinction. This is indeed standard practice but it is interesting to observe how little discussion on whether such a link is warranted exists. Desmond Ball, the noted Australian scholar on nuclear strategy, has an interesting Australian National University Strategic and Defence Studies Centre Working Paper on the topic and Brian Martin from the University of Wollongong is a noted critic of the casual link.

For what it is worth I fall on the pessimistic side of this but clearly more research is needed. My reasoning goes as follows. Despite the emphasis placed on counterforce in at least US nuclear war planning it remains the case that no matter what variation of nuclear strategy a nuclear weapons state adopts the ultimate sanction is always a credible deterrence posture of societal collapse.

Nuclear weapons are meant to destroy the society of an enemy. I will assume that strategy will work as intended. In very important Adelphi Papers Ball showed in the early ‘80s that nuclear war cannot be controlled and that strategic nuclear deterrence (even of limited nuclear war) tends to have a bias toward unleashing the ultimate sanction.

Now, social collapse is an interesting topic and has come on the agenda especially since the publication of Jared Diamond’s Collapse. There have been cases of social collapse and of whole civilisations going by the wayside. Why that obtained is very much the subject of intellectual interest. The societies that collapsed represent an example of what we may term discrete social collapse; some societies collapsed but not all because there was no tight inter-linkage between them.

We have seen in a few posts that the strategic implications of globalisation are increasingly being pondered by analysts. One not much discussed is inter-dependence and nuclear war. If through globalisation and complex inter-dependence we see the formation of societies dependent upon global inter-linkages then a nuclear war involving states of the central strategic balance may well lead to social collapse on a global scale.

Extinction would then follow. Global society opens up the prospect of global social collapse.

I adopt the following assumption

…in a central strategic balance involving 2+n states or coalition of states (n=0,1,2,3…where n>0= the second nuclear age) and inter-dependence and globalisation a nuclear war would lead to global social collapse and the gradual extinction of the species…


OK…so what is with the cosmology?

My favourite discussion of Schrodinger’s Cat is in Barrow and Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. John Archibald Wheeler a noted expert on General Relativity who gave us the term “Black Hole”, the detailed theoretical account of nuclear fission with Niels Bohr, has also given us an interesting interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

The dominant conception is called the Copenhagen Interpretation. The main rival approach is the Many World’s or Many Universes Interpretation. The Many World’s approach is due to Hugh Everett III. Now the stuff in Ball’s Adelphi Papers is in the key technical studies of the nuclear age known as Weapons System Evaluation Group No 50. WSEG-50 was charged with discussing the implications of ballistic missiles. WSEG-50 for the most part is still classified but the parts on strategic command and control are available and I highly suggest reading it (see document 4). I mention WSEG-50 because Everett played an important role in its development.

But to return to Barrow and Tipler. The role of the observer is very important in Schrodinger’s Cat. At p 470 Barrow and Tipler write,

…Wheeler points out that according to the Copenhagen interpretation, we can regard some restricted properties of distant galaxies, which we now see as they were billions of years ago, as brought into existence now. Perhaps all properties- and hence the entire Universe is brought into existence by conscious observations made at some point in time by conscious beings…


So following Mayr and Fermi those conscious intelligent observers are us. Given our assumption above it follows then that nuclear war, in leading to the extinction of the only conscious intelligent observers, would lead to the destruction of the entire Universe.

In this way nuclear war would be a cosmological event.

A few interesting paradoxes suggest themselves. Firstly for the Universe to exist, on this view, intelligence must evolve. That is intelligence is written into the laws of physics. But if Mayr is right then we have an ironic flaw for this suggests that intelligence is inherently self-destructive. If so the laws of nature foreordain the development of intelligence but also intelligence itself is self-destructive hence so are the Universe and the laws of nature.

Wheeler himself is a cold war figure. He played an important role in the development of thermonuclear weapons and was against Oppenheimer during that disgraceful episode. We then have Wheeler’s Paradox; if Wheeler is right about the participatory interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and if nuclear war would indeed be a cosmological event then he would have played a non-trivial role in the destruction of the universe.

For what it is worth I support Roger Penrose’s view on Quantum Mechanics. This means that I think the above argument is flawed…but it’s kinda interesting, no?

UPDATE...Ok not all deterrence postures are based on social collapse. China's isn't...not yet anyway.
Tags: lofty thoughts
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