Professor of biology discusses a scientist’s responsibility to speak out about important issues that affect our nation and the world.
Raleigh McElvery | Department of Biology
July 29, 2020
In an open letter published on July 16 in Science, four MIT professors and nearly 70 additional scientific leaders called upon fellow researchers to urge U.S. government officials to halt plans to restart nuclear weapons testing. Corresponding author and professor of biology Jonathan King sat down to discuss the history of nuclear testing, his personal ties to the issue, and his responsibilities as a scientist. He also co-chairs the Nuclear Disarmament Working Group of Massachusetts Peace Action, MIT’s annual Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War conference, and the editorial board of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.
Q: What events have made you passionate about the issue of nuclear weapons testing?
A: I grew up in the shadow of nuclear war, participating in drills at school where you would duck under your desk. During the Cold War, the world’s nations exploded hundreds of dangerous nuclear tests, releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere in order to develop these weapons. I was a college student during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and remember vividly the fear of a nuclear exchange.
Around that time, it became clear to our nation’s leaders that this was not the way to go. In his famous speech at American University, President Kennedy reversed direction. Professor of chemistry at Caltech Linus Pauling led an effort with his wife to back Kennedy and collect 9,000 signatures from scientists endorsing the president’s Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This was before the internet, so getting 9,000 signatures was not easy, and it had a national impact. I was actually a graduate student at Caltech, following up on Pauling’s work on proteins, when the treaty was ratified and he was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his work.
When I arrived at MIT as an assistant professor, Jerome Wiesner was the Institute president. He was also a key player in pushing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and Kennedy had previously named him chair of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). MIT was full of world leaders in nuclear disarmament, including physicists who had worked on the bomb and decided it was a mistake. I’m not a physicist, but I was among the generation at MIT that was very vocal about these issues.
Q: What is the current state of nuclear weapon testing and regulation in the United States, and what concerns do you have about renewed testing?
A: The U.S. hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1992. In that period of time, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was developed by many nations, agreeing not to conduct a nuclear weapons test of any yield. The Senate hasn’t ratified it, but in 2016 the U.S. did adopt UN Security Council Resolution 2310, agreeing to uphold the goal of the CTBT and withhold nuclear testing.
However, the current administration is proposing to modernize nuclear weapons and restart testing, which is both provocative and dangerous. Even if these tests are small, contained, and underground, they will still open the door for other nations to restart testing of their own, and possibly lead to a new nuclear weapons arms race.
When a nuclear weapon — either a conventional bomb or hydrogen bomb — explodes, many radioactive isotopes are produced. Some of them are short-lived and decay quickly, but others like strontium-90 are much longer-lived. These ones can make you sick very slowly, and some can mutate or damage DNA. Even underground tests can leak radioactivity into the atmosphere and environment.
Q: What spurred you and your colleagues to write an open letter to Science, and what was your goal in doing so?
A: Our letter was signed by 70 scientific leaders and Nobel Prize winners, and calls upon the scientific community to warn the nation that this is a dangerous way to go. We also urged the Senate to ratify the CTBT, and pass a new bill introduced by Senator Ed Markey called the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act — which would prevent spending money on the renewal of testing.
I come from a culture that views scientists as public servants. All my research has been funded by taxpayer dollars, and with that comes a responsibility to help address threats to the community. The very history of my department, the MIT Department of Biology, is tied to scientists taking a stand against social and political issues. I was just a young assistant professor when faculty members like David Baltimore and Ethan Signer led demonstrations to oppose the Vietnam War. It was a very open environment and we supported one another.
These days, science is simply a career. You do your work and you keep your eyes to the bench. But the world can be a better place if we take our eyes off the bench occasionally. So this letter is a reminder to our colleagues: Get involved, and consider it our contribution to the general public who support our research.