The Midwest |

Critical Phenomena

by Joshua Roebke

I was doubled over with my hands on my knees and I was panting, just after I had been fouled, when a man strode onto the court and approached the referees. The court was smaller than regulation-sized and there were no stands, so everyone had taken positions in the line-up, inside that middle-school gym. The spectators—just a few bored parents and siblings, really—leaned single-file against one of the two longer walls, which were almost immediately out of bounds, where they had been dodging errant passes and parting for inbound plays for more than three quarters. On the opposite sideline, where the coaches and bench players also stood, was a foldout chair with two of its legs stretched slightly onto the court. An older man, sporting a garish sweater and a woolly-bear mustache, was kneeling beside the metal chair, flipping pairs of red and green banners that recorded the low score.

In the final minutes of the game, there were whispers between the parents before a whistle halted play. It was mid January of 1991, three weeks after my twelfth birthday, when someone’s father bounded onto the court, to confer with the referees. He asked one of them to announce, officially, that our country was at war. We, the not-yet-teenage players, were conscripted to finish the game, although a few of the other parents did squeak onto the court and grab their sons to leave. I was still slouching at the foul line, looking over at my mom and dad, when a referee called me “son” and handed me the ball. The only sounds that I heard that were louder than my heart were the echoes after the three dribbles that I took routinely before I shot.

None of the players were told to shower after the game, and in the sixth grade very few of us would have anyways. We put on our puffy Starter® jackets and some of our parents drove us to a nearby buffet. We ate all that we could while the adults sat at a bar and watched the evening news. Bombs flashed green in the desert night as foreign correspondents described lurid views from their hotel rooms over the phone.

I don’t remember any debate about the proceedings among our parents, although we were not from a place that encouraged much conversation or any dissent, but at one minute after 9 pm, the first President Bush appeared on television to reassure us. The Allied Air Force had begun a “military action,” which had been approved by the United Nations, “to knock out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear bomb potential” in Iraq. The President did not begin his address with Good Evening, and he did not call the action a war, but he did ask God to bless our country and its troops. Even the parents of Catholic-school boys, especially those of us who were not actually Catholic, recognized the platitude of combat in his blessings.

For the rest of that week, I ran up the driveway after school to watch explosions on TV. The Iraqi Republican Guard lobbed Scud missiles, which were made in the Soviet Union, and these projectiles raced toward Israel, where they were intercepted by Patriot missiles that were made in the USA. I asked my dad if we should also take cover, inside our basement at home. We lived ten miles from Canada, on the knuckle of Michigan’s thumb.

I had already scrutinized my worn atlas, and later that year I would place third in the National Geography Bee at school, but I was nonetheless afraid of my proximity to the war. Some of the kids on the morning bus had told me that their dads were taking off from a nearby Air Force base and flying night missions over Baghdad. I knew the distance to Iraq but not the range of any weapons, or the extent of my classmates’ lies, and I wasn’t sure if we had a missile shield to protect us from incoming Scuds. My dad told me not to worry, there was nothing for us to fear.

I carried some sleeping bags, a few cans of food, and a cordless radio into the basement and demanded that my parents and sisters come along.

On January 31, 1950, President Harry Truman met with a special committee of the National Security Council for seven minutes inside the Oval Office. Immediately after his short meeting, to decide the future of nuclear weapons, the President ate lunch in the guesthouse across the street, where he and Bess were staying while the White House was under repair. During that lunch hour, Truman’s Press Secretary directed the Atomic Energy Commission “to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb.” The President’s job, his directive read, was “to see to it that our country is able to defend itself against any possible aggressor.” The only possible aggressor, everyone knew, was the Soviet Union.

Five months earlier, on a desolate steppe in Kazakhstan, the Soviets had detonated the first atomic bomb that was assembled outside the United States, an almost exact copy of the Fat Man that we had dropped on Nagasaki. A few days after the test, the crew inside a B-29 bomber identified the weapon’s distinctive fallout in some clouds scurrying towards Alaska. The airmen sent a sample of the atmosphere to a physics laboratory in Berkeley, California, for confirmation.

Robert Oppenheimer, and a panel of similarly distinguished physicists, advised the Atomic Energy Commission not to authorize a more destructive weapon, one that fused hydrogen, even if the Soviet Union had indeed detonated a fission bomb. Oppenheimer believed that parity between the United States and the Soviet Union was the best hope to obviate nuclear weapons. The Soviets had simply caught up.

A few Republican senators, several Air Force commanders, and one outspoken physicist, Edward Teller, counseled otherwise. Nothing would ever deter the commie heathens from assembling a fusion bomb, one that everyone disturbingly referred to as super, so the only defense for the United States was to pursue this weapon, too. No one knew how to build such a bomb, and it was unclear how one could ever be delivered, but at least we would threaten to use ours whenever they threatened with theirs. This mad policy was later called Mutually Assured Destruction.

President Truman later said that he had no choice but to issue his directive when he did. A distinguished senator from Colorado had mentioned the secret weapon on television, and the political will and public desire for its false security had escalated ever since. One week before Truman finally issued his directive, Klaus Fuchs, who had worked with Edward Teller on a hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos, admitted that he had been divulging information about the weapon to Soviet spies for years. The super was going to look the same in both countries, if it could ever be built. The world would have to persist on deadlier parity.

On the day when Klaus Fuchs was finally arrested in England, President Harry Truman declared that he did not have to notify anyone, including the United Nations, about his country’s decision to pursue a hydrogen bomb. He insisted, however, that every other source of atomic energy, everywhere else in the world, would remain subject to international control.

In physics, small changes to the initial conditions of an event can have large, unpredictable consequences. This is evident even in a game of pool; the balls always start from the same place, but no two breaks and no two games are the same. Truman’s conciliation toward peace was the break that, many decades later, warranted two conflicts in Iraq over atomic weapons that did not exist.

Critical phenomena is the branch of physics that describes how the components of any system, such as the atoms inside a sheet of metal, suddenly coordinate because of an external force. An idle slab of iron can be magnetized by the imposition of a magnetic field or an extreme cold, because the haphazard atoms quickly huddle together and face the same way. There has been a phase transition, a change from randomness to order, much as water crystalizes to ice.

Populations of atoms described by this physics obey a surprising, universal law—the properties of the whole are independent of the parts. It doesn’t matter how we describe the atoms in iron—as individuals, pairs, or clusters—the patterns of their behavior are all the same. They are similar to fractals, the insectile images from chaos theory that appear the same on every scale. Even if a phase transition is microscopic, its effect can be macroscopic. The invisible parts assemble the visible whole.

There is a universal order, even amid chaos, at what physicists call the critical point. There are even critical points of regular behavior in the motion of turbulent liquids—when, by definition, their motion is completely unpredictable. The flows of liquids conform to a universal pattern, fitted by a single number, because the turbulence is the same on different scales. Many trajectories can lead a system toward the strange attractor of global order. Yet, a few paths will lead away, to some other outcome. The behavior of individuals is constrained, but it is not fully determined. The course of events is not pre-arranged. There is a story left to tell.

When I was a boy I dreamed about Russians. They kicked in my bedroom door at night, grabbed me, and whisked me away. But I was born too late for their menace to make me feel truly afraid. Drills at school taught me to duck and cover, but under my desk I was made safe from tornados rather than hydrogen bombs.

In truth, the Soviets had always fascinated me, especially Drago and other movie foils during the 1980s. Once or twice, I had even threatened the bullies at school by saying that I was from Russia (I even disliked Springsteen, and his Born in the U.S.A.). But I had moved to Michigan from only as far away as Ohio, during the summer before the fourth grade. The Soviet Union was simply the antipode to where I was from, so I had claimed it for my heritage—until democracy had invaded that country shortly before the United States attacked Iraq.

After that, the fathers of some of my friends at school grumbled that we oughta wipe the goddamn camel jockeys off the map like we shoulda done to the commies. I was a studious kid who knew a lot about maps, and even about casual racism, but I did not yet know very much about the politics of the Middle East or drunken bravado in the Midwest.

For much of that first month of 1991, and for much of the remaining basketball season at school, four-star generals briefed their fellow Americans about Operation Desert Storm. Everyone else apprised each other about the Persian Gulf War.

Shop signs and car antennas all wore yellow ribbons, but along my bus route to school the photographs of young men in uniforms were taped only to the poster boards in front of public housing and mobile homes. White teenagers who listened to gangsta rap, in the outer suburbs of Detroit, suddenly wore XL T-shirts that showcased the nation’s flag and the war’s tagline, These Colors Don’t Run. In the destination of white flight, this could have been read as a triple entendre.

A few patriotic songs played on every radio station, but the most popular song (by which I mean the worst), was Voices That Care, recorded by the era’s celebrities (few of whom I can remember). During the first dance that I ever attended, just after the start of hostilities in the Gulf, I swayed to the words in the titular chorus, with my hands on the hips of the girl whom I hoped would be my first kiss. My friend met her under the bleachers after the dance.

In retrospect, the primary adaptations by which I survived this environment were my athleticism and speed, which provided confidence and a ready-made team of friends. I played competitive sports pretty well, in a place where competition was everything (because we had so little for which to compete), and I told my classmates that one day I was going to be the center fielder for the Detroit Tigers. At the time they could have used one.

But two years earlier, when I was not yet as self-conscious about who I was or would become, I won a speech contest at school because, I said, I wanted to be a physicist. My dad was a union electrician, who had barely graduated from high school, but he had told me bedtime stories about Albert Einstein when I asked him about electricity and light. My dad said that physicists were just the people who figured out what stuff was and what the world was made of. I knew so little about the world or any of its parts that I had decided to become a physicist, at the age of nine. I did not know what else physicists had done.

In March of 1950, Edward Teller asked his colleagues to return with him to Los Alamos and build a super bomb. “It is the scientist’s job to find the ways in which [nature] can serve the human will,” he said. “However, it is not the scientist’s job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed.” Teller had made it his job to lobby for the construction, but most physicists could not be goaded by a lecture about responsibilities. The new weapon, with its limitless power, was a tool for genocide, a pair of them said. It could wipe whole nations from the map. Some of them still felt the pangs of guilt for destroying two mid-sized Japanese cities.

Edward Teller returned to Los Alamos to build a super bomb anyways, because nature would serve his will even if his colleagues didn’t. Then, in September of 1951, after confirming that a fusion bomb could in fact be made, Teller resigned from the project. He would advocate for a new weapons facility to compete with the one in Los Alamos, instead.

In early 1952, Teller rode from Berkeley, California, to nearby Livermore in a new Cadillac. On a former military base outside of town, Ernest Lawrence and his colleagues were building a particle accelerator, bigger than any that they were operating in the Berkeley hills, to refine material for the hydrogen bomb. Later that evening, Lawrence drove Edward Teller to Trader Vic’s, his favorite restaurant in Oakland, where they ate spareribs, drank mai tais, and discussed the super weapon. Lawrence and Teller had spent time together on Pacific islands, observing the tests of atomic bombs, and that night, during their Polynesian dinner, Lawrence encouraged his friend to establish his breakaway lab in Livermore.

Three months later, the University of California at Berkeley agreed to staff the new lab. The university had managed Los Alamos during the war, and it still wrote checks to its physicists afterward, so it was the only institution that could administer a competing lab, too. Even Robert Oppenheimer had once awkwardly boasted, Berkeley was “a great liberal university that is the only place in the world, as far as I know, that manufactures, under contract with the United States government, atomic bombs.” Edward Teller moved to Diablo, halfway between Livermore and Berkeley, so he could commute to the high-security labs in both towns. He erected a steel fence around his house in that infernal locale.

Edward Teller had barely started his new job when his former collaborators at Los Alamos scheduled the first test of a hydrogen bomb, three days before the upcoming presidential election. The series of tests were code-named Operation Ivy.

On November 1, 1952, at 7:14.59.4 a.m.—0.6 seconds ahead of schedule because of an unaccountable power surge—the first hydrogen bomb exploded over the Pacific Ocean, on Elugelab island in the Enewetak atoll. Edward Teller was sulking on the Berkeley campus, not because he was beaten but because he had not been named the director of Livermore. He descended into the basement of the geology department and watched its seismograph register the shock wave from the bomb as it rolled through the Earth to Berkeley, where the day was still Halloween.

The first hydrogen bomb, nicknamed Mike, exploded with a power greater than all the bombs and all the munitions detonated during World War II. The heat, which derived from the same source as the life-giving sun’s, was felt 35 miles away. The History of Operation Ivy, an official report, was surprisingly lyrical about the explosion: “The tremendous fireball, appearing on the horizon like the sun when half-risen, quickly expanded after a momentary hover time…Around the base of the stem, there appeared to be a curtain of water which soon dropped back around the area where the island of Elugelab had been.” The United States had wiped the island from the map. Elugelab was replaced by a crater nearly 2 kilometers wide and 50 meters deep that is still visible from satellites.

During high school, I quit every competitive sport except for soccer because it wasn’t unduly American. Music was the only connection that I had maintained to my athletic friends. One Saturday morning, shortly after the start of the Persian Gulf War, my sister and I were safe in our basement, watching television, when we heard Smells Like Teen Spirit, on the Billboard Top Ten. Nirvana played the melody to my burgeoning angst, and I followed the chain of its influences all the way to punk rock. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, my favorite band was Operation Ivy, from Berkeley, California.

Operation Ivy released only one album, Energy, on the day when the band had also broken up, in 1989. But that album was re-mastered and then re-issued with another LP, less than a month after the start of the Persian Gulf War. Larry Livermore, the album’s producer, was originally from Michigan, and he had taken his moniker from the weapons lab where he now lived in the Bay Area. Sales of Energy were steady for a few years, but they increased suddenly in 1995, when I was sophomore in high school, after the success of Green Day and Rancid. Green Day had covered one of the seminal band’s worst songs, and two of the founding members of Operation Ivy were now playing for Rancid.

The liner notes to the reissue of Operation Ivy’s album included every lyric, which was rare for a punk band, but it also contained a manifesto, which was less rare, written by the lead singer, Jesse Michaels. Jesse believed: “Music is an indirect force for change, because it provides an anchor against human tragedy.” Michaels sang about politics, violence, and girls, mostly in that order, and his message was about upending the world, starting with his hometown of Berkeley.

On the ten-minute drive to high school every morning, long enough to hear at least five of OpIv’s songs, my sister and I would scream the lyrics to Bombshell, Sound System, Freeze Up, Unity, and One of These Days (a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s, These Boots Were Made for Walking). We would chant the lyrics, “Stop this…..waaaarrrr!” even after the music had stopped. I bought a hollow-body guitar, like the one favored by the lead guitarist, who had called himself Lint before he became the lead singer for Rancid. After I learned to play a few bar chords, with my middle finger raised (because there was no other way for my clumsy fingers to play them), I started a band with some of my former teammates from school. We called ourselves Lint. We didn’t meet any girls and we didn’t play any remunerative gigs, but we wanted to upend the world, starting with our own shitty hometown.

At a show, you are witness to a phase transition; when the music starts, everyone faces the same way. At a few punk shows, I’ve seen people turn their backs to the stage.

I did well in high school, which wasn’t very punk, but I was obnoxious about my abilities and the lack of effort that they required. I no longer cared about physics, or at least I pretended not to, so I sat in the back of class and ignored the lectures about the calculus of projectiles. My dad refused to give an allowance to a budding punk, so he found me a job on a sprawling tree farm, as soon as I turned 16. He had grown up on hundreds of fertile acres in Ohio, and he wanted to instill the values of labor and sacrifice in his only son.

I tried to unionize the laborers and, during Spanish class at school, I used the slang that I learned from migrant workers rather than affect a Castilian lisp.

My cynicism could not belie my aptitude, however, and at least two of my teachers noticed. In history, Mr. Fox, taught us about contemporary politics through our nation’s past, and he introduced me to Karl Marx and Russian authors. Turgenev (especially his nihilist book, Fathers and Sons) accorded my mood as well as punk rock. My English teacher, Mr. Fouchey, failed one of my facile essays (about the bourgeois preoccupations of Hamlet) until I could make a clear argument from more than clever ideas. When I left for college, Mr. Fox presented me with a poster from the American tour of the Sex Pistols, which had hung in his office.

A writing course at college reintroduced me to physics. Dr. Ross encouraged us to write about our passions, and I still wanted to find the order underlying the chaotic world. During the first assignment, a personal essay, I admitted that I had once hoped to become a physicist, so Dr. Ross assigned me two books, Chaos and A Brief History of Time. I wrote an essay about cosmology and the Big Bang, and I decided to learn the math that buttressed my words. I took a course in quantum mechanics from a Russian-Jewish exile, and I researched nuclear physics with a Russian émigré, who had studied at the Igor Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute, named after the man who had developed the Soviet atomic bomb. My senior thesis was on manifestations of order and chaos inside atomic nuclei. When I was not struggling with problem sets in math and physics, I sat in a café skimming Russian novels and pretended to be a writer.

Shortly after the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb, in August of 1953, restoring its mad parity with the United States, Leonard Michaels left New York City and moved to Michigan for college. In Ann Arbor, he roomed with a mathematician, studied literature, and worked as a teaching assistant to pay tuition. One day, he called a student from his class and asked if she wanted to see a movie. She asked if he wanted to come over and see her dorm room instead. Michaels wrote: “I had no virginity to lose, but when sex happened with guiltless and astonishing speed, I lost my innocence.” He contracted a venereal disease, dropped out, and retreated to New York.

Leonard Michaels was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. He spoke Yiddish at home and eventually learned English from a neighbor woman, who worked the counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. Leonard was a sickly boy who never felt like “a real American” until he attended his first baseball game in Brooklyn. He caught a ball thrown into the stands by Hank Greenberg, the Jewish first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. In high school, during WWII, Leonard tracked the Allied bombing campaign with colored pins, in a map on the wall above his bed. An English teacher later told him what it was like to be a real gunner. Leonard decided to become a writer to tell his own war stories.

While Leonard was back at home, in 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission unclassified a film called Operation Ivy. It aired on nearly every channel on television that spring. Under the half-risen sun of the first hydrogen bomb was the skyline of New York City, superimposed to show the scale.

Leonard Michaels left New York and returned to college, after he had inoculated himself from naiveté. In 1958, he moved to Berkeley to start a Master’s degree. “I gathered something exceedingly general about the University of California at Berkeley,” he wrote. “It accommodates extremes.” He adapted to the campus, “where on a hilltop commanding city and bay a legendary lab stands, defended by a Cyclone fence and armed guards…a throng of Nobel laureates make bombs, whistle melodies from Beethoven’s string quartets, and reminisce about undergraduate days at Heidelberg.”

Leonard Michaels was 25 years old, but he was still “sentimental and sexist.” His sentimentality, at least, diminished. He was arrested in San Francisco while protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee, to which his friends and several physicists had been subpoenaed.

Leonard Michaels published his first short story in Playboy magazine, in 1962. That fall, he returned to the University of Michigan, for his Ph.D. He met Priscilla Older and asked for her phone number while she was sitting on the lap of her Turkish boyfriend. She was pregnant with astonishing speed. In less than a month, she and Leonard had married.

In the fall of 1965, Leonard Michaels won a prize for a short story about a man who went on a blind date with a stuttering woman. The following year, when Nancy Sinatra first performed her hit These Boots Were Made for Walking, on the Ed Sullivan Show, Michaels finished a dissertation on Lord Byron and returned to California. In 1967, he became a professor at Berkeley.

In the first sentence of the first story in the first book that Leonard Michaels published, Going Places in 1969, the female character meets a man from Turkey who is studying physics. By the end of the first paragraph, the physics student had raped her. By the end of the story, the woman was dead. Leonard’s primary subjects were women, violence, and politics, usually in that order. But, as he later claimed, “I wasn’t concerned with sense, only sound, the rhythm of one sentence against another. Sound is just sound, completely meaningless, and yet it delivers sense, makes it exist.”

It was his son Jesse, the lead singer of Operation Ivy, who later said that music was more than just sound. It was what it meant to be free.

The first hydrogen bomb that Edward Teller developed, after the Soviets had tested theirs in 1954, fizzled out on the Bikini Atoll. His colleagues packed their next one into suitcases and delivered them to the Nevada desert in the back of a sedan. This compact bomb exploded with nearly as much power as the Mike test, during Operation Ivy. Teller designed even smaller hydrogen bombs to fit inside the tips of missiles. He then lobbied for a weapon shield to protect against incoming rockets from Russia, like the ones that he was loading with savage warheads and pointing toward the aggressors.

In 1962, the Red Army dug silos around Moscow to fill with its own defensive rockets, which were supposed to intercept any ballistic missiles fired from the United States. The circle was complete in 1967. But that summer, Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who had designed many of the nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union, and who had been called a Hero of Socialist Labor three times, sent an article to the Central Committee of the Communist Party decrying the rockets.

Sakharov insisted that no missile defense system was faultless. Even if Soviet engineers could design a rocket that destroyed moving targets, which traveled at thousands of miles per hour, the enemy could just fire decoys or more missiles than their own country had in defense. Offense would always be cheaper and easier than deterrence. The Soviet Union might in turn increase the number of its missiles to attack the United States, if it built its own rockets in defense, but both sides would simply retaliate with more missiles. The game of leapfrog would never end. So Sakharov asked the committee to consider a moratorium on anti-ballistic missiles, as the American president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had suggested.

The Central Committee denied Sakharov’s request to publish his idea, and that September, the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, announced that the United States would dig silos for missile defense around its major cities, too. McNamara at least admitted, “none of the [missile defense] systems at the present or foreseeable state of the art would provide an impenetrable shield over the United States.” Richard Garwin, the physicist who had designed the first hydrogen bomb that was tested during Operation Ivy, and Hans Bethe, who had designed even bigger nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, had reached the same conclusion. In March of 1968, in Scientific American, Garwin and Bethe noted that the United States and the Soviet Union had the capability to “annihilate each other as viable civilizations within a day and perhaps within an hour.” There was no survival without cooperation.

Sakharov read the article by Bethe and Garwin, and that April, writing at night after his shift at the Installation, where he still designed hydrogen bombs, he called for their eradication. He gave his handwritten draft of a long essay, called Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, to his secretary to type. This time, he published the article as samizdat before sending it to the Central Committee. The Moscow Correspondent for the New York Times sent an illicit copy to his editor in the States.

Sakharov declared, “the technology and tactics of attack have now far surpassed the technology of defense despite…technical ideas, such as the use of laser rays.”

That winter, four graduate students in physics organized a sit-in at MIT. They enjoined their professors and fellow students: “To devise means for turning research applications away from the present overemphasis on military technology towards the solution of pressing environmental and social problems.” They organized a research strike for a day that was itself a call to action, March 4th. Noam Chomsky would speak to them about the Responsibilities of Intellectuals and Hans Bethe described the folly of missile defense.

That November, representatives from the Soviet Union and the United States met for the first of several Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Protests against the missile defense system had started around the US; not because of scientific rigor and logic, but because real-estate agents had warned of declining property values near silos in the suburbs. In May of 1972, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev signed a treaty regulating the number of antiballistic missiles that either country could ever build. Andrei Sakharov, the physicist, won the Nobel Prize for peace.

In his diary, in 1972, Leonard Michaels described his youngest son, Jesse, as “good-looking and wild.” When the boy was three years old, he yelled “shit” in front of his grandmother, and when he was six he jumped into a pool on his own and nearly drowned. Leonard admitted to his diary: “It’s torture to imagine Jesse out of my sight amid unimaginable dangers.” His support for liberal causes, including Berkeley’s movement for free speech, ended because of all the dangers in the world that were so immediate to his son.

In 1979, after his divorce from Priscilla, Leonard relented and bought a skateboard for Jesse. When the boy was 12 years old, one of Leonard’s students introduced him to punk rock. That summer, Jesse started a 'zine with Aaron Cometbus, and together they interviewed The Ramones outside the Lawrence Hall of Science, next to the particle accelerators in the Berkeley Hills. Jesse would later remember that the interview took place during the Rocket to Russia Tour, but his chronology was wrong.

In 1982, when Jesse actually interviewed The Ramones, Edward Teller wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan, from the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. Teller said that atomic bombs could be used to fuel lasers that would shoot down any incoming rockets from space. He requested $55 million to develop these lasers into a missile shield. But, Teller warned, the Soviet Union was already pursuing the technology. Sakharov had mentioned lasers as early as 1967. Teller said, “the Free World is in the deepest possible trouble. However, if we act in this matter promptly…we may end the Mutual Assured Destruction era and commence a period of assured survival on terms favorable to the Western Alliance.” Parity might achieve the peace, again. Teller’s laser shield would be popularly called Star Wars, after the film that his fantasy resembled.[1]

On March 23, 1983, at 8:02 pm, President Reagan addressed the nation from inside the Oval Office. He pointed over his shoulder at a poster board displaying photographs of the largest intelligence center in the world, built by the Soviet Union in Cuba. “We will never be an aggressor,” he said. Everyone knew already who the real aggressor was.

That night, Reagan proposed spending $26 billion for a weapon shield, 500 times what Edward Teller requested, even though “it wasn’t pleasant for someone who had come to Washington determined to reduce government spending.” Reagan then invited “those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace.” Two days later, he issued a presidential directive for physicists to determine whether the Strategic Defense Initiative, as the nuclear laser shield was officially called, would even work in theory.

Physicists announced that the Initiative was a fiction within the week. In the New York Times, next to an editorial by Edward Teller about world peace, Richard Garwin said that the Soviet Union would simply overwhelm America’s laser defenses with decoys, just as he and Sakharov and Bethe had detailed more than a decade earlier. Herbert York, the former director of Livermore, declared, “one of the outstanding delusions of recent times has been the notion a technological means for defending the nation against a general nuclear attack is just around the corner.” Even the physicists who supported Edward Teller called his scheme “misleading.” They knew the physics. He could not lie to them.

Ronald Reagan officially inaugurated the Strategic Defense Initiative anyways, in 1984, because a military exercise and a private joke had nearly precipitated a nuclear war. By then, the President tacitly agreed with the assessment of physicists. The laser shield, the president said, was now intended to protect the country’s “national security interests,” not its citizens.

That summer, after three failed attempts to intercept a dummy missile with lasers, the Department of Defense initiated a deception program. The military planned to self-destruct a test missile as long as a laser beam “passed close enough to support the appearance of a hit.” A group of physicists resigned from the project when other tests were revealed as lies. Hans Bethe told the New York Times that there was one difference between this missile system and the one that he had opposed more than a decade earlier: “Back in 1968 and 1969, [politicians] told us in great detail what kind of system was to be built. Now they don’t tell us what they do—it’s all shrouded in secrecy.”

Danny Norwood, from the band Social Unrest, once said of the 1980s: “Being a punk at the time, you doubted what our government said.” Oran Canfield, who hung out with punks, later explained: “In Berkeley and the Bay Area, Reagan was seriously the devil. I would see him on the news and nothing he ever said contradicted the idea that these fucking crazy egomaniacs were gonna end up destroying the world.” Shortly after the President announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, The Dead Kennedys, MDC, and Whoopi Goldberg headlined the Rock Against Reagan Tour. Sammytown, one of the lyrical influences on Operation Ivy, accounted for the politics of Bay Area punks this way: “A lot of our parents were professors at Cal Berkeley…as far as parenting went, there was a lot of crazy ideas.”

Jesse Michaels and his friends founded Operation Ivy in 1987. That same year, in his diary, Leonard Michaels described the arguments he had with his fellow professors about whether Arab nations should ever be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Over the next two years, Operation Ivy played at house parties, laundromats, and the new punk co-op on Gilman Street, at the edge of Berkeley. Other punks heckled Jesse for being sentimental and sincere, but audiences eventually heard his lyrics through the snarls. “The world was an extremely fucked-up place,” Jesse later said, “and you should talk about it with music.” In the song Freeze Up, he complained: “We wave the flag of freedom as we conquer and invade.” 

Operation Ivy would play shows to benefit the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and to end apartheid in South Africa. Jesse later admitted, however: “As much as making political statements about society, I was kind of lashing out against my own inner problems…probably just weird family shit.” When asked if his dad liked his music, Jesse replied: “He couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it, but he certainly was proud of it.”

A few months after the elder George Bush took office, Operation Ivy played its final show, at the Gilman Street co-op. Green Day was the opening act, shortly after changing its name from Sweet Children, and more than twice the legal capacity paid admission to the show. Neither Jesse Michaels nor Lint ever explained why they had decided to break up that night, but Jesse later said that the band had simply “fizzled out.” After they finished their last song, the crowd chanted, “Unity, as one stand together,” while Jesse walked off the stage.

I used to tell people that I was going to move to Canada for graduate school because I had vowed to leave the United States if George Bush the son was elected president. This was only a half lie. The other half was a Russian-Jewish girl from Montréal, whom I had met while studying chaos theory and nuclear physics during college.

In my first month of graduate school, in September of 2001, I was walking to class when I saw, on a television inside a neighborhood café, the second tower of the World Trade Center collapse. I went inside, sat at the bar, and watched the news for most of the day. When I finally made it to the physics department that afternoon, after missing the course in which I would later learn about critical phenomena, one of the janitors told me that he was sorry for what had happened to my country. It was the first time that I had ever felt like a real American.

I studied string theory and cosmology, but I was too distracted to do research. I spent as much time reading novels and learning about history and politics as I spent doing physics. I realized that physics did not make sense of everything that was happening, especially back home. I smoked Gauloises and now I listened to indie rock, at Café π on rue Saint Laurent. And, eventually, I realized what else physicists had given the world, other than an understanding of its machinations—the means to destroy it. But physicists had also given us something else; the impetus to save ourselves. At least physicists were honest about what their forebears had done and what we had to do now. Other people, as Jesse Michaels sang, only gave us lies.

In December of 2001, the second President Bush announced that he was withdrawing the United States from its missile treaty with Russia. In six months, the advanced notice required by treaty, the United States would deploy a missile defense system “to protect America and our allies from sudden attack.” Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, wrote soon after in the New York Review of Books, “It is hard to remember a time when the US has not been arguing about a national missile defense program.”

In February of 2003, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, claimed that Saddam Hussein, the real aggressor, was again pursuing material to build a nuclear bomb. As proof, Powell brought a vial of uranium yellowcake to his testimony, at the United Nations. One week before the United States started its shock and awe in Iraq, this time without the endorsement of the UN, weapons inspectors reported that the documents supporting Powell’s testimony had been forged. I marched along rue Sainte Catherine in Montréal, protested outside the American embassy, and chanted alternately in French and English, “Non à la guerre. Oui à la paix. No to the war. Yes to peace.”

The owner of Café π, who had escaped from the Soviets in Hungary, told me that Patriot missiles had not actually shot down many Scuds during the first Gulf War. Most of the projectiles, or the shrapnel from their exploded fuel tanks, made it through the Israeli defense. In fact, the number of casualties had increased because of the shield. Patriot missiles were a fiction made for television.

In May of 2003, I read the obituary of Leonard Michaels in the New York Times, shortly after I had started reading his stories in the New Yorker. Michaels had published a series of late stories about a mathematician named Raphael Nachman, who moved to California and then navigated several moral quandaries. Nachman turned down a job designing a missile shield for the government, but he agreed to write a college essay for a Middle Eastern prince, about the metaphysics of Henri Bergson. I no longer believed in a missile shield, and I had just turned down an offer of $5,000 to take a physics exam for a student who claimed to be a sultan.

Shortly before Michaels died, he finished his finest essay, My Father. In it, he described an evening during the winter of 1952, between the first test of a hydrogen bomb and his move to Michigan for college. Leonard was wearing his long hair greased back with Vaseline, when he ran into his father, a barber, beneath the Manhattan Bridge. His father told him to button his coat and gave him some coins for the subway. “He gave. I took,” Michaels conceded.

I only learned that Jesse Michaels was Leonard’s son shortly before I quit my PhD and left Montréal, in 2005. I was 26 years old, and my savings account was in double digits, but I refused to work in finance or foreign intelligence, as so many other people who had studied physics did. I wanted to tell stories. I did not want to lie.

I owned neither a credit card nor a cell phone, so I sold my vintage punk albums, including Energy by Operation Ivy, and I bought a train ticket to that strange attractor called New York. I had an internship at a once-defunct magazine, and I had a place to sleep on someone’s floor. My father complained that I was leaving my Ph.D. to live as a punk on the streets of Brooklyn. He came to Montréal and handed me a cell phone before I boarded the train. I had no money, but at least I could call my mom or call for help if I was ever in trouble. He gave. I took.

For three months, I slept on people’s floors and in their beds, went to rock shows and drank cheap beer on the Lower East Side. I lost my naiveté where Leonard Michaels had preserved his. I did not know what all the influences on my life had made of me—a somewhat punk kid who had studied physics under Russians and who now wanted to be a writer—but in New York I realized that I had been sensitive to my initial conditions. History did not determine my future, but its influence could not be ignored, even where it was being erased, there on the Lower East Side.

Leonard Michaels once wrote: “Things happen. You remember. That’s all.” But that is never all, certainly not in his writing or his son’s music. The stories of Leonard Michaels are rooted in his chauvinism and fears for much of the Cold War. Jesse Michaels and the other punks in the Bay Area responded to the politics of their parents during the 1980s. Those eras were stoked by the hydrogen bombs that physicists had built during the 1950s and the missile shield that they could not build during the 1960s. Two wars in Iraq were fictions crafted about atomic weapons, whose regulation had been sanctioned by an American president decades earlier. The past resounded in the present. These stories echoed in me.

To intercept an incoming rocket, you must know either the precise initial conditions when the rocket is fired—its angle, position, and velocity—or you must track the incoming projectile on a radar and ignorantly shoot a missile at it, making corrections to your missile’s trajectory and guiding it as it moves. The first is impossible in principle; the second is impossible in practice.

Identity is recursive. The output of one generation is the input of another. The result is self-similarity, the universal pattern that emerges from chaos, both in physics and daily life.

We are constrained by the past and guided by it, yet our trajectories remain undetermined. There would always be chaos, as I had learned in physics, whatever order I found. I could always choose a trajectory leading away from the critical point, when outside forces tried to make me and everyone else face the same way.

In the fall of 2009, I moved into a drab apartment in the hills above Berkeley, not far from the large accelerators. On the other side of those hills, away from Livermore, were the empty silos of a missile shield that had never been used.

I had moved to Berkeley as I began to write a book about the history of physics and its influences throughout the past century, because I knew I would find them in Berkeley. But that place summoned too many other influences on me: punk rock, leftist politics, literature, history, and the Cold War. I was even doing research in an office that Robert Oppenheimer had once inhabited, overlooking the physics department and the accelerators up in the hills. I had unwittingly converged with my narrative. Berkeley was our fixed point.

I needed to tell my story as honestly as I could, so I had to remove myself from the equation. Berkeley accommodates extremes but it would not accommodate me. I left after three months. I could never escape, however, the recurrences of the past.

The dynamics of history are periodic; the patterns of events are similar on different scales. After I left Berkeley, the state of Michigan announced the construction of a missile defense system to create jobs. Russians spied on the US again. Another celebrity president threatened the world with atomic bombs, and then he asked Congress to spend $14 billion on a missile defense system against the commie aggressors. Despite 50 years of effort, and $200 billion spent, the test of the latest missile system still failed, in January of 2018. A month later, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia possessed an invincible missile of unlimited range that could evade any defense. In the video that played behind him while he spoke, Russia had fired the missile at Florida. I bought a copy of Operation Ivy’s Energy to quell my angst, again.

We must suppress the chaos. But we must also resist the forces that try to impose order on every scale. We are individuals, not clusters of atoms, and the future is indefinite. So we must take the trajectory leading away at this, the most critical point.

[1] Teller’s idea also evokes a different film from the 1980s, Real Genius. That movie, starring Val Kilmer as a graduate student in physics at a university very much like CalTech, described a chemical laser system intended for missile defense that a group of young physicists used to pop popcorn from space instead.