Your first book is about the 19th-century Russian chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev. Why did you choose this subject and how did you approach it?
Mendeleev is probably the most famous scientist Russia has produced, with the possible exceptions of Ivan Pavlov and Andrei Sakharov. He is best known as the formulator of the periodic table of the elements, although he did many different kinds of things in his life. He was involved in national educational and economic reform, he designed a new tax system implemented in 1891, he attempted to revise the Russian calendar, he invented a form of smokeless gunpowder, he achieved notoriety leading a campaign against séances in St. Petersburg, and he introduced the metric system to Russia. In graduate school, I wanted to focus on the history of science in Russia, and I chose to study Mendeleev as a way of studying both the history of chemistry and the history of Imperial Russia at the same time. Instead of writing a conventional biography, beginning with his birth and childhood, I wanted to relate Mendeleev’s work over the course of his career to the society in which he lived, St. Petersburg, which was then the capital of the Russian Empire. To do this, I focused on seven exemplary episodes from his career. For instance, Mendeleev formulated the periodic table at the same time that he was involved in an effort to revamp science teaching at St. Petersburg University. Science courses were ballooning in the 1860s in the wake of sweeping reforms in Russia, and Mendeleev set out to write a textbook to supplement his large introductory lecture course. In the process of writing it, he realized that the standard presentation wasn’t getting him very far, and so he decided to test some other organizational principles. The periodic system essentially popped out of his various efforts to organize chemical information for his students. Later on, in the 1880s, he served as an informal “science adviser” to the Ministry of Finances, which was confronted with a series of chemical problems--for instance, oil exploitation in the Caucasus, and the dyestuffs industry--and here he incorporated his knowledge of practical chemistry into a sweeping vision of how Russia might become a modern industrialized state. Overall, I see order as an important theme in Mendeleev’s career. His scientific research and his work in other areas stemmed from a common impulse to provide order--although it wasn’t always successful. In fact, when he died in 1907, he believed he had largely failed in his efforts.
What was it like to be a scientist in Russia in Mendeleev’s time?
Mendeleev’s career, which ran roughly from 1860 to 1905, coincided with a tumultuous period in Russian history, beginning with the emancipation of the serfs (1861) and ending with the Revolution of 1905. During these decades, prompted by Russia’s 1856 defeat in the Crimean War, tsarist officials were trying to modernize the country rapidly, and so there was a great demand for people with knowledge of chemistry and other scientific and technical fields. In the mid-19th century it was still an odd and somewhat rare thing to be a scientist, both in Russia and in Western Europe. At the time, science wasn’t segregated from other parts of modern culture, and people involved in scientific research inevitably did other things in life and interacted and socialized with people from other fields--with political figures, writers, artists, and so on. It was expected that any learned person would be conversant in many fields, and that applied to both the sciences and the humanities. For Mendeleev, that border-crossing tendency was magnified because the intelligentsia in St. Petersburg was tiny. There were maybe a few hundred literate movers and shakers in St. Petersburg in the 1860s, and they all knew each other and shared many common concerns. For instance, there was once a very public dustup between Mendeleev and Dostoyevsky on the topic of spiritualism (séances and the like), of which they both disapproved, though for different reasons. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine us today seeking the opinion of a chemist about a political controversy that wasn’t directly related to scientific research. Since Mendeleev’s time, the prestige of being a scientist has grown dramatically, but the range of topics that scientists tend to address in public life has contracted dramatically.
You have recently finished a second book on a very different topic, the atomic bombings of Japan. What led you to write about this?
We tend to equate the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the Japanese surrender, and the surrender with the end of the war. In fact there is some daylight between all these events. The bombs were dropped on August 6 and 9, Japan announced its surrender on August 14, and the Americans didn’t begin the occupation of Japan until September 2. The Americans had no idea what was going on within the Japanese leadership for the five days after the bombing of Nagasaki, and even after Emperor Hirohito announced surrender on August 14, it was by no means certain that it would “take”--that Japanese forces would comply with surrender in China, for example, or that there wouldn’t be a militarist coup (one such coup was narrowly averted). Five Days in August began as a counterfactual: What would have happened, I wondered, if the Japanese hadn’t surrendered and the United States had dropped more atomic bombs on Japan? This isn’t a farfetched question. At the end of the war, the United States was building up to the capacity to build a new atomic bomb about every ten days, and the historical record indicates that the military were prepared to drop numerous atomic bombs on Japan.
The larger question that interests me is, How and when did nuclear weapons acquire the special status that they have today? A very firm line now separates nuclear and conventional weapons. We might accept unbelievably brutal attacks with conventional weapons, but the use of nuclear weapons is seen as unacceptable. Hiroshima and Nagasaki thus occupy a special place for us, even though comparable (or even greater) numbers of people were killed in the firebombing of Japanese and German cities during the war. During the early days of the Truman Administration there were two camps, roughly speaking, in American strategic thinking about nuclear weapons. Many in the military saw atomic bombs as basically very large firebombs; the difference was one of degree. On the other hand, some influential scientists saw nuclear weapons as a completely different kind of weapon. Over time, with a growing appreciation of the danger of radioactivity and the development in the 1950s of hydrogen bombs that were far more powerful than the first atomic bombs, the scientists’ view prevailed. Still, I argue in the book that nuclear weapons acquired that special status in part because of the rapid Japanese surrender. If we had dropped ten atomic bombs on Japan instead of two, I doubt that the use of nuclear weapons would today seem so unthinkable.