The Pauling-Teller Debate: Two Books That Followed


Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities. 1958.

[Part 4 of 5]

In the months following their televised 1958 debate, Linus Pauling and Edward Teller both published books that they believed would serve to educate the public on the real dangers associated with atomic development and testing.  And though their formal debate had long since passed, both men continued to spar with one another through their writings. As Ralph E. Lapp put it in his review of Pauling’s book,

Any meaningful review of Mr. Pauling’s No More War! must be related not only to the U.N. Report on Atomic Radiation but also Mr. Teller’s Our Nuclear Future published earlier this year.  As a matter of fact, No More War! might well be subtitled ‘A Reply to Edward Teller.’

Each book worked hard to couch its arguments in terms that readers, no matter their background, could understand.  Both books also sought to help citizens differentiate between “imaginary dangers,” “risks which are more real,” and risks that had been most neglected.  The two books likewise made use of Cold War fears over a potential war with the Soviet Union and pointed out that a future war of this sort would be far worse than anything experienced to date. In this, just as had been the case with their television appearance, Pauling and Teller alike used similar approaches to argue for very different points of view: Pauling emphasizing the need for disarmament and cooperation, Teller arguing in favor of peace assured through military might.

"No More War!" 1958.

“No More War!” 1958.

A primary goal of Edward Teller and Albert Latter’s book, Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities, was to outline the science behind the development of nuclear weapons, as articulated for a lay audience. Teller felt a book of this sort was the best way to combat rising fear in the culture, and that it would allow readers to both understand the nature of radioactivity and to rationally assess the risks (relatively benign ones, in Teller’s view) posed by nuclear tests.

Conversely, throughout his book, No More War!, Linus Pauling discussed the harm that would befall current and future generations as a direct result of continued nuclear testing.  He also emphasized the idea of a single global community and the need to think responsibly about the entire world. This approach is clear from the outset, as Pauling writes in his preface

We are living through that unique epoch in the history of civilization when war will cease to be the means of settling great world problems…It is the development of great nuclear weapons that requires that war be given up, for all time…that from the giant of the kiloton nuclear bomb to the megaton monster…we can see for ourselves that our own future and the future of the human race depend upon our willingness and ability to cooperate, to work together in a worldwide attack on the great world problems.

Pauling’s emphasis on the need for humanity to remain united and to work together courses through the entire book.

Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Indeed, increases in the mutation rate and the threats that they posed to the human race comprised Pauling’s central argument in favor of ceasing nuclear tests.  Pauling believed that there was no safe threshold amount of radiation that a person could receive; any amount could prove harmful and potentially lead to leukemia, bone cancer, or other diseases linked to radiation. Conceptualized in this way, radiation was likened by Pauling as something worse than a poison.  For Pauling, a person could not receive a small, harmless dose of radiation like they could with certain poisons that are only dangerous in large quantities taken at one time.  Rather, radiation is a cumulative toxin and the lower values measured as fallout from nuclear tests were potentially just as damaging as high exposures, just not as immediately apparent.

At the other end of the spectrum, Teller downplayed the risks of fallout, basing his argument on the fact that environmental radiation is nothing new.  On the contrary, it has existed since the beginning of the Earth, meaning that every human, plant, and animal in existence is subjected daily to radioactivity and always has been and always will be.  In formulating his argument, Teller placed additional emphasis on the number of ways that environmental radiation can be taken up by the body and how geographic location influences these processes.  He also stressed that radiation could be acquired from seemingly trivial man-made sources as well, sources that most people thought little about.  Teller stated these man-made sources, such as medical x-rays or even wristwatches with illuminated hands, were more harmful than was the radioactivity from testing fallout.

Pauling's annotated copy of  Our Nuclear Future, with a New York Times review of the book tipped in.

Pauling’s annotated copy of Our Nuclear Future, with “a very poor” New York Times review of the book tipped in.

In writing No More War!, one of Pauling’s major objectives was to dispel any notion that there was wide disagreement among scientists as to the actual effects of radiation on humans. In doing so, he pointedly sought to discredit Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission as holding fringe opinions. When discussing Teller, he was especially critical, not only of his calculations and scientific acumen, but also of his views on democracy and education of the citizenry, views which Pauling claimed to be “out of place.”

Partly to combat increasing fears about environmental radioactivity, Teller suggested ramping up research and development of so-called “clean weapons” – i.e., weapons that did not produce radioactive fallout upon detonation. Teller believed clean weapons to be necessary and potentially very useful for purposes far beyond application in war.  A clean weapon might be used, for instance, to build a harbor.  Throughout Our Nuclear Future, Teller is clear in his advocacy of developing new weapons and testing them to make sure that they work.

Pauling strongly disagreed with Teller’s ideas concerning the development of a clean bomb, which Teller identified as a top reason why testing needed to continue.  Pauling likewise took offense at the use of the word “clean,” pointing out that so-called clean weapons still held the potential to kill millions of innocent people.  Furthermore, these new weapons were only promoting the culture of continued testing and thus, further radioactive fallout.

Though neither Our Nuclear Future nor No More War! pretended to be a cool analysis of fact, both used similar techniques, often based in scientific analysis, to try and persuade readers toward one of two very different points of view.  Both books also might be viewed as an extension of the debate that had been televised between Pauling and Teller in February 1958, with the two scientists continuing to jockey for position through a different public forum.

And while it is clear that Pauling and Teller were never going to agree on the fundamental nuclear issues of the time, both of their books made an impact. The New York Times placed both volumes on its list of outstanding books for the year and, in a different article, named both as among the necessary books with which to acquaint oneself in seeking to understand the nuclear debate.


Low-Dose Radiation Risk: An On-Going Debate

I believe that the nations of the world that are carrying out the tests of nuclear weapons are sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people now living and of hundreds of thousands of unborn children, and that this sacrifice is unnecessary.

– Linus Pauling, No More War!, 1958.

The recent disaster in Japan has lent renewed relevance to the various risks associated with human exposure to nuclear radiation, a subject to which Linus Pauling dedicated a substantial amount of time and energy during his lifetime. It is in this context that we revisit the general estimates made by Linus Pauling in the 1950s concerning the long-term effects of radiation on human populations, and compare them to some modern estimates today.

In the years following the detonation of two atomic weapons during World War II, Pauling became increasingly active in the realm of nuclear policy, politics, and regulation. He attended conferences and addressed atomic issues in many of his speeches, but tackled the subject most thoroughly in his sixth published book, No More War! Released in 1958, No More War! covers a wide range of topics ranging from the physical aspects of atomic explosions to the need for international nuclear non-proliferation and test-ban agreements. Along with its expressions of concern about the certain devastation that would be wrought by wars fought with atomic weapons, the book addresses many of the health risks that result from human exposure to lower doses of radiation, particularly in relation to the test detonation of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.

For the most part, there was and is little disagreement among professionals when discussing the effects of large doses of radiation on the human body. It is well established that, at certain levels, exposure to radiation in a single dose or over a specific period of time will lead to radiation sickness or death. However, the nuclear age has seen a much livelier debate over the effects that increased exposure to low doses of radiation might have on human populations over an extended period of time. Pauling was generally of the opinion that the fissionable materials released by the testing of atomic weapons was slowly contributing to a build up of human genetic defects – maladies that were attributable in large part to increases in average atmospheric radiation levels around the world.

The mainstream opinion of the time held that there was a particular radiation exposure threshold below which there was no likelihood of significant increases in the risk levels for particular illnesses such as leukemia and other forms of cancer. Pauling, however, believed that with every nuclear detonation, humans everywhere were being subjected to an unnecessary increase in risk of such illnesses, and that increases in incidences of illnesses worldwide could be measured in accordance with increases in environmental radiation. The disagreements that resulted from these interpretations led to conflict among several prominent scientists and scientific institutions; and Pauling, for one, was subsequently portrayed by critics as stubborn or simply unwilling to accept a largely agreed-upon establishment consensus.

Upon close examination, however, there generally appear to be more similarities between Pauling’s message and that of his opponents than there are differences, and the major differences that do exist often result from alternative interpretations of widely accepted data. Furthermore, Pauling, in his book, was ultimately willing to admit that though he considered it very unlikely that a threshold for dangerous levels of radiation exposure could exist, “There is also the possibility, which I consider to be a small one, that there is a threshold for radiation, below which no damage occurs.”

Aside from clashes concerning acceptable levels of radiation exposure, one of the greatest conflicts between Pauling and those employing a conflicting perspective (Edward Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission for example) was that of extrapolating the increased level of genetic abnormality that might result from heightened exposure to increased atmospheric radiation, and the prevalence of increased disease and disability among future generations attributable to damage in the human gene pool.

When discussing the link between radiation and heredity, a very important component of Pauling’s general argument was rooted in an excerpt from a report released by the Committee on Genetic Effects of Atomic Radiation.  As quoted in No More War!, it reads

Any radiation is genetically undesirable, since any radiation induces harmful mutations. Further, all presently available scientific information leads to the conclusion that the total harm is proportional to the total dose (that is, the total accumulated dose to the reproductive cells from the conception of the parents to the conception of the child).

The committee was, in effect, suggesting that any increase in radiation dosage, no matter how small, has the potential to detrimentally affect humans that come into contact with it, a point Pauling that emphasized. According to Pauling, every detonation of a nuclear weapon could be counted on to lead to a proportional increase in detrimental birth defects and a rise in radiation-related illnesses. Indeed, according to Pauling’s interpretation of estimates made by Dr. J. Laurence Kulp and other contemporaries, if nuclear testing was to be continued over a ten-year period at a rate similar to that maintained in the mid-1950s, 8,000 additional deaths would result every year from leukemia alone.

Generally, Pauling was of the opinion that increased risk of illnesses such as leukemia and bone cancer was proportional to exposure to increased levels of radiation above and beyond naturally occurring forms of background radiation. Pauling was also concerned with the potential for damage to the reproductive organs when subjected to increased levels of radiation, and the impact that this damage might portend for future generations of children. Likewise, Pauling expressed alarm for children exposed to heightened levels of radiation in utero.

One of the chief vulnerabilities of Pauling’s estimates was, of course, that for such large global effects, no pure control group could be monitored, since the counterfactual scenario to a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere would be that of no detonation. This particular aspect of Pauling’s argument made it much more difficult for some of his colleagues, associates and rivals to tolerate or accept his analysis.

As was the case at the time of No More War!‘s original publication in 1958, there exists today considerable debate over estimates of risks to humans from exposure to low doses of radiation. The most obvious difficulty in establishing a concrete estimate is that humans are constantly subjected to low doses of radiation on a daily basis, and calculating additional risk to human health in terms of increased exposure to comparatively low doses of additional radiation is very difficult.

One practical difficulty is the fact that there exist few groups that can be studied in a long-term setting who could reliably establish the presence or absence of health risks that result from increased exposure to radiation. This noted, during the previous century, various groups who had been exposed to heightened levels of radiation have been the subjects of long-term, multi-generational analysis.  Several additional studies have illuminated the issue more fully in recent years, allowing for the formation of conclusions that are a few steps beyond mere hypotheses.

One similarity between modern estimates of radiation risk and those issued during Pauling’s time is the notion that any increase in radiation exposure leads to increased risk. However, estimates of the level of increased risk are still debated, or rather not debated, since there exists a broad consensus that any such estimate will likely suffer from a general lack of statistical significance. While several studies have been conducted on populations exposed to heightened levels of radiation over time (among them the first generation of x-ray technicians, miners of radioactive minerals and workers at nuclear facilities), one of the most extensive and long-term studies conducted on an affected population with a significant control group was based in Japan following the Second World War.

In what has become a very long-term epidemiological study, survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan were monitored to assess the long-term health effects of exposure to wide ranges of radiation. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), an offspring of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, is still monitoring atom bomb survivors and their offspring, and the results of their research are frequently reported to government officials and the public, most recently in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. In their most recent report, RERF identifies a few trends that bear relevant connections to Pauling’s general argument, and that address some of his more potent fears.

In terms of genetic abnormalities being passed down genetically as a result of exposure to increased radiation, the recent report (Douple, et. al., 2011 5: S122-133S) concludes that this type of theorized trans-generational build-up of genetic defect has been largely unobserved. According to the Japanese data, children who are exposed to certain levels of radiation are themselves much likelier to develop harmful syndromes than are either children exposed in utero or the offspring of those who have been exposed but conceived at a date following exposure. In this respect, a portion of Pauling’s argument has been proven to be less grave than projected. On the same token, some of the RERF research suggests that survivors who have lived several years past their initial exposure were in fact more likely to contract an illness that can be attributed to radiation exposure, but the researchers admit that the variations between bomb survivors and their control group were much less extreme than had been expected.

While the conclusions reached by the RERF studies help to illuminate portions of the debate, they do not necessarily validate or contradict important aspects of Pauling’s argument, since they focus on the effects of a singular event as opposed to prolonged exposure to increased levels of low-dose radiation. More germane this component of the question is work conducted by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which has carried out studies similar to those of the RERF.

While having conducted work similar to the RERF group, UNSCEAR has also reported findings from an analysis of other populations that have been exposed to extended and chronic low-dose levels of radiation. In so doing, UNSCEAR admits to explicit difficulty in identifying a lifetime risk calculation for exposure to radiation. This is generally a result of “the lack of specificity in the type of characteristics of disease induced by radiation exposure, the long delay (years or decades) between exposure and disease presentation, and the high spontaneous incidence of diseases associated with radiation in the aging general population.”  In other words, just as was the case in the 1950s, the issue is simply a difficult one to confidently test and measure.

While the most recent report (2010 – PDF link, see p. 6) released by UNSCEAR suggests that increased exposure to low doses of radiation can increase the risk of developing cancer and other human illnesses, they are generally of the opinion that the excess risk, particularly with regard to cancer, is significantly smaller than are the risks posed by other factors.  They write

There is strong epidemiological evidence that exposure of humans to radiation at moderate and high levels can lead to excess incidence of solid tumours in many body organs and of leukaemia.  There is also growing information on the cellular/molecular mechanisms through which these cancers can arise.

Cancers are due to many causes, are frequently severe in humans, and are common, accounting for about one quarter of deaths in developed countries and a growing burden of deaths in developing countries…any increase in cancer incidence thought to be caused by low-dose radiation exposures is modest by comparison.

Despite several attempts to reach a meaningful conclusion, high margins of error and low levels of statistical significance have rendered modern professionals reluctant to develop strong opinions about the effects of low-dose radiation on human health.  Reports like those published by the UNSCEAR tend to be less alarmist than was Pauling’s stance, while still supporting his contention that even small increases in exposure to radiation can lead to detrimental health effects. As UNSCEAR puts it in its 2010 report, “even at low doses of radiation it is likely that there is a very small but non-zero chance of the production of DNA mutations that increase the risk of cancer developing.”

On the same token, some of the most common conclusions made by extended radiation health risk studies suggest that the carcinogenic effects of low-dose radiation exposure are less significant than is exposure to other health-deteriorating substances and practices. Smoking tobacco, for instance, is seen to increase incidences of lung cancer more than is common lung exposure to radon. In final analysis, while many professionals still regard any extrapolation that low-dose radiation deleteriously impacts human health as misleading or irresponsible, it is clear that the debate which surrounded Pauling and his risk estimates more than forty years ago is still strong and lively in the current scientific community.

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of No More War!

No More War!  First edition published in 1958.

No More War! First edition published in 1958.

Dr. Pauling writes with a noble passion, which even the most hardened cynic must respect….[No More War!] should be widely read and deeply pondered.”
– Philip Noel-Baker, 1958.

A few weeks ago, Linda Richards, an Oregon State University History of Science graduate student, approached us with an idea to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of No More War! — Linus Pauling’s renowned plea for peace, written over two long weekends in hurried response to Edward Teller’s Our Nuclear Future.

The terrific article that arose out of this meeting, “No More War! 50 Years Later,” is now available on the website of a new campus publication, Life@OSU.

A focal point of Richards’ commentary is this 1983 quote, written by Pauling in the Preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his famous book.

Twenty-five years ago the message of this book was that the development of great nuclear weapons requires that war be given up, for all time – that the forces that can destroy the world must not be used.

This is still the message of the book.

The danger of world destruction in a nuclear war is greater than ever before…I hope that when the year 2008 arrives, after another 25 years, the world will have survived and the human race still will be here (although I probably shall no longer be living) but that there will be no need to republish the book, because the goal of world peace will have been achieved, militarism and nuclear weapons will have been brought under control and the threat of world destruction will finally have been abolished.

Whether or not the world’s civilizations have advanced appreciably toward the ideal that Pauling envisioned for 2008 is a question very much open to debate.  What seems to be clear, however, is the continuing relevance of Pauling’s writings on the topic.

In this spirit, we urge our visitors to read Richards’ text in its entirety.  We also hasten to add that copies of the 1983 edition of No More War! are available for purchase from the OSU Libraries Special Collections.

Finally, for those who are interested in learning more about the Pauling peace legacy, please have a look at the website Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.