Remarks by Senator Jeff Bingaman
on Hans Bethe
Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Building Dedication
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pericles said that, in ancient Athens, the citizen who took no part in the public debate on the great issues of the day was regarded as not just quiet, but useless.

Hans Bethe was never useless. He contributed greatly to his adopted nation, both as a scientist and as a citizen. His scientific contributions made us stronger and more secure. His wise and courageous counsel made us safer and better.

Dr. Bethe was a truly great scientist. His scientific curiosity ranged from the heart of the atom to the furthest stars. He helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics in his twenties and quantum electrodynamics in his forties. He won the Nobel Prize in his sixties for his work on energy production in the stars. He was still studying supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes well into his nineties.

If Albert Einstein was a sprinter, Hans Bethe was a marathoner. Dr. Einstein was famous for writing five brilliant scientific papers in the space of a single year. Dr. Bethe published at least one major scientific paper in each decade of his long career. The three papers on nuclear physics he publish in his thirties served as the standard textbook in the field and became known as “Bethe’s Bible.” He taught and inspired generations of students.

During World War II, Dr. Bethe enlisted his brilliant mind in the defense of his country. He worked on radar at M.I.T. and the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. Robert Oppenheimer named him Director of the Theoretical Division at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, where he calculated the critical mass needed for the uranium bomb and helped solve the problem of implosion for the plutonium bomb. He opposed development of the hydrogen bomb at the end of World War II, but then played a major role in its development when he decided it was needed during the Cold War. He did not shrink from weapons work, and made no apologies for what he did.

He was a man of conscience, however, and like an Athenian of old, he saw public debate not as a stumbling block to action, but as “an indispensable preliminary to wise action.” As a physicist he developed nuclear weapons for his nation’s defense, but as an advisor to presidents and as a citizen, he spoke out strongly against their use and proliferation. He campaigned tirelessly against nuclear testing and the nuclear arms race. He urged President Kennedy to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and President Nixon to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. He was a vigorous opponent of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative and an equally vigorous champion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

He once said that he regretted that he was not a “more consistent idealist.” But he was an idealist all the same, and he voiced his idealism until the end. At 88, he called on scientists to “cease and desist” from developing new nuclear weapons. At 98, still active, he criticized the current Administration for misusing science.

The International Astronomical Union has already named an asteroid for Dr. Bethe. It is a fitting memorial to the man who unlocked the secret of starlight. But he should not be remembered in the heavens alone. He should be remembered here on earth, in the seat of the government he served so long and so well both as a science advisor and as a citizen-activist. He should be remembered not just as a scientist who saw mysteries and tried to solve them, but as a citizen who saw his country threatened and tried to defend it, and who dreaded nuclear war and tried to prevent it.

Dr. Bethe applied the same penetrating insight and clear thinking to the policy questions of nuclear arms control and defense policy that he applied to physics problems. He became the scientific community’s conscience as well as its elder statesman. So it is a fitting tribute for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, with which Dr. Bethe was long associated, to dedicate its building in his honor. For in preserving the memory of Hans Bethe, the Center honors not only his scientific achievements, but his contribution to the arms control debate. And his example may inspire future scientists to contribute not only their technical talents, but their social consciences as well.