Focusing on the nuclear threat

April 27, 2010, 12:53 a.m.
Focusing on the nuclear threat
Electrical Engineering Professor Martin Hellman (center) with colleagues Ralph Merkle (left) and Whitfield Diffie (right). Together, they invented the Diffie-Hellman key exchange, a public key cryptography protocol that allows for secure transfer of information online. (CHUCK PAINTER/Stanford News Service)

Martin Hellman is trying to save the world. On any given Tuesday afternoon last quarter, the slender, 64-year-old emeritus professor of electrical engineering could have been found in a windowless room of Hewlett Teaching Center, dancing from the lectern to the whiteboard to draw three large circles in a row.

He draws the first, swiftly, precisely. It’s clear he’s done this many times.

“This is the current state of the world,” he tells his dozen audience members, most students, some colleagues, arranged in a checkerboard fashion across the small, white-walled room.

Then, a circle to the left of the first one. A new possibility, with a line signifying the path from the first. He doesn’t even have to look at the board.

“This is what I like to call new thinking, or the state of acceptable risk,” he says, the pitch of his voice rising with a sense of latent optimism, drawing a contrast with the seemingly perpetually furrowed brow above his granite eyes. Audience members shift in their seats.

“And this,” Hellman says, drawing the third, rightmost circle, this time slower and more carefully. Eyes widen slightly across the room as he then constructs the paths between the three circles. “This one I call the disaster state.”

‘Clearly . . . This Was My Life’

Martin “Marty” Hellman was born and raised in the Bronx, a place, he says, that gave him enough “chutzpah” to make him think he could make a difference in the world. (Chutzpah, he explained, is arrogance or nerve.)

Raised by a high school physics teacher and a stay-at-home mother, Hellman graduated from New York University in 1966 with a degree in electrical engineering, before going on to earn a master’s and a Ph.D. in the same field from Stanford. In 1971, he joined Stanford’s faculty after a two-year stint at M.I.T., and in 1976, with cryptographer Whitfield Diffie and researcher Ralph Merkle, Hellman designed the Diffie-Hellman key exchange, a protocol that today allows for the secure transfer of sensitive information, such as buyer and seller information, over insecure channels of the Internet.

The invention was a major boost to Hellman’s career, and he continued to teach until, around 1980, things began to change for the then-35-year-old. The ice beneath his marriage was getting thinner, he said, and the fast pace of his work wasn’t helping. At the time, his wife, Dorothie, joined a group called the Creative Initiative Foundation, and Hellman decided to follow.

The group, an environmentally-minded nonprofit founded by Graduate School of Business Prof. Harry Rathbun and his wife, Emilia, was itself undergoing changes at the time. As Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency and the threat of nuclear war came sharply into focus against the backdrop of the Cold War, the group turned its attention to the environmental threats of nuclear weapons. And in his interactions with the Rathbuns, Hellman was forever changed.

“Before the ‘80s, I was a typical Stanford professor in electrical engineering, who would have little interest in the nuclear threat,” Hellman said on a sunny weekend morning in the kitchen of his campus home. “But I realized, through Creative Initiative, that the same thinking that was behind environmental problems was also behind the nuclear threat: the lack of long-range thinking.”

As Creative Initiative morphed into an international movement known as Beyond War, Hellman’s focus was slipping further away from teaching and closer to the group’s campaign to reduce the nuclear threat. He took an 18-month leave from Stanford, without pay, and in 1984 traveled to the U.S.S.R. to have what he called “honest conversations” with Soviet scientists.

“Clearly, by the mid-’80s, this was my life,” Hellman said.

In 1987, at age 93, Harry Rathbun died in his Palo Alto home. At about the same time, Hellman’s wife, Dorothie, began suffering from chronic migraine headaches that eventually confined her to bed. Suffering from both the loss of his role model in Beyond War as well as an increasingly tenuous marriage, Hellman continued to teach until, in 1996, he retired from Stanford.

Then 50 years old, Hellman vowed to continue the work to which Harry Rathbun had devoted his own life.

‘Engineering’ A Solution

“The risk that a child born today will not live out his or her natural lifetime is 10 percent,” Hellman said, citing his own analysis of nuclear risk while seated at his kitchen table. A picture of two girls, his granddaughters, flashed in a digital slideshow on a nearby counter. Behind him, on his living room couch, lay two puppies who, having finished chasing each other around the house, were sleeping on one another’s paws.

Without a doubt, it’s a claim that grabs attention wherever it’s heard, whether in the Tuesday seminar Hellman teaches voluntarily or on this Saturday morning in his home. But in no way does he shy away from backing it up.

By using the technique known as risk analysis, Hellman, in two papers published in 2008, breaks down states of the world into separate, smaller sub-states. In the case of nuclear disaster, then, a series of individual failures will first have to occur before the world shifts from its current state to what Hellman often terms “World War III,” or the nuclear disaster state.

But, Hellman added, with the current mode of thinking toward nuclear weapons and deterrence — thinking that he emphatically and repeatedly calls uneducated — crises such as the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, nuclear tests in North Korea and missile testing in Iran only move the world closer to nuclear disaster. Hellman’s papers support a one-in-1,000 percent chance, per year, of a catastrophic failure of nuclear deterrence. By extension along the lines of discrete probability, this can mean that a child born today has a 10 percent chance of dying in nuclear war.

“Nuclear weapons are extremely dangerous, and yet society is acting as if there’s not a problem,” Hellman said. “Common sense tells a lot of people that the risk is unacceptable, that having fallible human beings, who can go crazy, in control of these weapons is unacceptable.”

So, what’s the long-term solution? For Hellman, to shift people’s mode of thinking regarding nuclear weapons from a reliance on deterrence to an insistence on disarmament. In order to initiate this shift, Hellman launched, a website with resources designed to educate visitors on the risk posed by nuclear weapons.

“Without a fundamental change in our thinking about national security, our long-term risk really won’t change,” he said.

At Stanford, in addition to launching a weekly seminar on the topic last quarter, Hellman is trying to start a campaign by organizing a series of events this quarter that feature other nuclear experts from the University. In short, he is trying to achieve a tipping point in conversation about nuclear risk by getting 10 percent of Stanford’s undergraduate population, or about 650 students, involved in the project.

“I’m an engineer, and I’ve tried to engineer a solution,” Hellman said, in a conversation that featured an engineering analogy every few sentences. “If market segmentation is going after a market niche, the market I’ve indentified is Stanford’s 6,500 undergraduates — roughly 50,000 times smaller than the national population.”

Analogies aside, Hellman is a man on a mission, and it’s a mission in which he believes deeply. On a campus where nuclear experts from every related field work to influence policy, Hellman is, as he’s done several times in his amorphous career, breaking the mold. One of his favorite quotes, which he frequently uses in presentation and which he repeated for this interview, is Albert Einstein’s:

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

In a rare moment of silence, Hellman simply nodded.

Devin Banerjee was president and editor in chief of Volume 236 of The Stanford Daily, serving from June 2009 to January 2010. He joined The Daily's staff in September 2007. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @devinbanerjee.

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