Prose: What is Wisdom? by Frank Richards

1. A Person of Destiny

Mr. Tsutomo Yamaguchi had almost reached the downtown train station when he realized he might have forgotten his travel pass. As he walked, he checked each of his suit pockets, but he already suspected, with a sinking feeling, that he’d left it at the office they had last visited. Without the pass, he would not be allowed to board the train with Sato and Kuniyoshi, his Mitsubishi Heavy Industries coworkers. Now he had no choice. He would hurry back to the branch offices and retrieve the pass.

His companions laughed amiably. “Better get a move on, Yamaguchi,” Kuniyoshi said. “We won’t wait for you. Tanaka-sama will be angry if we do not report for work today. There is much catch-up work to be done. And then of course, we must assemble our report on the branch office.”

Another embarrassment in front of his peers. He would never get promoted this way. He knew they were going to tell others about it. Tanaka-sama would inevitably find out. He shook his head and turned back toward the office.

He increased his pace, but it was difficult to hurry on such a beautiful day. Traffic moved briskly. In the street, bicyclists pedaled alongside the automobiles. The sidewalk was crowded with pedestrians. Yamaguchi came to an intersection where a police officer directing traffic stopped everyone to allow a trolley to pass, on its way to the countryside. He thought he might like to be on that trolley, and later enjoy a cup of tea at a country inn. If only the war were over, the day would be perfect.

The unclouded summer sky appeared especially blue. Morning sunlight reflected off a single airplane; no, he now saw there were three, and his heart made a panicky leap before he realized three planes could hardly constitute a bombing raid. As if to confirm his deduction, a lone silvery object tumbled from the lead plane, and then parachutes sprouted above it, and it slowed to a leisurely float. More American propaganda pamphlets, Yamaguchi thought.

Downtown had come to life with a bustle of people intent on morning errands or getting to work. Auto exhaust fumes thickened the air. The branch office building stood just ahead. Yamaguchi glanced at his wristwatch. Eight fifteen a.m. Yes, he could retrieve his travel documents and return to the station in time to board the 9:00 a.m. train, suffer the inevitable ribbing from his colleagues, and return home. Situations like this always caused him a sense of internal embarrassment and humiliation.

But then came a flash, as if from a photographer’s bulb but with the dazzle of a flash so bright it cut him blind. He raised his hands to cover his eyes, and his momentum continued to keep him walking forward. And then he felt as if he were raised into the air as the earth dropped out from under him, and he fell hard to his hands and knees, where the bucking of the earth continued as if it were some living creature, tiring of his presence at last and tossing him aside. The sound was so loud, his hearing cut out. He felt the vibration jostle his lungs and his liver and his stomach all at once as it shook the earth below him. A burning agony seared his shoulder, but he could not see what was burning him. Yamaguchi was still on all fours like a dog, and his fingers gripping at the concrete, stunned in wonder.

2. Chain Reaction

Otto Hahn was usually a bit early for their evening meal, and he was especially so today, as he had missed tea with his fellows. After a brisk morning walk in the nearby countryside (they weren’t allowed to go far from their place of captivity, an English country house named Farm Hall), he’d spent most of the day with correspondence, first reading the letters that had finally come to him after a delay of two months (you would think the war was still going on) and then writing lengthy replies.

As he descended the stairs from his room, he saw Major Rittner, their British supervisor, standing outside his office door, as if to ambush Hahn. A short man who always wore a crumpled, wrinkled uniform, Rittner seemed cheerful but often adopted a bossy demeanor.

“Ah, Professor Hahn, I have some news, which you will undoubtedly be interested to hear.” He gestured toward the door. “Come through to my office, old man. We’ll have a drink before dining.”

Rittner’s stuffy office smelled of a combination of mildew and the man’s foul pipe tobacco. He poured out two drinks, a stiff one for Hahn and what looked like a sixth of a gill’s worth, not even an ounce, for himself. “Please, take a seat.”

Hahn sat in the chair fronting the man’s desk. “Well, Rittner, what is this news that seems to have you in such a state of excitement?” He took a sip of his whiskey and sat back. His chair creaked.

“The Allies have dropped a bomb.”

“So?”

“And it destroyed an entire Japanese city. A city named Hiroshima. One bomb.”

“An entire city?” Hahn felt dubious.

“It was, as I understand it, an atom bomb, a bomb made by splitting atoms. I thought you’d like to know, seeing as…” He waved a hand at Hahn.

Fear shot adrenaline through Hahn’s heart. From there it radiated outward to his entire body, rippling degree by degree, so that he felt it even in his fingertips. Old phantoms rose to cloud his mind. Could it be possible? Fission? As a weapon? He gulped the rest of the whiskey. “I don’t believe you.” He gestured for another drink, and Rittner obliged.

“Churchill announced it on the wireless a few minutes ago.”

Hahn remembered what had happened at his research lab, how they had puzzled over experimental results and he, Hahn, finally realized that the only possible explanation was the splitting of the uranium. His paper on the subject had created quite a stir when it had been published back in 1939. But make a bomb? He downed the drink and Rittner poured another. In Germany they had talked about making a machine for producing energy, and Heisenberg’s group had even constructed a small prototype. They had speculated, theoretically of course, that a weapon might also be made, but it was unlikely. They hadn’t the resources. “I’ve always feared the possibility—”

“Perhaps you should go tell the others?” Rittner said.

***

Hahn’s nine captive Axis scientist colleagues had preceded him to the dining room and were already finishing their soup course. They looked up at him with questions:

“Hahn, what is the matter? Have you been crying?”

“He looks like he is drunk. Hahn, are you drunk?”

When Hahn informed the others, they did not believe it. But after the British played the radio news of the announcement for them, the scientists began to consider how it might have been done. And why.

“To make a weapon of fission. Why do you think they did it?” Wirtz asked.

“Maybe because they thought Germany would make one?” was Gerlach’s reply. “Another of Herr Hitler’s wonder weapons. Bah.”

“Why didn’t we do it then?” Diebner wanted to know. “I would have thought we were the only ones who might do such a thing. What about it, Heisenberg?”

“Can you imagine us working on such a project?” Heisenberg laughed. “We would spend all our time arguing who had the best approach, and never accomplish much of anything. Ach, we would have needed a thousand people.” He paused to consider. “Maybe ten thousand.” He shook his head. “We’d never have gotten approval for the resources we’d need.”

“There was talk though,” Diebner said. “You remember, Heisenberg?”

“Yes. Saved by our own inability to organize.” Heisenberg shook his head.

“They were probably in a hurry lest we develop it first.” Diebner dabbed at a spot on the tablecloth with his serviette. “A remarkable display of efficiency and advancement of knowledge.”

Hahn pushed his soup away. “In such a hurry to develop a functioning technology, they never stopped to consider whether it would be wise to do so?”

“They were probably watching us all the time.” Diebner leaned forward. “Remember how we couldn’t get heavy water because of the Norway attacks? They were watching us even then. Maybe they are watching us even now.”

“I think it is dreadful of the Americans to have done it,” von Weizsäcker said. “I think it is madness on their part.”

Heisenberg turned toward von Weizsäcker. “One can’t say that. One could equally well say, ‘That’s the quickest way of ending the war.’”

“That’s what consoles me,” Hahn said.

“But consider, Heisenberg,” Wirtz said, “that might be the quickest way to start the next war.”

No one said anything for several moments; each man sat absorbed in his own thoughts. And then, “Your fault, Hahn,” someone muttered.

Heisenberg looked around the table, as if to spot the culprit. “No, humanity’s fault.”

3. Double Hibakusha

Manager Tanaka rose from his desk at the end of the long line of double engineering desks and drawing tables. As befit his position of managing engineer, his desk was arranged perpendicularly to the other desks, forming the top line of a capital T. The desks were arranged in order of position and seniority. Yamaguchi’s was the third desk from Tanaka’s on the right.

“You are late, Engineer Yamaguchi,” Tanaka said, after exchanging bows. “What happened to your arm? And where are your coworkers?” He gestured at their empty desks, piled high with stacks of paperwork, as was Yamaguchi’s. “It has been three days.”

Yamaguchi’s arm was bandaged in a sling. Although it had been only three days, he had decided to go in to work. His eyesight recovered soon after the flash, as had his hearing, but only in one ear.

“We were injured in the bombing at Hiroshima, Manager Tanaka.” Censorship had kept news of the bombing secret from the rest of Japan. “The explosion destroyed the whole city. Afterward, people wandered aimlessly, covered in gray ash, looking like ghosts in the rubble.”

“The entire city? Preposterous! Think, Yamaguchi! How big would a bomb have to be to destroy a whole city? As big as this building?” He swept his arms around. “How could an airplane carry it then? You are an engineer, Yamaguchi. You know such a thing is not possible.”

“Yet it happened, Manager Tanaka. It happened.”

At that moment he recognized the flash, as of a photographer’s bulb, and several seconds later the windows of the Nagasaki Mitsubishi General production plant imploded. Yamaguchi dropped to his knees, awaiting the inevitable rebellion of the earth beneath him.

4. March 2016 – AlphaGo

At his cue, the TV reporter lifted his microphone and turned to face the audience and the camera. “Thanks, Maureen. Here we are at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul, Korea, at the historic conclusion of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match, where supercomputer AlphaGo has just defeated the human Go champion, Lee Sedol, in five games. Years ago, the supercomputer Deep Blue defeated human chess champion Garry Kasparov. They said then the game of Go was more complicated, so no computer would ever best a human Go champion. But now the human champion has fallen.

“With us today is AlphaGo project manager, Philip Janzen. Mr. Janzen, why build a computer just to defeat a human being at a game?”

“What we are interested in, more generally, is to demonstrate the capability of supercomputers in many areas, not just Go.”

“Such as?”

“Computers and robots have already replaced assembly line workers. We are working on driverless cars. Our win demonstrates that computers will soon have the capability to replace humans in many occupations, doctors and lawyers, for example. We’re already doing remote medical diagnostics and researching briefs for law firms.”

“But why replace people? Why replace doctors and lawyers?”

“It’s just the next step in artificial intelligence. Computers can do a more accurate, more efficient job. Besides,” Janzen added, playing to the crowd, “nobody likes lawyers anyway.”

Laughter rippled through the audience.

“What about replacing project managers? Or CEOs?”

Janzen smiled and shook his head. “A computer could never replace a CEO. That requires strategic thought. Much too complicated for a computer—”

“Isn’t that what the doctors and lawyers say about their jobs? And isn’t that what they said about winning at Go?”

Janzen looked nonplussed for a moment. “But neither the board nor the stockholders, for that matter, would ever allow it.”

“But wouldn’t computers make better board members? Or better stockholders? Or better human beings?”

Janzen fumbled for an answer.

The reporter shrugged, then smiled into the camera. “Back to you, Maureen.”

Frank Richards writes fiction. His work has appeared in publications such as O Dark Thirty, Menda City Review, The Penmen Review, The MacGuffin, Sanskrit Literary-Arts Magazine, The Virginia Normal, and War, Literature, & the Arts. Frank is assistant nonfiction editor for Village Square Literary Journal. He holds a doctorate in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and is currently in his third year of study for an MFA in fiction. Frank and his wife live in Central Virginia along with their assortment of rescued cats and dogs.