Nuclear Weapons and the Circus

The title of this email might seem like a riddle: What could nuclear weapons possibly have in common with the circus? The answer: Both involve human beings doing the seemingly impossible.

I recently saw performers at the Cirque du Soleil doing stunts that, had I not seen them with my own eyes, would have seemed humanly impossible. That experience took me back to the summer of 1986, when I was an attendee at the first of Gorbachev’s Forums, designed to develop “new thinking” for survival in the nuclear age. One evening, as a diversion from more serious work, our hosts took us to the Moscow Circus, which has some similarity to the Cirque du Soleil.

As I watched people riding skate boards on stilts, doing somersaults on skate boards, and maybe even doing somersaults on stilts on skateboards (my memory may be exaggerating that one!), I thought how ridiculous it was that most people dismissed efforts at removing the nuclear threat by saying, “You can’t change human nature.” My eyes were showing me people doing what previously would have seemed beyond human nature, so how can people be so sure of our limits when it comes to nuclear weapons?

These observations also relate to an experience I had while doing my Ph.D. in the 1960’s. A number of times, I was tempted to drop out of the program thinking, “Who am I to think I can make an original contribution to knowledge?” That requirement for the doctoral thesis seemed like climbing Mt. Everest — an impossible task, at least for me. Soon afterward, having proved the theorem that became the centerpiece of my thesis, I asked my research advisor, “Is that really enough for a thesis?” Not only was the result good enough, it won me a place on the faculty at MIT. What had previously seemed like an unscalable peak now appeared to be a small hill.

In tackling the seemingly impossible task of sheathing the nuclear sword, it helps to recognize that difference in perspective before and after solving a problem. Ending slavery, giving women the vote, putting a man on the moon, and establishing a new nation “of the people, by the people and for the people” all seemed impossible before they were accomplished, but are largely taken for granted today.

Whether it is somersaulting on skate boards, or making an original contribution to knowledge, or changing human institutions that no longer serve their purpose, it helps to remember that there are far fewer limits on what the human spirit can accomplish than might first appear.

May the New Year bring good things to you — and to the world.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University

If you agree that we should not stand idly by in tacit acceptance of this unacceptable situation, please send a link to this post to friends who might be interested and encourage them to sign up for this blog’s RSS feed. Also, as suggested in email #27, consider whether you are a member of a group where you might replicate the process I am trying at Stanford.

The Resource section of our web site has a number of useful links.

Permission is granted to reproduce this page in whole or in part. A reference to would be appreciated, or in print to

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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