Herman Kahn was a nuclear scientist who worked at the RAND Corporation (the first modern think tank) from its inception in 1947. Kahn was a genius: he received the highest mark ever recorded on the Army's intelligence test. At RAND, instead of practicing physics, he worked on policy issues regarding nuclear weapons.
He quickly gained a reputation as a typal mad scientist. After his major work, On Thermonuclear War, was published, a reviewer in Scientific American said: "Is there really a Herman Kahn? It is hard to believe... No one could write like this. No one could think like this... This is a moral tract on mass murder: how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it."
Despite this, Kahn's views were not not especially unusual, or out of the mainstream of other RAND thinkers in those days. And, given that the Cold War was successfully concluded in victory for the western democracies, without the end of the world happening, or even a single nuclear exchange, it is apparent that his ideas worked. But they seemed monstrous when they were first proposed because no one had ever had to think about nuclear weapons before, and the kind of thinking one had to do was shocking. It's all very well for ethical philosophers talk about a doomsday device in the abstract. But what does one do when it is actually within one's power to make a doomsday device?
Kahn was also given to expressing very dark ideas in lighthearted terms, which probably made it easier to consider him mad. For example, this is Kahn's explanation for the paradox of having to make the Russians understand that bad behavior on their part would be punished, but that they would not be obliterated:
Let me tell you my solution to the whole problem... You make the SAC commander's job hereditary and put a guy like General [Curtis] LeMay in charge who is really going to hit them hard... You make his assistant's job hereditary and his job is to shoot LeMay at the outbreak of war. So you have a sensible strategy.
You also... buy a fantastic number of IRBMs (intermediate range ballistic missiles) and put them in Europe. Alert. Ready to go. And this is bad because it makes the Russians trigger happy... So you put Bertrand Russell in charge of them. You know they'll never be used. You make the assistant's job hereditary. Comes the crisis, he shoots Bertrand...
Kahn was apparently a model for Dr. Strangelove in the Kubrick film. Many of the movie's ideas, and even lines of dialog, came directly from Kahn's book. (And if you haven't watched Dr. Strangelove, why haven't you?)
(Above stuff is largely from a review of a new book on Kahn, in the Weekly Standard. Online, but available only to subscribers.
My thoughts on looking at this photo:
1. Might Kahn also have been the model for Skilliman, the evil nuclear physicist in Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration? (And if you haven't read Camp Concentration, why haven't you?) Skilliman's ideas, which Disch seems to have considered brilliant, fascinating, and deeply evil, sound suspiciously like the popular view of Kahn. His description of Skilliman: "A man intended by nature to be slim, he is fat in his own despite. But for a scarcity of limbs, he might aptly be represented as a spider—the swollen belly and minimal limbs. Balding, he cultivates the ineffectual vanity of combing long strands of sparse sidehair across his glistening skull. Thick glasses magnifying speckled blue eyes... He has a slight twang, Texas modified by California. The twang thickens when he speaks with me. I think that for him I represent the great Eastern Establishment—that malign cabal of liberalism which long ago rejected his scholarship applications to Harvard and Swarthmore." Kahn was a graduate of the UCLA physics program.
2. My other thought is Jed Hartman's recent thoughts about a disturbing trend that he's noticed in stories submitted to Strange Horizons: writers seem to be using obesity as a marker for evil. This certainly didn't start with Kahn, or even with the characters Sidney Greenstreet used to play, but I have to wonder if Kahn's obesity made it easier for his contemporaries to fit him into the Evil Mad Scientist submyth, and for writers to use him to model evil characters.
Words MS Word doesn't know: typal
Yes, I'm cat-waxing instead of wrestling with the intractable plot of my current short story. Why?
木枯し (also spelled木枯らし)
== kogarashi == (noun) cold wintry wind
|The left radical is 'tree' (木). The right radical is 'old' (古), acting phonetically to express 'bone' (the character is derived from the pictograph of a skull). This character originally meant 'tree reduced to a skeleton'. Henshall suggests as a mnemonic: 'Withered old tree.'|