Kenneth E. Brockman, American physicist and leader of a Nobel prize-winning team, meets with Mikhail Morgulis and answers questions about what technology means for our world. Furthermore, he discusses his passion for helping students in Belarus.
Kenneth E. Brockman is a West Point graduate who has had a distinguished career as a nuclear safety inspector. As the director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, from 2003 to 2006, he was responsible for the development of the IAEA safety standards for power reactors, research reactors, and fuel cycle facilities, and oversaw the IAEA regulatory, engineering, and operational safety assistance programs.
Brockman’s team won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 “for its efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.” Brockman also managed a multi-national staff of experts and served as the primary reactor safety advisor to the secretariat and all member states with commercial nuclear facilities. With over 32 years of experience in both domestic and international settings, Brockman has truly made an impact on the world, most notably with his contribution to nuclear safety.
Older individuals often state that the new generation of people is more pragmatic; that it is losing the romanticism in life, its goodness and love. What I have in mind here is not short-lived attitudes, but love between individuals on a long-term basis. What is your view of the new generation? Will it shed the human qualities we have known thus far? Is it undergoing a transformation?
This is a very interesting question. In our lives, we have seen a few generations: the generations of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and even the first generation of the new millennium. Each of these generations brings something new to the world. Of course, it seems like they don’t have enough romance or love, but when I look at them, I see that there is good – a new kind of good. The same, but in a different form. My grand-daughter can be seen as an example of this – by the way, I have eight grandchildren. When she comes up to me, hugs me, and says, “I love you,” I see that love and romance have not gone anywhere; they are alive.
Of course, the adult situation is somewhat different. Here in America, we see the efforts to take regular love out of life, to change our daily relationships – this is a problem that no one can escape. But it is not the problem of the new generation – this is a problem of previous generations. The new generation has not yet set an agenda – that is our generation doing that, and the one before us. We – not they – began this war on values. We need to look at ourselves and not put the blame on them.
You ask if we are losing our humanity. I am sure that, no, we are not losing it. I was in the military for a few years, and I know that when you look danger in the face, everything else disappears. It’s no wonder that there is an old saying, “In war, there are no atheists.” I believe this is true.
Even now, many people cannot live without help from the Internet and cell phones. I assume that, like any scientific discovery, the Internet can be used to serve either good or evil. Today, people sit in their corporate offices and instead of engaging one another in conversation, they read material on the Internet or correspond through text messaging. One is inclined to ask whether this will lead to a situation where, on a personal level, people will stop communicating with one another.
Tell me, what is the fate that awaits our soul? Will it not be destroyed in the new generation by new technology?
Technology is a different matter, of course. I remember talking to my grandmother. It’s been more than a hundred years since people rode in carriages with horses and cars were a rarity. Now, cars are everywhere and horses are only on farms. Most children have never ridden on a horse. Just 30 years ago, classrooms did not have computers. Everyone wrote with pen and paper. Now it’s the other way around – everyone has a computer. The technological world has advanced far ahead and it appears to some that we control our own destiny. I think that, as our main goal as parents, what we need to transfer to our children and grandchildren is our spiritual life and our desire to stand behind that life.
Throughout the world, the number of people reading books in traditional format is declining. The Internet is preeminent, and people are reading books through that medium. Would someone who does not read books lose certain human qualities that were provided in the past by reading books?
You know, I love a cold, winter evening when I can sit comfortably by the fire, book in hand, and read a bit. In that wonderful process, there is something so special that nothing else could take its place. The feeling of holding a book in your hands, the cover, the rustle of the pages… It’s wonderful. It touches your life, your thoughts, and your soul.
Today’s generation loves computers more and turns pages by sliding a finger across a screen. I don’t have anything against that. They sit at the fireplace the same, but read by computer. What really worries me is when a person no longer wants to read; when a person only listens to what he hears and what he is told through a television screen. That seems to me to be a problem. So it doesn’t really matter to me how people read. It’s important to hear the author, to understand what he is trying to say in his book, and to know that it is helping us. That is what is important.
I am aware that you have recently made frequent trips to Belarus. Why have you travelled there?
Before, I knew practically nothing about Belarus, but a few years ago, with my Belarusian friends Andrew and Inna Ryzhkov, we traveled there to get to know the country and the people. When we arrived at the city of Gomel in southeastern Belarus, we visited one of the schools where the students were immersed in the English language. The students met us in national costumes and with bread and salt, which is a long-held tradition of greeting guests. At first, they looked at us as if we were aliens; until then, Americans had never visited their school. Only a week had passed since they had started studying English, but we already felt like loved ones.
Later, it came time for us to leave, and we said goodbye as close friends. Everyone was sad to say goodbye, and the children escorting us said, “OUR Americans are leaving.” They didn’t just say Americans, but “our Americans.” We also felt like a part of our soul stayed behind with them. So that’s how we related to the people in Belarus, and we are planning to go there every year to continue to help them.
What is the specific purpose of your trips to Belarus?
We wanted to go to these places and see where we could offer the most assistance. We found a special place in Gomel, helping youth and adults learn English. We were able to share our knowledge and love with them. We try to help where it is needed and to establish nice personal relationships with people, and we were also able to institute an exchange program between Belarusian and American schools. With the help of these programs, we help people better understand one another.
What do you consider to be the most important thing that people will need and that will be of help to them in life?
The questions are becoming more and more difficult. Maybe I will repeat here what I always avow: The most important thing is the relationship of man with God. In second place is the relationship with family, and the third place is the relationship with people at work. In the modern world, it’s very easy to confuse this order. For many, work becomes the most important, but it seems to me that the most important thing is to preserve the sequence: God, family, work. Then you can accomplish anything!
I recall the words of Robert Jastrow, NASA’s director of programs (1958 – 1981), who wrote in Reader’s Digest: “When we physicists scaled the Mountain of Knowledge and reached its very peak, a surprise awaited us. We thought that we would be the first ones on the mountain, but people were already there, engaged in conversation. They were theologians.” What do you think about these remarks?
I think Robert Jastrow was a very wise man. I would articulate his position on that question this way:
Some theologians were sitting on a mountaintop and chatting, trying to answer the question, “WHY?” Discussing life, they asked why certain events took place, who was behind them, and so on. When the scientists arrived, they probably asked, “WHAT brought these events to be,” responding to the technical components of the event. Generally, I don’t see a conflict in this. The scientists got there a bit late! It seems to me that the theologians and scientists complement each other instead of contradicting each other.
I would like to finish our wonderful discussion with the hardest question of them all: What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your life?
I was the leader of a group of scientists who received the Nobel Prize in 2005. For me, it was a great honor to be among those who were awarded and to work with so many outstanding scientists who were part of the program. Our program was based on the use of nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. Importantly, I would like to finish by saying that nuclear energy is a special but dangerous gift, which must be treated with great caution and used for the benefit of mankind.
You can reach Mikhail Morgulis at SDiplomacy@gmail.com