Moment is proud to introduce The Wisdom Project: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives. Our inaugural conversation is with Dieter M. Gruen, PhD., 99, of Chicago.
In 1937, a teenaged Dieter Gruen left Nazi Germany to live with relatives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he went to high school. When his parents arrived in the U.S. in 1939, the family moved to Chicago. Gruen went directly from Northwestern University with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry to the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There, he helped develop the uranium bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. He went on to become a senior scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, where he first tackled the chemical challenges of building a nuclear submarine and subsequently worked on the lab’s innovative research in chemistry, materials science and energy. He holds more than 50 patents.
His wife of 66 years, Dolores, a psychologist, died in 2015. They had two daughters and a son. Dr. Gruen has nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
During his long career, Dr. Gruen researched radioactive elements that are now used in cardiac pacemakers, designed safer nuclear reactors with more easily disposable and less toxic waste, analyzed meteorite composition that led to a better understanding of the universe’s evolution, helped develop a solar powered heat pump and advanced a diamond film to improve micro-electronics, including electrodes in artificial retinas. For the past decade, he has been hard at work developing graphene solar cells at the University of Illinois in Chicago to harness renewable solar electricity in order to mitigate the grave risk that climate change poses to a habitable Earth.
In nominating him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2021, U.S. Representative Sean Casten (D-IL) wrote, “Dr. Gruen is a renowned scientist and fierce advocate for climate action whose contributions over eight decades have transformed American technological development, from nuclear fission and fusion to solar and energy storage. We as a nation are forever in his debt.”
Moment recently visited with Dr. Gruen to hear his wisdom as he approaches his 100th birthday on November 21st of this year.
How did the Manhattan Project scientists come to terms with the destruction caused by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945?
At all the project sites—Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, the University of Chicago—the scientists formed organizations almost immediately to discuss the implications of nuclear weapons and the responsibilities of those who’d created them—us. We felt a strong need to prevent their further use. Four of us in the Association of Oak Ridge Engineers and Scientists wrote a letter to more than 100 leaders in various fields, the most influential thinkers of our time, including Albert Einstein. We asked them what it would take to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used again.
What did Albert Einstein say?
He said the only solution would be to have a world government. The world is even more dangerous now that Russia has invaded Ukraine and Putin talks openly about using nuclear weapons. That has never happened before. There are people who say that under certain circumstances they would use tactical nuclear weapons. In my opinion, if you cross that threshold, you’re on the path to escalation.
What’s your advice for young scientists today who may be grappling with potential moral issues as they, too, work on groundbreaking projects that may also pose grave dangers?
Your PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. There is a saying: Philosophy is the mother of science. If you want to be a scientist, you should have some kind of philosophy and a good grounding in morality. The Jewish religion teaches us that. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24). I think that’s not a bad plan.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ atomic clock, a/k/a the Doomsday clock, is now set to 100 seconds to midnight. What can turn the clock back or slow it down?
It would require another agreement of the kind that President Reagan made with Mikhail Gorbachev 35 years ago. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty reduced the quantity of nuclear weapons very substantially. There has been no similar agreement since.
You left Nazi Germany in 1937. How did having to leave, as a Jewish teenager, knowing what was happening there, affect the rest of your life?
I’m probably much more sensitive to the kinds of political currents that I experienced there and that might lead to an autocratic government. My attitudes towards what’s going on in the world in politics and economics are certainly traceable to my experiences in Germany, as well as my feelings about race and other people and cultures. I’ve had to come to grips with these in my own life.
Tell me more about your work in harnessing the sun’s energy.
The solar cells that we use today convert only about 15 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity. We can do much better than that. To improve the efficiency and lower the cost, I use a material called graphene, which is a relativistic material—it follows the laws of quantum electrodynamics, not quantum mechanics. The electrons in graphene travel so quickly that we can extract the excited electrons in attoseconds. (An attosecond is one quintillionth of a second.) That increases the efficiency of conversion. I have made a prototype that has four times the voltage as silicon cells, which is what we have now. That’s more than any other solar cell that’s ever been made, but the currents have to be increased much more than what I have now.
What else is being done toward maximizing renewable solar energy?
President Biden is invoking the Defense Production Act to encourage America’s large-scale manufacture of solar cells and use of solar power. If you have a friend who can get me in touch with President Biden, let me know.
What will we do if the planet really does become uninhabitable? Stephen Hawking believed we’ll have to colonize space. Was he right?
We’ll need oxygen. We’ll need water, fertilizer and soil. Where are we going to go? There’s no other planet in this solar system that would support life! It’s going to be all we can do to sustain life here—let’s do that first and then think about colonizing.
What’s the best hope for human improvement, world peace, and a healthy planet?
You’re asking a pretty tall question! Personally, I’m a little pessimistic when I look at the situation and I see what’s going on. Instead of getting together after Glasgow and really coming to grips with the threat of climate change and our energy needs, I see governments fighting wars. Instead of reducing weaponry, I hear people talking about their country’s increasing defense budgets. For the first time since World War II, Germany is going to spend more money on building up their military capabilities.
We have the technology now to really do something. I’ve been trying for more than 10 years, but I still find it exceedingly difficult to persuade people to do something! But I’m not giving up. I’m going to continue my work and hope that people at the highest levels are talking about this issue and putting regulations into effect that will eventually lead to making the sun our chief energy source. That’s not currently happening on a scale that will get us there.
Speaking from your life, learning and longevity, what’s the most important thing that you think people should know?
That changing how we source our energy is the greatest challenge I believe we’ve ever faced.