In 1939, in the bowels of Pupin and Schermerhorn, the Manhattan Project was born. Intrepid physicists pushed the limits of theoretical science in order to master the universe at the atomic scale. Helping them in their quest were the young men of the Columbia football team, who were enlisted to ferry uranium around campus. The brains of scientists and the brawn of athletes coalesced into the world's first nuclear reactor. The enduring legacy of this project is a global nuclear arsenal of roughly 22,400 warheads, which could one day destroy civilization and make large swaths of the world uninhabitable for decades. It seems then that what Columbia giveth, Columbia taketh away. The median mid-career income of a Columbia graduate is about $100,000. This is a significant sum and a fine platform from which to build a life of upper-middle class bliss. And yet Alma Mater also gestated the threatening spawn of nuclear weapons, whose deployment in almost any context would make a cushy, salaried position rather unimportant. Students are therefore faced with a dilemma. Do they invest in their education and seek the future financial empowerment that a Columbia degree provides? Or do they invest instead in a personal nuclear bunker that will help guarantee their survival when the bombs do fly? In 2000, regarded policy analyst and proliferation expert Jonathan Schell wrote a book titled "The Fate of the Earth," in which he explains the simple reality that so long as nuclear weapons exist, someone will one day detonate a warhead triggering a ballistic exchange that stands out among extinction scenarios. It's not a light read. In describing why we can't ignore the possibility of extinction, he wrote, "The mere risk of extinction has a significance that is categorically different from, and immeasurably greater than, that of any other risk, and as we make our decisions we have to take that significance into account. Every risk has been contained within the frame of life; extinction would shatter that frame." Eleven years later, deproliferation has failed to move forward a great deal. The warheads lay dormant waiting for their time to shine and burn and blast and irradiate and devastate. Consider that the possibility of extinction is a very bad thing. If we multiply the small probability of extinction against the magnitude of its undesirability, we find that the scenario has a large negative expected value. On the other hand, if we multiply the relatively high probability of getting a well-paying job with a Columbia degree by its desirability, we find a relatively high positive expected value. However, compare the magnitude of the negative expected cost of dying in a nuclear Armageddon to the rather quotidian positive expected value of working in a cushy job, and suddenly avoiding the nuclear disaster seems like the greater imperative. As Schell succinctly explains, "A fraction of infinity is still infinity." So what are the options? A Columbia education costs somewhere in the vicinity of $200,000. That sum is, incidentally, enough to buy an entry-level decommissioned missile silo. For just $200,000, you can get 20 acres in the middle of nowhere, Cold War-era defense complex included. Perfect for starting a family and enduring a nuclear winter, these little complexes might even be the next housing bubble. In fact, in the Adirondack Mountains, two "entrepreneurial cousins" have just converted a 1960s Atlas-F missile silo into a "luxury home with a contemporary finished interior," featuring amenities such as "a marble tiled master bathroom with Jacuzzi." If the $2.3 million price tag sounds a bit steep, know that "creative financing [is] possible with significant down payment" (bubble much?). So forget finding six friends to apply to the LLC—pool your money and buy a secure future in the lap of American bunker decadence. But if real estate speculation sounds unappealing, there is a third option. A small but dedicated band of nuclear arms experts actually advocate proliferation. The deterrence theory of nuclear proliferation suggests that the fear of retaliation, often phrased as mutually assured destruction, will prevent the use of nuclear weapons, and in fact serve as a deterrent to even conventional armed conflicts between nuclear powers. It therefore stands that a surefire way to prevent yourself from being targeted in a nuclear attack is to buy your own nuclear weapon. The National Rifle Association has used this logic successfully for years. How do you stop an armed robber? Threaten him with a gun! How do you stop a rogue dictator with a nuclear weapon? Threaten him with a nuclear weapon! It costs $70,000 to dismantle a nuclear warhead. Just let Putin know you'd like to buy two warheads for a sweet $200,000. Cheaper than a bunker, more valuable than an education: Ladies and gentlemen, let the arms race begin. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College first-year. He is a member of the rugby team. C.U. in Hell runs alternate Thursdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff