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The Impact of Wikipedia: Howard Morland

(This video is part of a series for this year’s Wikimedia Foundation fundraiser. You can support Wikipedia and free knowledge by contributing at donate.wikimedia.org. You can also view this video on YouTube.)

Howard Morland discusses the design of the first atomic weapon

The year was 1979, and Howard Morland had just uncovered a secret that would change the world’s understanding of atomic weaponry.

“I was on assignment for the Progressive Magazine when I discovered what is known as the H-Bomb Secret,” said Morland (User:HowardMorland). “It was the goal of the Progressive Magazine to take the veil away from this hidden part of the nuclear industry and let people know how the bomb is made, where it’s made, and where it’s deployed–everything about it.”

The U.S. government tried to issue an injunction to stop the Progressive Magazine from publishing the article, but after six months in court, the magazine prevailed. Morland’s article ran in its original form and, he argued, had an impact on the future use of nuclear weapons.

“It gave the anti-nuclear movement a lot of credibility in 1979. I think we played a role in the fact that, just a few years later, there was a worldwide outrage against nuclear weapons,” said Morland. “On June 12 of 1982, there were a million people marching in New York City to protest the bomb. We kind of brought the bomb into the anti-nuclear movement.”

More than twenty years later, Morland found himself engaged in the nuclear arms discussion once again–this time on Wikipedia.

Morland met a truck driver named John Coster-Mullen, who had self-published a book on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. “He had no expertise in science at all, but he had this weird idea that he would start going to reunions of the people who dropped the bomb, even though he wasn’t even their generation,” said Morland. “But he went there, he started making friends with these people, talking to them; they started telling him what they knew about the Hiroshima bomb and the Nagasaki bomb.”

In particular, Coster-Mullen’s book included an explanation of how the Hiroshima bomb worked, which contradicted the explanation in every encyclopedia in the world at the time. Morland, who has long had an interest in physics, looked at Coster-Mullen’s evidence and was convinced that his was the correct explanation.

“I told John, ‘The Wikipedia article is wrong–do you want to fix it?’ And he said, ‘I already tried.’” Coster-Mullen had submitted a correction to the Little Boy article, but another user told him it was not credible information because every other book in the world contradicted him.

“I said, ‘Well I think we can fix that.’ Even though I knew nothing about [Wikipedia]– this was my introduction–I said, ‘I think we can fix that.’” Morland recruited several others in this effort, including Richard Rhodes, who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and Stan Norris, who wrote the biography of Leslie Groves–the general who directed the Manhattan Project–and in his book had cited Coster-Mullen as a source.

Morland then posted on the talk page, saying, “We’ve read this guy’s book and we think he’s right and everybody else is wrong.” The other user who was initially concerned by the preponderance of contradictory literature relented and Morland made the change to the article.

This was back in March 2007, and Morland has been an active editor on Wikipedia since. “I figured, well, I’ll go fix all the nuclear weapon articles on Wikipedia,” he said. “Lately I do a lot of kayaking, [so] I thought, well, I’ll just do the kayaking articles.”

He finds it rewarding to contribute to Wikipedia because he feels it allows him to share his knowledge with a massive audience. “I know people who write books, especially in the nuclear weapons field. They are read by very few people,” he said, “but the Wikipedia article that I wrote on Nuclear weapon design gets 600 hits a day. Nobody’s book gets that much exposure. I don’t get any money for it, but I produce this information and somehow it’s getting out there and people are looking at it.”

Moreland’s estimates for the Nuclear weapon design article traffic were modest and combined, his contributions to the world’s understanding of the history of atomic energy is significant.

“Wikipedia is one of the most amazing institutions I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know anything like it,” said Morland. “It’s a testament to the desire of people to know things and to share information, despite the fact that from the beginning of time, when people started learning how to do stuff, I’m sure they tried to keep it secret. And I think that’s sort of part of human nature that we want to learn the truth and then share it with people.”

Profile by Elaine Mao, contributing writer
Interview by Dan McSwain 

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