Physicist's Fast for Peace Stirs His Colleagues

BOSTON—Two hundred and eight days after he began a fast to protest the nuclear arms race, astrophysicist Charles Hyder stood in the rain across the street from the White House to announce his decision to run for president. He admitted his "candidacy"

By | May 4, 1987

BOSTON—Two hundred and eight days after he began a fast to protest the nuclear arms race, astrophysicist Charles Hyder stood in the rain across the street from the White House to announce his decision to run for president.

He admitted his "candidacy" is an attempt to draw attention to his campaign to get the United States and Soviet Union to begin to dismantle their nuclear arsenals. But his willingness to die for his beliefs has posed a dilemma for many scientists active in the disarmament movement who are nonetheless uncomfortable with his tactics.

A group of several dozen scientists at Harvard and MIT has been meeting regularly since Hyder began his fast September 23, monitoring his actions and lending a hand. Twenty-four of them, including physicist Sheldon Glashow, held a one-day fast last fall in support of Hyder's commitment, if not his tactics.

One of the organizers of these Boston-based efforts is Robert Noyes, a professor of astronomy at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who has known Hyder for 20 years. Noyes, who tried to convince Hyder that he would help his cause more by remaining alive, now "has concluded with some reluctance that he will not be dissuaded."

"I suspect he will die," Noyes said, "and my colleagues and I certainly want to find some way to remind others of his contribution. But more importantly, he has reminded us just how important this issue is. Charlie's efforts have definitely galvanized my thinking— and that of a group of colleagues who have been meeting regularly to discuss arms issues—about the need to find ways to educate the public on the perils of the arms race."

Another colleague, Dan Harris of Harvard, described the mixture of emotions among supporters of the protest. "While many of us are divided on Hyder's tactics, it is the least we can do to help publicize his action. I think we all agree on a personal level that, as a fellow astronomer, we hate to see him die alone in the dark."

During his fast, Hyder has traveled to Geneva to pressure negotiators to take up his proposition. He has received messages of support from a worldwide audience, including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Hibernation and Petitions

Currently he spends most of his time in an apartment in Washington, D.C., lying still for several days at a time to conserve his strength. Biologist George Wald, who visited Hyder recently, called these periods "remarkably like hibernation." Two or three days a week, in good weather, Hyder lies on a cot in Lafayette Park for an hour.

Hyder's latest political tactic is a petition drive in favor of a constitutional amendment denouncing use of nuclear force. He said that for every 3 million signatures his petition receives (roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population) he will eat a regular meal every nine days. He has also offered to eat a meal for every week a member of Congress joins him in his fast.

Hyder is critical of the response from scientific advocacy groups that have worked over the years on the same issue. "They're too afraid of rocking the boat," he said angrily. "They have their reputations to think about. When this movement has gained enough support to begin to achieve its goals, they'll jump on the bandwagon along with all the other politicians."

Officials from those groups admit they find his protest troubling. "We're against what he's doing if it costs his life, but we support his aims," said Jeremy Stone, director of the Federation of American Scientists. Tom Gardner, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that members of his organization have different reactions to Hyder's action, but most are sympathetic with his cause. Leslie Fraser, staff member of Science for the People based here, said much the same: "We wish we didn't have to face the prospect of losing one of the precious few who struggle so vehemently for peace."

Hyder's resolve seems unshakable, however. "Our system responds to dead bodies," he said, "but somehow people think that it is okay to die in war but not to die to stop war. My intent is not to kill myself, but to rid the world of the threat of nuclear holocaust."

Shulman is a freelance science writer in Cambridge, Mass.

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