History has been a rolling sea of war and violence for longer than humans have existed. And yet, the 20th century had remarkable levels of relative peace, even including the world wars. If you exclude them... well, that isn't fair, is it? Sure, it lead to a shockingly peaceful view of the world, but world wars didn't stop by accident. They stopped because those conflicts threatened nuclear war.

The most important military achievement in the history of Earth was the invention of weapons far too terrible to face. Weapons so terrible they're almost too brutal to consider using. The modern balance of peace and order rests in the terrifyingly delicate hands of all those who guard and monitor these tools of destruction. Those are perhaps the most important jobs in modern society, in that they are truly the sine qua non of civilization. Other jobs, done poorly, would see you replaced. A lax steward of nuclear weapons would see the world thrown into chaos, at least.

I want to drive this point home because nuclear weapons were not subcontracted to Lockheed Martin or Raytheon. They were not devised by a colonel. They weren't acquired from the private sector, some business or university. For less than one percent of the cost of the current F-35 contracts (and that's adjusted for inflation), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired a theoretical physicist and professor to oversee a team of other extremely talented experts to develop weapons powerful enough to be identified in the geological records of their time.

These people already had degrees, jobs, and prestige. They were at the top of their field. And they were a major pain in the butt compared to standard military personnel. Richard Feynman caused a espionage scare in Los Alamos by habitually breaking into cabinets and safes and sometimes altering records. He was fingered by another Manhattan Project employee as a possible spy (this accuser, as it turned out, was a spy). Just let that sink in – Feynman is someone who, to end the war, you needed to be okay with. Heck, you needed to sweep someone like that off their feet, be the most compelling job a superstar could possibly pick. Can anyone imagine Richard Feynman escaping a modern court martial?

Fermi would casually mention his minor obsession with aliens. Teller would annoy his neighbors and play his piano quite loudly through the night. John von Neumann would constantly get arrested or in accidents because he drove his car while reading (precisely as insane as it sounds), and had even Albert Einstein complain about how disruptive he was as a colleague at Princeton.

And it's important to remember, as you restrain yourself from court marshaling them, that you'd have to convince Stanislaw Ulam to delay his work on Monte Carlo methods (which would provide the foundation for essentially all of machine learning). His close friend John von Neumann would need to set aside work like inventing the merge sort and defining the modern computer architecture, not to mention developing the first climate modelling software in the world. Simply diverting Feynman away from teaching and theory had a material cost to future physicists – his lectures are still considered perhaps the best materials for learning the subject.

No, the modern military could not tempt those lunatics today. And America might have lost the Cold War because of it.