ROLLING STONE
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
A respected scientist talks about his determination to fast to death for world peace and nuclear disarmament. ‘If we don't make our government reverse its course,' he says, ‘we're all going to die.'
February 26th, 1987
By Jonathan Cott
Photographs by:

IN WASHINGTON, D.C., JUST ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE White House, in Lafayette Park, a distinguished fifty-six-year-old astrophysicist named Charles Hyder is starving himself to death. He will die unless these three demands are met: that the United States agree to dismantle all its nuclear warheads by the year 2000, reject offensive military operations as an option in international relations and promise to work toward the adoption of these commitments by the Soviet Union and other nations.

Dr. Hyder began his fast on September 23rd, 1986, and in mid-December, when he was interviewed for ROLLING STONE, he had recently begun to attract attention from the press (Science magazine, Time, The New York Times) and the public. Other scientists, such as Nobel Prize winner George Wald and physicist and writer Freeman Dyson, had come to visit him, and twenty-four scientists (including another Nobel laureate, Sheldon Glashow) from Harvard, MIT and the Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had held a one-day fast on November 14th, 1986, to demonstrate their sympathy for him.

Almost every day of his fast - except when it is raining or snowing - Dr. Hyder holds forth from his familiar resting spot (“Front row, center, U.S.A.," he calls it), attended by his ex-wife Laurie (the couple were divorced in 1982), who moved from Colorado Springs, where she was a bridge teacher, to be with the person she calls “my best friend” and also by his longtime friend Dr. James L. Evans, a San Rafael, California, psychologist, and Evans's wife, Bonnie.

“This terminal fast wasn't some impetuous decision on Charles's part," Laurie Hyder - a gentle, firm and compassionate woman - explained. “It was actually a long-drawn-out process, during which Charles was continually keeping after the military-industrial complex and specifically the nuclear-power industry.

"During the 1970s" she said, “Charles spent much of his time testifying before Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, trying to raise public consciousness against the proposed dumping of nuclear waste in salt deposits in southern New Mexico - an effort that was ultimately successful. And he was one of twenty international physicists who criticized the West German government's plans to bury radioactive waste in the Gorleben salt dome -and eventually those plans, too, were shelved.

“These were bright moments," she continued. “But more recently he felt that he was just pounding his head against the wall, and he kept wondering what he could do to make a mark against the powers that be, to get them to pay attention. Then in December of 1985, he went down to Washington, D.C, and met up in Lafayette Park with William Thomas, Ellen Thomas and Concepcion Picciotto of the Antinuclear Vigil, which had begun in 1981. And when he returned, he told me that these were the people he wanted to join, and he said that he was going to go back there.

"Then," she said, he seriously started giving away all of his material possessions - his telescope, his books, his papers. But this was a process that had begun about four years previously. When we got divorced, he gave me the house and most of his assets, and he started living in a big station wagon - traveling back and forth between Colorado Springs, Boulder, Colorado (where he was finishing a satellite project for NASA), and Albuquerque. I realize now that he started giving everything away because even as early as 1981, he had already decided to make some special kind of protest."

According to Dr. Robert Noyes, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University who has known Dr. Hyder for fifteen years, “Hyder has had a long research career in solar physics at Sacramento Peak Observatory in New Mexico, and NASA. He has published more than twenty papers in solar physics, both singly and jointly with many colleagues, and this work is widely recognized in the solar-physics research community. He is listed in American Men and Women of Science.

“I, for one, tried to persuade Charles to stop his fast," Noyes said. “But it became clear to me that that wasn't in the cards - I think he's going to go through with it, barring a miracle. I'm enough of a pragmatist to doubt that some change of government policy will occur right now. So I have very confused feelings. I'm sad to see a noble life be sacrificed. But I'm encouraged that it's beginning to have some impact and that people are taking notice. I feel encouraged by the extraordinary commitment that Charles has and by his serenity - he's really at peace with himself. He feels that the best thing would be for the miracle to happen, but nevertheless he feels he will have accomplished a great deal by his death. So I've given up trying to dissuade Charles from doing what he's doing, and I can only feel supportive and in awe of his strength of character."

Hyder is the father of five children, four by his first wife, Ann Jeffries. “I certainly back his philosophy” she said, “but I don't agree with his method. I think there are a number of ways he could dedicate his life to this cause without giving it up."


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Hyder's oldest son, Paul, 32, a soft-spoken electrochemical engineer who lives in Albuquerque, recalled the day in March 1986 when his father brought him, his brother and his two sisters together and told them of his intention to undertake a death fast: “My first response was like 'What did you say?' But as he explained the reasons and motivations for his decision, it became very clear to me that his action was the ideal thing to do at this time with regard to the nuclear weapons program. I myself have studied how the whole operation works, the weapons' effects, the industry, the hazards and so on. For it's obvious that even if there's not a deliberate war, we could accidentally get into one with no trouble at all.

“From a personal point of view, there was a lot of sadness involved; after all, it's almost guaranteed to be a terminal fast. But I supported him and still support him completely. My sisters and brother felt differently from me, however. The initial shock and hurt of ‘Hey, this is our dad and he's going to die!' and the feeling of 'You can't do this, you can't leave us here!' led to some initially hostile comments. But that response was just natural - Charles Hyder is a man with his own work, but he's also our father ... and that complicates it. Still, the sadness I feel is completely overshadowed by the pride I have in him for his sense of responsibility and for the clarity of his vision to see that this had to be done ... to put it all on the line. I think it's providing a focal point for the antinuclear movement."

"At first I was unhappy about the situation;” said Dr. Hyder's twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Roxanne Smith, who lives in Albuquerque with her husband and child. "All of us would have liked him to find another way to accomplish his goals - goals that we believed in - but it was so hard to deal with how he was going about it. It's so hard to tell you how we felt. I was angry, scared, and I didn't think the fast would work. But now I've come to understand it in my own way. Dad's been fighting this for so long, we all respect him, and it's not up to us to tell him what to do with his life. He was always generous - when he was giving everything he owned away, he gave me a car and some money - and concerned, not just with people he loved but to everybody. I love him, I think, more than I love anybody, and I'm awfully proud of him."

"Our twenty-two-year-old son, Niels, was really crushed when Charles told us what he planned to do," said Laurie Hyder of Dr. Hyder's only child by his second marriage. " Why does it have to be my dad?” He cried, and he sulked for several months and didn't talk to anybody. But then he gave a talk about his father at a peace meeting in Colorado Springs, and he started to accept him and his goal."

As of January 15th, the 115th day of his fast, Dr. Hyder weighed about 170 pounds. The Guinness Book of World Records lists a 94-day fast by Irish-nationalist hunger strikers as the longest fast in history. In the United States, hunger strikes have been staged in recent years by Vietnam veterans protesting U.S. support of the Nicaraguan contras and by activist Mitch Snyder on behalf of the homeless.

Hyder may or may not be here to read this interview when this issue of Rolling Stone appears. I expect to be alive on Christmas Day and maybe even as late as Superbowl day in 1987," he stated in a December 12th, 1986, press release. “But my days are numbered and my physical time on earth grows short" And as he would later say, 'There are people who say, 'He's going to stop fasting, he won't ever keep it up to the end! Well, I know better, and they will, too, when I die, if that's what it takes. And when family and friends feel sad about losing me ... well, I can't think that because I can't lose me!"

Tomorrow, December 21st, 1986, will be the ninetieth day of your fast. How are you doing?

Well, you can see that I'm holding up. It's always been my habit and general behavior to get out of bed in the morning feeling rested. I used to sleep four to six hours a night, and now I sleep ten to eleven hours ... waking up not as rested as before the fast. But I feel good for a while, and then that feeling dwindles. The quest I'm embarked on will be better if I last longer - I'm consciously trying to last as long as I can. So I do exactly what I feel like and not just to please everybody else.

What regimen are you following?

I started out on September 23rd weighing more than 300 pounds. My six-foot-two-inch body weight is supposed to be 188 pounds. I had about 100 pounds of body fat and I've been living off of that until now – that’s just disappearing after three mouths. So I started off with excessive body weight and I take in one to two gallons of warm water a day to keep my blood pressure up - warm water, because it takes a certain number of calories a day to heat water to one's body temperature. I also conserve heat by wearing eight pairs of pants, including four pairs of khakis, two ski-jamas and two blue farmer's overalls; a blue quilted plastic winter jacket; a blue scarf; a white sweatshirt; a blue ski cap; and a ski-mask cap covering a night cap. And this Hollofil sleeping bag insulates even when it gets wet.

The Quakers talk about acting upon one's "concern" and of having an "opening" that made them become intensely aware of some truth. What is it that occasioned your opening?

There was a whole series of events that stimulated certain changes in behavior and contributed to this profound thing in me, beginning with an awareness of the reality of war. Part of it was the belief system with which I was raised. My old man was originally from Lebanon and came over here when he was twelve or thirteen years old. He was raised in starvation ... while my mother was a farm person who lived through the dustbowl years when she was an adolescent. Both of them knew real hardships. Yet they both believed that our constitutional system of government operated with justice and good faith and good heart. So I got raised believing in that system ... whereas many kids growing up in metropolitan areas take for granted a lot of cynicism about the realities as opposed to the ideals of life. I was an adolescent before it ever entered my mind that a lot of it wasn't true.

I was raised as a Christian who believed in selflessness and faith and in God's universe. I was also the oldest of three boys, and we were always out together - mother wasn't there all the time - and since I had this wealth of experience compared with them, I was my brothers' keeper. It wasn't a burden for me, just a situation that I accepted as mine, and it hasn't ceased to such an extent that I still feel now that I'm all my brothers' keeper....

And I've always loved nature. I became a physicist because I wanted to know as much about it as I could; I wanted to know and understand how God works, because God made the earth so that we could understand it. So, you see, I didn't need to subscribe to standard social and political dogma to feel secure in myself. I know that my truth is not God's truth, but I've always attempted to make my truth as close to God's truth as I could and still be me.

Then, in the 1950s, I went to Korea, and I learned what war meant. I believed that I was protecting my family and my country, but when I got there, I found out that we were wiping out innocent people who were just trying to stay out of trouble, and we were blowing them away! So I learned that war was a horror far beyond anything that was ever communicated in this country. And I was in a rage and deep despair, and I threw up for days at a time when the first deaths occurred around me. I decided during the puking that if I ever got out of the war, I would never go back to fight, and that if I had kids, I'd raise them not to do things like that either but would still give them a choice - which is the great gift that anybody can give in love. But I myself turned dead set against war and the tyranny of a system that sends you over to do those things.

At that time, however, I wasn't willing to stand against the system you come face to face with your own cowardice - because I needed more information to find out why we were doing those things. But it wasn't available at that point. It was only later that I began to give my life to interfering with that program. And in the meantime, when the nuclear issue came into ascendancy and became a threat to everyone, I decided that that was what I was going to take on.

You gave up all your property and possessions in preparation for your fast.

Everybody thinks I gave things up in a sacrificial sense, but that's not at all what happens. What you realize is that to do something like this, you must be entirely unfettered and free, so that you can do exactly what you feel like doing. If I weren't free to do this, I'd be defeating myself. If you own property, the government can pressure you by putting liens on it, they can keep you distracted with lawsuits. And I didn't want any distractions. So getting rid of my property and possessions was simply a matter of removing encumbrances - millstones and albatrosses - not a sacrifice. I just distributed my things to my kids and to poor people and divested myself of everything except my sleeping bag, a poncho and foot warmer and my briefcase, and that's about it, except for another suitcase at my ex-wife's apartment here in Washington and, of course, a great deal of love from many people.

A medieval mystic once said that a pure heart is one that is unencumbered, unworried and disinterested.

Yes, but I personally am not disinterested, and I wouldn't be out here if I were. I've read and studied a lot about religion, especially the Eastern practices, but my compassion doesn't permit disinterest. I can get into detached states in which I experience nirvana for days at a time, but the threat of the nuclear holocaust keeps getting in the way of that. And ultimately I'm not interested in detaching, because I feel that there are things I can do to help remove that threat from people's lives. As a physicist, it was clear to me that nuclear holocaust is coming down the road - I understand how accidents happen, irrationality affects people who are committed to power - and I know that if people don't do something dramatic, it will engulf everyone. So I'm here to try to get rid of that threat.

Einstein once said something to the effect that the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything but our way of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

It did change the way I think, enough to lay my life on the line and say, "This is a life and death issue, and if we don't get off our butts and make our government reverse its course, we're all going to die." There's a variety of people at all levels of awareness and willingness to take a risk. My fasting will, I hope, affect people who are aware at various levels now, and it may make people who are sitting on the fence resolve their vacillation. It may not affect anybody else, but there's enough awareness of this stress in the world today to move enough people to change the system. I'm doing everything I can to accelerate and exacerbate and escalate the peace avalanche with what I call nonviolent hardball. Do something, don't just talk about it. Put yourself on the line while remaining comfortable in your own mind. If you don't feel comfortable in your own mind, you're as likely to hurt as help the effort - you'll be a fish out of water doing inappropriate things.

Recently, I received a letter from Dr. Peter Sturrock, who's the head of the Center for Space Science and Astrophysics, at Stanford University, and he said, I want you to know that I have the greatest admiration for your courage and dedication to a noble cause. You're inspiring me to take small steps that may help achieve your and my goals of a world free from the terror of nuclear war." And that's the kind of thing I'm talking about: people who are already aware are motivated to do more.

Do you want people to engage in fasts like yours?

No. I myself have found serene bliss in my approach. But I have a list of a dozen different questions, and unless you can answer yes to all of them, you shouldn't be undertaking terminal fasting, because there are other things you can do as well, and if so, then go do them, because what I'm doing is terminal, and you don't get another chance to accomplish what you were planning to accomplish when you finish what I'm doing! The chance of having my demands met before I die is still tiny, because it takes the public to make the system change. But I do believe in miracles ... they occur. Scientists by definition exclude themselves from many areas that I think are interesting: religion, faith, miracles, ESP, mystical and spiritual experiences. And scientists exclude these because they're not objectively available. But I believe subjective knowledge is every bit as effective and useful to humans as objective knowledge.

Jesus was a healer who performed miracles. And I believe that Jesus was a man, and if he could do what he did, then so can all of us. He just had more faith than most. Each of us, however, has a certain amount of faith. And I believe that when enough people give themselves wholly to something, they can bring about miraculous changes.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has said, "I have read the Book of Revelation, and, yes, I believe the world is going to end - by an act of God, I hope- but every day I think that time is running out." And Ronald Reagan said, "You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs are foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if - if we're the generation that's going to see that come about."

I don't really think they believe those things. They're putting out self-serving statements that will continue to justify the weapons program. It may not be their sole concern, but I think their overwhelming and preoccupying dedication is to maximum profits. We're making between six to eight new nuclear warheads a day just in this country alone, and somebody is getting rich off that. If you study the Biblical apocalyptic material, it doesn't ever say when the end is going to occur. Every generation since Peter's thought the end would happen then. We all make much ado of where we are in history, but we aren't anything in history, it’s always been the same. The nuclear threat, however, is new because it promises to wipe out everybody on earth. So it's going to take dead bodies to change all of this. Because I've learned that the system responds to dead bodies. So here I am, laying a named body on the line, in public, in dissent. And anyway, if, and just if, it is God's will to bring the world to an end, then no human being can change that and many of the religious apocalyptists don't in fact want to change it. But if it is human will, then I and you and all of us can do something about it.

Those guys [pointing across the street to the White House] represent the failure mode - Reagan is oriented to image. I'm oriented to substance. He blames everything that goes wrong on the press. I blame everything that goes wrong on my own lack of astute perceptions and modify my behavior accordingly. I'm a success-mode dude. I believe in doing things because I intend to succeed at them. This is my country. This is my world. I'm going to go out to change it insofar as I can - with the help of my having become free of property, possession and distraction. And I have found heavenly bliss in that pursuit. You'd have to persuade me to give up nirvana to step out of this path!

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