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A New Stanford MOOC Addresses the Looming Dangers of Nuclear Catastrophe

September 29, 2016

In the free, online class, former Secretary of Defense and Emeritus Professor William J. Perry engages with some of the world’s foremost nuclear experts to assess current threats and suggest possible solutions.


“I believe that the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than it was during the cold war,” said Dr. William J. Perry, Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor (emeritus) at Stanford, and US Secretary of Defense from February 1994 to January 1997.

Because the continued risk of nuclear catastrophe isn’t widely recognized, Perry believes, “our nuclear policies don’t reflect the danger. So I’ve set off on a mission to educate people on how serious the problem is. Only then can we develop the policies that are appropriate for the danger we face.” Perry understands that his assertion might sound counterintuitive. But he makes a powerful case for concern in his new online course, Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today. The ten-week course, which is now open for enrollment and begins October 4th, sees Perry joined by some of the world’s leading experts in the history, politics, and science of nuclear conflict and offers both an accessible introduction to the problem and suggestions for how we might alleviate the dangers we face.

That mission has already seen Perry author a book on the subject, regularly address think tanks, NGOs, and governmental bodies, and found the William J. Perry Project to engage and educate the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

His new MOOC, developed with the support of Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, offers a chance to take that message to a much larger audience.

Unusually for a course in the fields of political and social science, Living on the Brink: Yesterday and Today is as focused on our future actions as on the past. Topics include new and emerging dangers (such as nuclear terrorism and the rise of new nuclear powers) and our policy options for addressing them, as well as reviews of how and why nuclear weapons were first developed and a history of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War.  

Each week, Perry will be joined in conversation by distinguished experts in the field. Many are Stanford faculty members, including political scientist Martha Crenshaw, soviet experts David Holloway and Siegfried Hecker, political scientist Scott D. Sagan, and former secretary of state and current Graduate School of Business professor George Shultz.

Outside experts include Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, nuclear negotiator James Goodby, former Russian Deputy Minister of Defense, Andre Kokoshin, Joseph Martz of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Philip Taubman, the author and former New York Times national security reporter who is now Stanford Associate Vice President for University Affairs.

William Perry talking

The course offers participants the chance to ask questions and participate in discussions via an online forum, which Perry and his fellow experts will address during weekly video chats.

No prior knowledge of nuclear issues is required to take the class and it is free to anyone interested in enrolling. As is typical with Stanford online programs, participants can earn a statement of accomplishment if they complete the course.

“Our main goal, though, isn’t to award certificates of accomplishment so much as it is to get people engaged in this issue,” added Robin Perry, Director of the Perry Project and a course co-developer. “I think a lot of people figure that somebody else is taking care of the problem. Both this course and the work of the Perry Project overall argue that, no, this is an issue that citizens need to pay attention to, and learn about – and when they do that, they can take that information and use it to the benefit of society.”