Sometimes, I think scientists retain a naïve sense of faith in the integrity of their profession, dismissing psychopaths and Frankensteins as mere fiction. When confronted about the potential or past misuse of scientific research, a common response on part of the scientific community is to blame everything on the policy-makers and the government. It is perhaps even justified in certain cases, but what about when you have an explicit formula laying out the costs and fatal implications of a particular development. Consider, for example, the most controversial scientific breakthrough of the last century: the development of the atomic bomb. Within eleven years of the discovery of the neutron in 1932 by James Chadwick, the Manhattan Project was in full sway under the brightest Physicists of the time like Oppenheimer and Feynman. And quite disturbingly, it was Einstein’s letters to Franklin Roosevelt- the President of the United States during World War 2- that began American research on the bomb in the first place. While, apologetic depictions of the scientists’ role would call these letters ‘only warnings of the danger’, I think Einstein was clearly saying: “We have to make the bomb or the Germans would do it first.” Feynman talks about the motivation he saw in his fellow engineers doing manual computations, when they were told that it was all part of the war against the Nazis.
By August 1945, the Allies had defeated Germany in Europe, also ending the very reason many scientists had agreed to become a part of the Manhattan Project. Sadly, the show went on. “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” (the names of the first two atomic bombs) were still born even though the threat of Germany was no longer there- an act Feynman later termed ‘immoral’ on his part. Unfortunately, it took a Japanese death toll of two hundred thousand to make him and his colleagues to realize that.
Scientists are human beings and therefore cannot be expected to be devoid of any nationalistic or religious feelings. But they do possess something that other patriots and religious people do not: the ability to calculate and predict reality, and often the tools to even mould reality one way or the other. Shouldn’t this privilege be a source of humility for scientists and compel them to act responsibly? Or should it make them aspire to limits beyond them, with little regard for the consequences?
(To learn more about the history and science of the Atomic bomb, check out www.atomicarchive.com. It has everything including the Physics, photographs and Politics of nuclear energy)