Sunday, November 24, 2019

Objective science and its human consequences - I

Many scientists think of their work as purely mathematical and technical.  The human results of their research are none of their business.  Hence for von Neumann’s computer, the end of the world was only one more question to be answered by calculation. But the political neutrality of of scientists, their moral innocence and notion of ‘value-free’ science are not as scientists are wont to say. In Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, Robert Jungk relates the story of many of the scientists of the early days of atomic research, and through until 1954.  It is the story of the moral and political temptations of the first atomic  scientists like Rutherford, Bohr, Gamov, Dirac, Pauli, Oppenheimer, etc.

Jungk writes of a brilliant mathematician whom he saw walking along the street during his last visit to Los Alamos, where the atom bomb was developed, in 1956. The mathematician’s face was wreathed in a beautiful smile because he said that he was thinking about a mathematical problem whose solution was essential to the construction of a new type of H-bomb. To him, research for nuclear weapons was just pure higher mathematics, untrammelled by blood, poison, and destruction. All that, he said, was none of his business. This kind of thinking has been the norm ever since the scientific academies of the seventeenth century determined that no discussions of political, moral, or theological problems should be allowed at their meetings. The reasons for this ostrich-like policy were clearly analyzed by a scientist in 1947 when he told the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists:
It is a custom in science - and perhaps a principle - to select from the  infinite reservoir of unsolved problems only those simple ones the solution  of which seems possible in terms of available knowledge and skills. We are trained to subject our results to the most severe criticism. Adherence to these two principles results in our knowing very little, but on the other hand being very certain that we know this little. 
We scientists seem to be unable to apply these principles to the immensely complex problems of the political world and its social order. In general we are cautious and therefore tolerant and disinclined to accept total solutions. Our very objectivity prevents us from taking a strong stand in political differences, in which the right is never on one side. So we took the easiest way out and hid in our ivory tower. We felt that neither the good nor the evil applications were our responsibility. 
Jungk mentions a conversation between Niels Bohr and Winston Churchill which showed how closely connected science and politics are. Bohr hoped to use the internationalism of science to bridge the hostility between nations, particularly between the USA and USSR. Towards achieving this goal, he had a meeting with Churchill. Churchill listened to the physicist for half an hour in silence and then turned around to his scientific adviser and asked, ’What is he really talking about? Politics or physics?’

In the early 1940s, American nuclear scientists raced to construct the atom bomb because they feared that the Germans might get there first, an expectation that later turned out to be exaggerated. This was a turning point, a time when the scientists could have turned away from developing the bomb.  Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, who both later fought against the bomb project, called on the USA to forward it, believing that USA would never actually use the bomb. It was also a turning point in that the more light-hearted, youthful co-operation of scientists gradually changed in America under the secretive and authoritarian regime  of Manhattan Project in 1942.

Colonel Leslie Groves was given the rank of General and put in charge of the project. He is described as "being obsessed by one intense fear, that the war would be finished before 'his' bomb could be". He was clearly determined at all costs to use this instrument, over which he had laboured so long, and his voice was an influential one in Government circles. Robert Oppenheimer, Director at Los Alamos, had a willingness to kow-tow to the military establishment (but for all that, he was charged with treason because he expressed concerns about the Hydrogen bomb project which was planned later). After the atom bomb had been developed but before it was used, it became clear that its use was not required to defeat Japan.

Szilard and Einstein now  wrote to President Roosevelt urging against the atomic bombing of Japanese cities. But Roosevelt died suddenly.  The new President Truman wasn’t interested – setting up scientific panels, and an ”Interim Committee” who would “play ball” with the military. The scientific panel was not called upon to decide whether the bomb should be used, but only how it should be used. In spite of seven of the scientists writing to the Secretary of War, opposing  use of the bomb, the Interim Committee (Oppenheimer, Fermi, Compton and Lawrence) recommended the bombing. Enrico Fermi commented “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples! After all, the thing is superb physics!”

The outcome of the discussion was a victory for General Groves. The Committee recommended that: 1, the bomb should be used against Japan; 2, it should be used on both military and civil targets; 3, it should be used "without prior warning of the nature of the weapon". When the news of these recommendations leaked out, a counter committee was formed at Chicago University to fight these proposals, and they issued a memorandum urging the Government merely to demonstrate the weapon on a barren island.

This appeal was forwarded to the scientific panel of the "Interim Committee" and once more they evaded their responsibilities. "We said", states Oppenheimer, "that we didn't think that being scientists especially qualified us as to how to answer this question of how the bombs should be used or not". Oppenheimer explained later that his  Interim Committee’s  recommendation was “a technical opinion”. 

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