Saturday, January 4, 2020

Objective science and its human consequences - III

The leading spirit in the campaign against the hydrogen bomb was Bethe. He had said that its use would be a betrayal of all standards of morality and of Christian civilization.  He wrote an article in The Scientific American, dealing with the scientific, political, and moral aspects of the 'Super bomb'. (Several thousand copies of the issue were confiscated and pulped by government agents on the pretext that the article revealed secrets of importance to national defence.) In it, he wrote:
I believe the most important question is the moral one: can we, who have always insisted on morality and human decency between nations as well as inside our own country, introduce this weapon of total annihilation into the world? The usual argument . . .is that we are fighting against a country which denies all the human values we cherish and that any weapon, however terrible, must be used to prevent that country and its creed from dominating the world. 
It is argued that it would be better for us to lose our lives than our liberty; and this I personally agree with. But I believe that this is not the question; I believe that we would lose far more than our lives in a war fought with hydrogen bombs, that we would in fact lose all our liberties and human values at the same time, and so thoroughly that we would not recover them for an unforeseeably long time. 
The question that exercised scientists' minds at this time was the problem of their personal responsibility for the results of their work. This problem had been stated for the first time by the mathematician Norbert Wiener. He had been asked  whether he would let a weapons manufacturing firm have a copy of a report he had written. Wiener's reply included the passage:
The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use. It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that that weapon will be used.   
If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenceless peoples - and I most certainly do not - 1 must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists. 
Wiener's radical attitude was repudiated by most American scientists. They relied mainly on the counter-argument of Louis N. Ridenour, in an answer to Wiener: 'No one can tell what the result of any given scientific Investigation may be. And it is absolutely certain that no one can prophesy the nature of any practical final product that may arise in consequence of such research. ...’

To this constantly repeated objection the English crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale has replied: 'The risk that one's work, though good in itself, may be misused must always be taken. But responsibility cannot be shirked if the known purpose is criminal or evil, however ordinary the work itself'. But only a few scientists have acted on this principle. On of these few was one of Max Born's young English assistants, Helen Smith. As soon as she heard of the atom bomb and its application, she decided to give up physics for jurisprudence.

In June 1950 the Korean War broke out. Soon, many scientists who had reservations about working with the arms industry returned to arms research considering it their patriotic duty. One of them was none other than Hans Bethe who played a decisive part in the ultimate production of the bomb. And as the supreme irony, he was entrusted with the task of writing its technical history. In 1954, however, he said: 'I am afraid my inner troubles stayed with me and are still with me and I have not resolved this problem. I still have the feeling that I have done the wrong thing. But I have done it.' 

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