'Should Science Be Stopped?'

"Hope tiptoed back into the world, armed with sachets of benign bacteria," writes Nigel Calder is his new book The Green Machines (Putnam, 1986). It crept back into a world tottering on the brink of nuclear war, a world full of common people disgusted with the moral bankruptcy of the modern nation-state and the unwillingness of political leaders to do anything constructive to stop the madness. Writing from the vantage point of 2030 A.D., Calder envisions these people commandeering the "green mac

By | January 26, 1987

"Hope tiptoed back into the world, armed with sachets of benign bacteria," writes Nigel Calder is his new book The Green Machines (Putnam, 1986). It crept back into a world tottering on the brink of nuclear war, a world full of common people disgusted with the moral bankruptcy of the modern nation-state and the unwillingness of political leaders to do anything constructive to stop the madness. Writing from the vantage point of 2030 A.D., Calder envisions these people commandeering the "green machines "—engineered biotechnology systems—to create their own food, energy, housing, and other goods. Looking back on the 1980s, he reports that one burning question of that beleaguered time was "Should Science Be Stopped?" The following is adapted from the book.

By the mid-1980s, the latest hopes of checking the arms race were foundering on disagreements between the superpowers about strategic defenses in space, and it seemed that after 2,500 years the Greek gamble [that most human beings were kindly and reasonable] had failed. The bold theories and delicate experiments that over the centuries laid bare nature's secrets brought the human species at last to the autumn before nuclear winter. Whether the odds against nuclear war might run out in a hundred minutes or a hundred years, to expect any other outcome was no longer reasonable.

Some scientists were in despair. One was the British physicist Martin Ryle, who helped to develop radar during World War II and then became a founding father of radio astronomy. In 1983, he wrote an anguished letter to the Brazilian scientist Carlos Chagas. It came to light after Ryle's death in 1984. In it he declared:

"At the end of World War II I decided that never again would I use my scientific knowledge for military purposes; astronomy seemed about as far removed as possible. But in succeeding years we developed new techniques for making very powerful radio telescopes; these techniques have been perverted for improving radar and sonar systems. A sadly large proportion of the PhD students we have trained have taken the skills they have learnt in these and other areas into the field of defence. I am left at the end of my scientific life with the feeling that it would have been better to have become a farmer in 1946. One can, of course, argue that somebody else would have done it anyway, and so we must face the most fundamental of questions.

"Should fundamental science (in some areas now, others will emerge later) be stopped?" [Ryle's emphasis].

By the test of doing more harm than good, science already appeared to be illegitimate, and the cynical answer to Ryle's question was that the bombs themselves would put the brakes on fundamental research.

A Failure of Wisdom

Moral pangs among the scientists were a triviality compared with the physical torments by fire and frost that their inventions promised to let loose on billions of people. Yet any real hope of escaping the catastrophe would depend on understanding exactly what had gone wrong in the compact between scientists and other people. The problem was a failure of wisdom, as distinct from knowledge.

The moral and philosophical crisis about science was real and urgent at the end of the twentieth century. But internal failings and "neuroses" in science, serious though they were, could not be blamed for the division of the world into armed camps, or the disgraceful contrast between riches and starvation. Science and technology created few new moral issues. More often they dramatized and exacerbated aspects of immoral behavior much older than organized science. In this, science was more victim than criminal.

The Greeks were not wrong in thinking knowledge a good thing; nor were people on the whole unfit to be trusted with potent information. But their nation-states were palpably unfit, and they were the biggest spenders on science and technology. In the 1980s, defense research budgets were soaring, and at least a quarter of the world's scientists and engineers were occupied with military developments. Those working in the weapons laboratories regarded themselves sincerely as patriotic citizens, only doing their duty as perceived by the legal governments of their countries. Would it not be intolerable if scientists presumed to dictate policy?

In the three-cornered systems of the public, the government, and science, something had to give. Dr. Strangelove's solution, in Stanley Kubrick's 1960s movie, was to be rid of the public, with officials and scientists surviving the nuclear war in their deep shelters. The arrangements of the 1980s for trying to preserve vestiges of national government from nuclear attack foreshadowed just such an outcome, as if the culminating aim of civilization was to ensure that the last man alive would be a bureaucrat with a Geiger counter.

Martin Ryle's tentative proposal to eliminate science evidently envisaged that government and people would have a breathing space in which to solve the problems created by existing technology. But if it came to a showdown, scientists could make some powerful claims for their activities. In the first place, the human world was still full of erroneous theories and false information that were frustrating efforts to create a healthier planet, and science still had plenty to do in clearing them away. A practical consideration was that new technology would be needed to feed and employ a doubled world population without desecrating the planet. The most telling point in science's favor was that it belonged to the public as a right. Irrespective of social systems, and as a fact of biology, human beings were inquisitive about their place in the universe and the properties of the living and inanimate furniture of their planet. To stop science, it would be necessary to cut out the tongues of children, who persisted in asking about the fundamental matters that adults preferred to gloss over: "Why is the sun hot?" for example. After a thousand generations the question was answered by science, which could be regarded as a system for sustaining child-like curiosity in adulthood. In this case, the explanation of the sun's power led directly and swiftly to the H-bomb.

The third and only acceptable way to cure the fateful triangle of the public, government and science was to change the government. Replacing one set of rulers by another was not enough, because nation-states of widely differing cultures and political creeds had shown themselves ready to develop nuclear weapons. The organization of the world was breaking under the strain of scientific discovery, and the nation-states themselves had to go.

Scientists could recover legitimacy for their craft by helping to dissolve the nation-states. The special relevance of the green machines was that they offered an exceptional opportunity—perhaps the very last chance—for scientists to show they were on the side of the human species, against its warmongering institutions. If they wanted to continue their researches and still be able to look their children in the eye, scientists would have to be ready to join with others in committing a kind of treason.

Calder, a former editor of New Scientist, is a science writer
whose books include Einstein's Universe (Viking, 1979). His address is
c/o G.P Putnam's Sons, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.

Copyright © 1986 by Nigel Calder. Reprinted by permission of G.P. Puthams Sons.
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