The dramatic accident of the space shuttle Challenger reminded us all of the dangers of space exploration, but who will remember the names of the crew? In 1967, astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee burned to death in Apollo 1, and a silver medal remains as their only memorial.
Only a few martyrs of science became famous, and they must speak for the many unknown. Let us recall them briefly.
From Archimedes to Apollo
And how many scientific explorers never returned home? Mungo Park explored the Niger and died in Africa in 1806, and Dr. Leichardt searched for the overland route across Australia but never returned from his journey in 1848. By the beginning of the present century, arctic and antarctic exploration started in earnest, and among the many who paid with their lives were Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1911. In his last message he wrote, "We took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us and therefore we have no reason to complain." These words could well be the epitaph for all the known and unknown martyrs of science.
Think of the many alchemists who in their obsession with the transmutation of mercury into gold must have died from inhaling mercury fumes. Let us remember too the many modern chemists who improved explosives, such as Alfred Nobel's researchers who in 1862 converted the dangerous nitroglycerine into the safe dynamite. Even today, biologists are often horrified at the seeming indifference of chemists to the biological hazards of the chemicals they handle. Think also of the chemists during World War I who developed and tested poison gases, and those who work in chemical weapon research today.
Not all unknown martyrs died in far-distant places. On December 23, 1973 The Lancet reported that more than 150 deaths had been caused by laboratory-acquired infection since 1900. When medical research changed from bacterial to virus investigations, the dangers increased, as the Marburg virus outbreak in 1967 demonstrated. Again, let the name of one speak for the many: the American bacteriologist J.W. Lazear was a member of Walter Reed's team investigating yellow fever in Havana in 1900. He contracted the disease and died.
Finally, radioactivity. How many years was the life of Marie Curie shortened? How many of the doctors and researchers who used X-rays in the early days without taking precautions contracted cancer without knowing the cause? Are we to count the operators of the Chernobyl reactor among the unknown martyrs? Undoubtedly they took foolish risks, but one hopes that their deaths will contribute to safer reactors in the future. Deaths, serious injuries, and great physical and mental suffering will not halt the exploration of space or the progress of science in the laboratory.
It is sad that there is no memorial to the hundreds or thousands who paid with their lives for the progress of science and mankind. When such a memorial is finally consecrated, it should bear this inscription, drawn from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses":
"All experience is an arch wherethro 'gleams that untravell'd world whose margins fade forever and forever....