Scientists Must Help Stop the Arms Race

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking" wrote Albert Einstein in 1946. A new book, Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking (Walker and Co., 1988), attempts to change those modes of thinking. The Beyond War Foundation, a nonprofit educational group, brought together dozens of scholars from Western nations and the Soviet Union to discuss the politics, science and ethics of nuclear disarmament. In this excerpt from the book, which is also being publish

Jan 25, 1988
Sergei Kapitza
“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking" wrote Albert Einstein in 1946. A new book, Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking (Walker and Co., 1988), attempts to change those modes of thinking. The Beyond War Foundation, a nonprofit educational group, brought together dozens of scholars from Western nations and the Soviet Union to discuss the politics, science and ethics of nuclear disarmament. In this excerpt from the book, which is also being published in Russian by a Soviet press, two scientists call on their colleagues to become active participants in the nuclear debate.

Over the last 411 years we have seen the world’a nuclear arsenals grow to immense proportions. In destructive power, they are equivalent to 1 million Hiroshimas. Our planet itself has finally become too small for them. Apart from their sheer might, the intelligence and the deadly accuracy of these weapons have grown to an extraordinary extent. The Goliath of the bomb has joined forces with the David of microelectronics.

There is talk of expanding armaments into the realm of outer space, as if the sea and land of our globe were not enough. Detailed technical, scientific and military analyses of this latest move have shown its fallacy. While the technical content of these analyses may be beyond the average person, the landing of a Cessna in the heart of Moscow by a lone West German pilot in May 1987 shows in common sense terms the futility of a perfect aerospace defense.

The further buildup of armaments gives no promise of increased security for any nation, much lees for the world as a whole. In pursuing the outmoded concept of “a balance of power” as a guarantee of stability we have long passed the stage where the notion was applicable. The overkill of today’s nuclear arsenals makes the concepts of “military parity” and balance of power meaningless. Deterrence, that dubious contraption of a balance of terror, finally shows its true colors. It no longer offers even the hope of security it might profess to provide at a lower level of armaments.

From a more general point of view, one may also consider the conflict that we are facing to originate from the conflict between the rational and irrational parts of human nature. In its most dangerous form, we see this in the supposed rationality of the scientific contributions to the arms race and the concept of deterrence, based on irrational fear and vengeance.

We are forced to look here in seeing a way out of the race to oblivion. Not by a technological fix, not by constructing bigger and better gadgets and rockets will we find a haven from the nuclear threat.

How to accept and respond to this challenge is in no way obvious. Which path are we to follow so as to provide a safe and secure world? How can we reach a new level of control and understanding, while at the same time preserving all that contributes to the dignity and freedom of the individual? These questions face us all and it is to these issues that we here address ourselves.

While the path is not yet clear, the method needed to discover it is well known: the scientific spirit, exemplified by a dedicated search for the truth, with a courageous disregard for commonly held beliefs when they are contradicted by observations. We have used this approach to discover the right paths into other unknowns—the design of the solar system, the structure of the atom.

As men and women of science, we have ventured, somewhat tentatively, into the more complex worlds of the human psyche and society. But it has been considered improper for those of us in the natural sciences to attempt to use the scientific spirit to bring about fundamental changes in the “unnatural sciences” of public opinion, politics and international relations. But improper we must be. Science demands it of us if science, along with humanity, is to survive. Everyone has a life-and-death stake in this endeavor. So everyone has a responsibility to participate. As scientists, we cannot claim any special role other than that we earn by our involvement.

It is instructive to recall what was said by the founding fathers of modern science. More than 30 years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote: “We have to learn to think in a new way. Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new paradise; if you cannot there lies before you the risk of universal death.” These passionate and wise words of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, signed by Einstein on his deathbed and by other great scientists, have set the pattern for the thinking of many of us.

Another signpost from the early days of the nuclear era is the idea of the open world. This concept was first suggested and discussed at length by the great physicist Niels Bohr as early as 1944, and later propagated in his Open Letter to the U.N. in 1950.

In choosing to speak out now, we act as inheritors of a proud tradition. Einstein, Bohr, and the Soviet geochemist and pioneer global thinker Vernadsky belonged to the brilliant generation that flourished during the first decades of our century, from 1900 to 1930. In that golden age, on a scale unknown since, we saw the emergence of new arts and new sciences: modern music and mathematics, literature and architectore, physics and biology. All these came into being, together with the new cosmology and the understanding of man himself. These developments in science and the arts took place simultaneously with revolutionary developments in social conditions. While much, if not all, was arrested by the Great Depression and the advent of dictatonal regimes, the intellectual and artistic masterpieces of those years still set the pattern for our modern culture.

Scientists were not only pioneers in this century. The Renaissance in Europe five centuries ago is an example of an important change in mentality, a change in the very concept of the world in which we live. The discovery of a new world, America, enlarged the image of the planet much to its present dimensions; the ideas of Copernicus, Vesalius, and Galileo laid the foundations for the modern scientific approach; in the seventeenth century humanism and enlightenment explored new values and modes of thinking, the Protestant Reformation carried a redefinition of work and success. These are but some of the hardly coincidental changes introduced in rapid succession during that tumultuous period in European history. As in the past, scientists today can contribute to improving international understanding. International collaboration of scientists helps both the progress of science and the betterment of the world. At the same time, it aids in establishing what the diplomats and military call confidence building measures. Traveling professorships, exchange students, postgraduate scholarships, and visiting scientists are the real traffic of scientific intercourse. However small the numbers, this is the way connections and friendships are built up, and channels of understanding are opened that can survive the drastic upheavals of modern history. Personal connections dating beck to the Belle Epoque of European culture not only survived the Holocaust, but were instrumental in establishing the Pugwash meetings on the nuclear threat.

Dealing with global issues requires a qualitatively new kind of effort since these problems are not only international but interdisciplinary in their nature. From experience we know that the boundaries between scientific disciplines are often more difficult to cross than those which divide nations or separate the known from the unknown. These projects on global problems demand a new dimension for their conception, planning, execution and implementation. Perhaps the last step is the most difficult of all, for here we are leaving the ivory tower of our professional interests as scientists and entering the real world of public relations, business and politics. As examples of success in implementing this global approach, we may mention conventions relating to whaling, outer space, air traffic, and the law of the sea. In each of these the concept of a common heritage is emphasized.

History shows that conspicuous consumption—be it in ancient Rome, the French monarchy, or czarist Russia—is a precursor of revolution. Today, for the world as a whole, the arms race is conspicuous consumption in its most menacing form, and it signals that major changes are imminent.

The evolutionary imperative, once solely physical or solely intellectual, is now both. Old ideologies have once again outlived their usefulness. It has always been the role of science to explore and discover not only new machines but also to break through barriers of human thinking. it is the latter responsibility to which we now respond. Humanity will either change its thinking or it will die a physical death from misuse of its own technological genius.

As scientists, we are dedicated to the search for truth, however far from conventionally accepted beliefs it may lead us. As scientists, we are guardians of the great tradition set by Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, and other courageous men and women who broke with the mind-set of their day. Therefore, we have an added responsibility to help society break with the current, dangerously inadequate mind-set.

Kapitra is professor of physics at the Institute for Physical Problems,
Academy of Sciences, Moscow, USSR.
He expressed his views on science popularization in the
May 18, 1987 issue of THE SCIENTIST (pp.14-15).
Hellman is professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University,
Stanford CA 94305-4055.

Copyright © 1988 by Beyond War Foundation. Reprinted by permission.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.22, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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