Monday, April 30, 2012

A Brave New World

"The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds.
The pessimist fears it is true."
                                                J. Robert Oppenheimer
In the beginning of the 20th century, scientists of the ranks of Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg perceive the field of physics in a manner that drastically removes it from common sense and basic understanding. As a result, physics becomes irrelevant to most people and those with a clear interest in the subject are not many. At that time, the individual scientist working alone or with a few coworkers in a small lab represents the dominant mode for the production of scientific knowledge. With the onset of the World Wars and the development of nuclear physics, however, the situation changes. In Europe, government support for potentially useful research is evident in the First World War and during the years after the war. In the early 1930s, the transformation in the political climate in Europe and the rise of new ideologies, such as fascism in Italy and socialism in Nazi Germany, are the reasons for many of the Central and Eastern European scientists to emigrate to Britain and USA. They ultimately become the people who bring to the new world this idea of large-scale projects, like the one of a possible nuclear bomb, which can aid in ending the war. 

These projects, though, need enormous amount of funds that go beyond the ones available in corporation labs. Research begins to necessitate large installations and expensive equipment, increasingly beyond the resources of individual experimenters or even universities or private research facilities. As a result, government initiatives to exploit scientific theory for practical ends do appear on the scene. Governments begin to support scientific research, and in the years before the Second World War this is a major task for the socialist society in Nazi Germany. Somewhere around that time, the idea of science not as means to improve the human condition, but as a method to find new ways of destruction starts to form in the minds of many.

The Manhattan project and the development of the atomic bomb is a perfect example of the new way of doing science: the industrialization of scientific production or what has been called Big Science. The idea of an atomic bomb that could result in complete devastation becomes evident in the 1930s. In 1939, Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist, who has immigrated to Sweden escaping Nazi Germany, proposes a theoretical explanation for fission and calculates the immense amounts of energy that in principle could be released form an explosive nuclear chain reaction. The Allies recognize the caustic potential of such a weapon and further, they realize that Nazi Germany most probably is in the process of developing one. This launched the largest science-based Research & Development venture in history: the one that resulted in the creation of a weapon that could potentially make the entire world history.

When the Little Boy and the Fat Man are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one is truly prepared for the resulting devastation and total annihilation of everything and everybody. The fear that science and technology could be used for nefarious purposes suddenly becomes a reality. While in the past science was accepted as the way to rise against and fight superstitions and “backward thinking,” following the first several decades of the 20th century, science becomes the root of all evil humans must be wary of. There have since come many ready to exploit the situation and denounce any positive aspects of scientific and technological advancements while preaching for a return to times of superstitions and knowledge based on beliefs and what feels right, rather than facts. I always knew that the hidden and true meaning of the Descent of Man had to do with the fact that one day, the human race would simply go backward in time instead of fully aspiring to being the only “civilized” creature on Earth. Carl Sagan might have been inspired by science as a candle in the dark, but it is pretty clear even to him that somehow, unfortunately perhaps, people are once again finding themselves in a demon-haunted world created by those benefiting by such a world. 

On that note, it is important to emphasize that the Second World War did not simply result in the development of many weapons of mass destruction. The conflict also gave a push to a number of other government-funded, applied-science projects, such as radar, penicillin production, jet engines, and the earliest electronic computers. The use of the atomic bomb warned many that humans are capable of destroying the whole world if not careful, but at the same time, it also succeeded in dramatically ending a war that claimed the lives of millions. Ultimately, the problem is not with science; the problem lies in the hands and minds of bipeds who have no brakes when it comes to their desire to rule the world. 

 - Krasi

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