Saturday, September 29, 2007

Monkeys With Guns

I've been doing a lot of reading on the depiction on scientists and science in literature. What has originally started with a fascination regarding the mad scientist through history has illuminated a whole world of interactions and connections between society and the science that it creates. I've been particularly struck by two quotes:

"The plain message which physical science has for the world at large is this, that were our political and social and moral devices only as well contrived to their ends as the linotype machine, and antiseptic operating plant or an electric tramcar, there need now at the present moment be no appreciable toil in the world and only the smallest fraction of the pain, the fear and the anxiety that now make human life so doubtful in its value... Science stands, a too-competent servant behind her wrangling under-bred masters, holding out resources, devices and remedies they are too stupid to use."

- HG Wells, A Modern Utopia (1908)

the second passage, I quote

They made a myth of you, professor,
you of the gentle voice,
the books, the specs,
the furtive rabbit manners
in the mortar-board cap
and the medieval gown.

They didn't think of it, eh professor?
On account of your so absent-minded,
you bumping into the tree and saying,
"Excuse me, I thought you were a tree,"
passing on again blank and absent-minded

Now it's "Mr. Attila, how do you do?"
Do you pack wallops of wholesale death?
Are you the practical dynamite son-of-a-gun?
Have you come through with a few abstractions?
Is it you, Mr. Attila we hear saying,
"I beg your pardon but we believe we have made
some degree of progress on the residual
qualities of the atom"?

-Carl Sandburg, "Mr. Attila" (August 1945)

In case you didn't remember, on the sixth day of August 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing approximately 70,000 fellow humans in the span of seconds.

I am constantly hit by the vast power and potential that science offers the world. Humanity and Nature reveal themselves to one another for brief moments. Nature reveals its terror and splendor, offering the ability to shape our destinies and possibly of molding the universe itself. Humanity, in return, shows her frightened state, that we are nothing more than startled lemurs cowering in the trees. We, as a race, have the potential to ascend to heaven, to remake the world as paradise. Instead, we satisfy ourselves by eating each other.

Even with this knowledge, or the privileged exposure to this perspective, scientists resign themselves to creating more industry, which may not even be science at all. We scientists, as an international community, compete for financial resources, power, and personal prestige. We are walking, thinking factories of technology by our own culture's social design. It is no wonder that some of the great social-scientific, reformist minds are relegated to the kiddy-table of science, Alfred Russell Wallace (the discoverer of natural selection), HG Wells (noted scientist and humanitarian), and many others. My respect for modern scientists that seriously dedicate themselves to societal improvement has increased a hundred-fold.

I can only hope to live up to their stature and wisdom. I would rather work on improving my world-community and prepare it for our scientific advances than hand guns to monkeys.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tears of Social Justice

I know I haven't posted in a while, but there was something I wanted to share with everyone else. For a while, I've been wondering about social justice and the culture that activists have created for themselves. Usually, at first, somebody gravitates towards social justice because of a moment in their lives, an experience, or an identity they have; for instance, I do LGBT social justice work because I was displaced when I was younger for my sexual orientation. I can only hope that my efforts contribute to the improvement of one person's life so that they do not have to have the same experience that I had growing up.

However, as time goes on, an identity is not enough to sustain social justice activity. Activism has a way of consuming people, as I've stated before. Being a leader stops being about an identity that you have and becomes an identity in itself. Many times, activists will attack each other over small things rather than work together to make society better. Social leadership becomes a type of intellectual masturbation, where people find making waves the only way to make themselves feel important. Instead of taking the effort to where it needs to go, they tear down the efforts of others to make themselves feel big.

And then something small happens.

While the occurrence itself was quite large in many ways, the action in the grand scheme of things seems tiny. A daughter comes out to her father. It happens all the time; I come out to people all the time. Still, you never know how your actions will affect other people. This one particular daughter happened to be the offspring of the Republican mayor of San Diego.

It's odd how such a small thing can make you feel like it's all worth while in the end. You really never know how you're changing things. I think that's the First Principle of Leadership... you have influence over your surroundings. Whether you choose to recognize it or not, you're creating change.

I can only hope my change has done what I set out to do. I feel good today.