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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At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post leads me right to the thought that understanding our past is the first step in not repeating our mistakes...

There is a certain serenity that comes from accepting the fact the each person has the responsability for their motives. And motive to me has a lot to do with being honest with ones self.

I trust from reading your blog that you will "let it begin with you" and create for the good of this world. As you are teaching by example to your piers, the world may indeed change. (Your part of it anyway.)

Good post, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Take care of you!


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