Ethics in Science

(This blog is taken from a recent Chapel Assembly by Mrs Diana Harrison, Deputy Head and Physics Teacher).  I chose the hymn this morning more for its tune than its words. Some of you may know that the tune to this hymn is known as the Dambusters March. I am showing my age a little here but growing up I watched many Second World War films because they were often the only thing on television on rainy Sunday afternoons (no satellite TV in those days!). One of those films, called The Dambusters, was about the bombing of dams in the Ruhr Valley in Germany by 617 Squadron.

On Friday, Father Jonathan showed you the large number of people involved behind the scenes in getting an aircraft up in the air and to the right place. That was as true in the Second World War as it is now. However what was very clear in the case of the Dambusters was that the mission could not have taken place without an extra person that we did not consider on Friday: a scientist, Barnes Wallis, the man who designed the bouncing bomb that destroyed the dams. Without Wallis’ original idea and then the development of the bomb, none of the destruction could have taken place in that way.

When we discuss the ethics of war and killing people, the scientists behind the weapons can often be forgotten. Battles have been going on since Stone Age times; recent archaeology has shown that tribes were wiping out other tribes before records really began and they were doing it with flint axes and spears. So are scientists responsible for the uses that their ideas and technology are put to? Weapons do not cause war but they do cause death and injury and it can be argued that scientists produce weapons.

If we start with The First World War, sometimes referred to as the Chemist’s war, it was the first time that a weapon of mass destruction (chemical, biological or nuclear weapons) was deployed on the battlefield. During the First World War, chlorine, phosgene and mustard gases were all developed, manufactured and deployed on the battlefield. The German High Command sanctioned the use of the gas in the hope that the new weapon would bring a quick victory by breaking the stalemate of trench warfare. This is an argument often used by the developers of new weapons, that it will shorten the length of the war and so save lives in the long run. It was certainly the argument used in the Second World War and the use of the atom bomb but more of that in a minute. However, the scientists who developed those gases must have been aware of their effects. Should they be held to account in anyway? Are they as culpable as the German High Command who gave the order?

Other technological advances of the First World War included tanks, improved aircraft and submarines. These have had peaceful applications today and could be argued not to be purely offensive in nature. Okay I struggled with thinking of a peaceful role for tanks but we have all flown on aircraft – would these have been developed as fast without the war effort raising the profile and importance of manned flight? Equally, submarines are used by the Navy but also for marine research and archaeology.

An example that shows the problems faced when judging science and the role of scientists, is that of Fritz Haber. I am hoping that some of the Chemists amongst you will have heard of the Haber Process to make ammonia – ammonia is needed for fertilizers and Haber has been credited with sustaining one third of the population from the increased crop yield. Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 in recognition for his work on this. Deservedly so, you might think.

However, for the previous four years, Haber had been leading the German chemical weapons programme, continually liaising between the front and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, organizing the development and deployment of chemical gases. Should a man who had been so instrumental in the death of so many – around 1.3 million casualties and approximately 90,000 deaths from gas attacks – have been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious awards for science in the year that the war ended? Despite wanting to be on the side of the scientist, I am not sure I can defend this one.

Of course it was not all one-sided. The allies soon got their chemical weapons programme started in response and the rest of course is history, including chemical weapons being used as an excuse or reason (you choose the most appropriate word!) for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is hard to see any spin offs that were of any benefit to this particular scientific intervention in war but of course, that is not always the case. Let’s look at the Manhattan Project in the Second World War.

Last year on the 75th anniversary of the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 the Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said: ‘The pioneering work of Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassman was a crucial step in the long scientific journey that led to the development of nuclear technology as we understand it today.” For those of you who are not familiar with the work of the IAEA they are charged with enlarging the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity. He went on to say “The IAEA gives priority to assisting developing countries in using nuclear technology in areas including health, food and agriculture, and water management. By making nuclear technology available, the IAEA makes a unique and lasting contribution to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.”

These are worthy and excellent goals to do with sustainable energy amongst other things but and there is a big but between 1938 and now atomic weapons have been used and we have had the cold war and the nuclear arms race.

Perhaps if this discovery had taken place in 1948 rather than 1938 then the weapons application of fission would not have been realised so quickly and so effectively, but unfortunately Europe in 1938 was on the edge of war and minds turned quickly to bombs. By 1941, British scientists from the Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool and Oxford Universities had published a memo on the use of Uranium in a bomb and things had moved even quicker in America. Hahn, Meitner and Strassman were doing pure research, looking for knowledge and understanding but can the same be said for the scientists who followed them?

The Manhattan Project was set up in 1939 with the sole purpose of producing an atom bomb and the Physicist in charge was J. Robert Oppenheimer. After the first atomic bomb was tested he quoted the Hindu scriptures, saying “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Many of the scientists were uncomfortable when they saw what they had created. Another famous Physicist involved with the project, Enrico Fermi, strongly opposed the development of the even more desctructive hydrogen bomb on both moral and technical grounds. Yet others such as Edward Teller were advocates for nuclear weapons. There was and is no easy answer.

This is what makes this topic so hard, particularly for scientists who like to see things in absolutes. Einstein, arguably one of the most famous scientists ever, found this dilemma extremely hard. His equation E = mc2 showed how mass could be converted to energy and although the atomic bomb works on this principle, he had no thought of bombs when he published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 – why would he? Both the First and Second World War were years away.

Einstein found the question of using science in war to be clear cut to begin with. In 1929, he publicly declared that if a war broke out he would “unconditionally refuse to do war service, direct or indirect… regardless of how the cause of the war should be judged.”
But 1939 saw Einstein signing a letter to President Roosevelt urging that an atomic bomb be developed before Germany got there first.

Later in November 1954, five months before his death, Einstein changed his mind again: “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.”

How responsible are scientists? Should Einstein have felt guilty? Where does the ultimate responsibility lay? The people who develop the bomb? The people who drop the bomb? Or the people who order the bomb to be dropped? In reality of course, they are all responsible, if anyone of those do not play their part then the bomb cannot be dropped.

Interestingly Heisenberg (of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for the Chemists and Physicists to whom that will mean something) argued strongly after the war that the reason that Germany did not manage to make an atomic bomb was because he deliberately made mistakes in his calculations. However the evidence to back up his claim is not totally compelling and it could be that he wasn’t taking a moral stance but just that he didn’t do his sums right. Michael Frayn wrote a play about Heisenberg’s behaviour; it is called ‘Copenhagen’ and I recommend it.

The response of Richard Feynman, one of the most well known Physicists to work on the atom bomb, to the question “Would you consider nuclear energy the curse of humanity or the potential salvation of mankind?” was “I am sorry to have to answer your question that I really don’t know.”

That is another dilemma the scientist has, they do not always know how what they discover will be developed for good or evil and in reality most things can be developed in either direction depending on the circumstances: nuclear power or nuclear bomb? That uncertainty though should not though stop research or the seeking of new ideas and technology.

Scientists are humans before they are scientists, they make mistakes, they are swayed by arguments and they will have vested interests. Perhaps an interesting question is: would I have worked on the atomic bomb project had I been alive then? Would you? I cannot say for certain but I suspect that I may well have.  Whether you are a scientist or not, you will have to make decisions that will have bad consequences (perhaps unseen perhaps not) as well as good ones and you will have to live with those decisions. Don’t take them lightly

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