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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Pure Science – and the Prick of Conscience

Part I

(31 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 13, 31 March 1947, p. 4..
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The Atlantic Monthly recently published the credo of an honest and courageous man. Its appearance is all the more remarkable at a time when, with the exception of an almost unique phenomenon like James T. Farrell, the intelligentsia of this country, in the face of a world crisis of unprecedented scope, displays almost nothing but notable cowardice, pessimism, or confusion. Simultaneously, however, this credo reveals the dilemma into which the scientist often falls when he attempts, within the framework of his accustomed experience, to oppose the march to catastrophe which the atomic scientists in particular have so conspicuously helped organize.

The letter in the Atlantic Monthly was written by Norbert Wiener, one of the best-known mathematical analysts in the country, in reply to a request by another scientist for data on controlled missiles. Displaying a moral firmness rare in these times, Wiener refused to accede to the request, concluding his dignified letter in these words:

“If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless people – and I most certainly do not – I must fake a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. Since it is obvious that with sufficient effort you can obtain my material, even though it be out of print, I can only protest pro forma in refusing to give you any information concerning my past work. However, I rejoice at the fact that my material is not readily available, inasmuch as it gives me the opportunity to raise this serious moral issue. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage In the hands of irresponsible militarists.”

Atom Bomb Poses Ethical Question

If the horrors of fire bombing or the tragedy of those lunar landscapes which once were German cities did not move the scientific mind to pity, it is attribute to the awful power of the atomic bomb and its potential development that after Hiroshima more than one scientist began to question the whole role of science in our society. Even during the period of early research on the bomb, the Smyth Report informs us, many scientists hoped that their experiments would fail.

The theory of the infinite perfectibility of man and his environment by means of the advance of science obtained general currency in the period of the relatively peaceful advance of capitalism in the nineteenth century. The spectacular decline of world capitalism which began in 1914, followed by the world economic crisis, fascism, World War II, and the atomic bomb and all that it foreshadows, augmented the voices questioning the progressive role of science. Spengler early in this period, and most recently Toynbee, systematized these doubts. Complementing this decline in confidence in the scientific spirit has been a worldwide rise in its antithesis: religion.

What is intruding upon the consciousness of the most socially sensitive scientists like Wiener is that free scientific investigation has been almost completely usurped by the military. Nearly all serious university and corporate research work is today subordinated to military aims. The money to finance it, the brains to exploit if – including those of several hundred Nazi scientists, and the fields for research are all controlled by the army and navy.

Neither do the scientists like the introduction into their lives of what the Germans call the Feldwebelston – the drill sergeant’s bark – and the whole military mentality that lies behind it. General Groves, the head of the atomic bomb project, once complained of the scientists, “They, do not know how to give orders or to take orders.” This they resent not only because it is destructive of traditional civilian rights, but because it hampers free inquiry – and hence is destructive also of scientific progress. It is these things which have led large numbers of scientists to advocate abrogation of the control of atomic development by the military.

Wiener’s attitude is a little more serious. We shall examine it in detail later.

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