Dark materials

Nuclear scientist Joseph Rotblat campaigned against the atom bomb he had helped unleash. Is it time for today’s cyber scientists to heed his legacy?

Essay by Martin Rees
Saturday June 10, 2006
The Guardian

Joseph (Jo) Rotblat was a nuclear scientist. He helped to make the first atomic bomb. But for decades he campaigned against what he had helped unleash. Until he died last year, aged 96, he pursued this aim with the dynamism of a man half his age, inspiring others to join the cause. He was born in Poland in 1908. His family suffered great hardship in the first world war but he was exceptionally intelligent and determined, and managed to become a nuclear physicist. After the invasion of Poland, he came as as a refugee to England to work with James Chadwick at Liverpool University. He then went to Los Alamos, New Mexico, as part of the British contingent involved in the Manhattan Project to make the first atom bomb.

In his mind there was only one justification for the bomb project: to ensure that Hitler did not get one first. As soon as this ceased to be a credible risk, Jo left Los Alamos – the only scientist then to do so. He returned to England and became a professor of medical physics, an expert on the effects of radiation on human health, and a compelling and outspoken campaigner.

In 1955, he met Bertrand Russell and encouraged him to prepare a manifesto stressing the extreme gravity of the nuclear peril. He secured Einstein’s signature too; this “Russell-Einstein manifesto” was then signed by 10 other eminent scientists.

Atom Bomb

The authors claimed to be “speaking on this occasion not as members of this or that nation, continent or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt”. This manifesto led to the initiation of thePugwash Conferences – so called after the village in Nova Scotia where the inaugural conference was held. There have been 300 meetings since then. Jo attended almost all of them.

When the achievements of these conferences were recognised by the 1995 Nobel peace prize, half the award went to the Pugwash organisation, and half to Jo Rotblat personally, as their “prime mover” and untiring inspiration. Particularly during the 1960s, the Pugwash Conferences offered crucial “back-door” contact between scientists from the US and the Soviet Union when there were few formal channels. These contacts eased the path for the partial test ban treaty of 1963, and the later anti-ballistic missile treaty.

But this catastrophic threat could be merely in abeyance. In the next 100 years, geopolitical realignments could lead to a nuclear standoff between new superpowers, which might be handled less well than the Cuba crisis was. Moreover, we are confronted by a proliferation of nuclear weapons (in North Korea and Iran for instance). There is now a growing risk of nuclear weapons going off in a localised conflict, and the Bulletin’s clock stands at seven minutes to midnight. The nuclear threat will always be with us.

But what are the promises and threats from 21st-century science? Science offers immense hope, and exciting prospects. There are genuine grounds for being a techno-optimist.

The technologies that fuel economic growth today – IT, miniaturisation and biotech – are environmentally and socially benign. They are sparing of energy and raw materials. They boost quality of life in the developing and the developed world, and have much further to go. That is surely good news. But opinion polls reveal public concern that science may be advancing too fast to be properly controlled. It is not only advancing faster than ever, it is opening up the prospects of new kinds of change.

Whatever else may have changed over preceding centuries, humans have not for thousands of years. But in this century, targeted drugs to enhance memory or change mood, genetic modification, and perhaps silicon implants into the brain, may alter human beings themselves. That is something qualitatively new in our history.

Our species could be transformed within a few centuries. And there are other disquieting prospects. Collective human actions are transforming, even ravaging, the biosphere – perhaps irreversibly – through global warming and loss of biodiversity. We have entered a new geological era, the anthropocene. We do not fully understand the consequences of rising populations and increasing energy consumption on the interwoven fabric of atmosphere, water, land and life.

We are collectively endangering our planet, but there is a potential threat from individuals too. “Bio” and “cyber” expertise will be accessible to millions. It does not require large, special-purpose facilities as do nuclear weapons. Even a single person will have the capability to cause widespread disruption through error or terror. There will always be disaffected loners, and the “leverage” each can exert is ever-growing. It would be hard to eliminate such risks, even with very intrusive surveillance.The global village will have its global village idiots.

Kruger, Your Manias Become Science 1980s

Kruger, Your Manias 1984

Some commentators on biotech, robotics and nanotech worry that when the genie is out of the bottle, the outcome may be impossible to control. They urge caution in “pushing the envelope”. But we cannot reap the benefits of science without accepting some risks. The best we can do is minimise them. The typical scientific discovery has many applications, some benign, others less so. Even nuclear physics has its upside: its medical uses have saved more people than nuclear weapons actually killed.

The uses of academic research generally cannot be foreseen. Ernest Rutherford, the leading nuclear physicist of his time, famously said in the mid-1930s that nuclear energy was “moonshine”; the inventors of lasers did not foresee that an early application of their work would be to eye surgery; and the discoverer of x-rays was not searching for ways to see through flesh.

Science in the 21st century will present new threats more diverse and more intractible than nuclear weapons did. It will pose ethical dilemmas. But a blanket prohibition on all risky experiments and innovations would paralyse science and deny us all its benefits.
Scientists sometimes abide by self-imposed moratoria on specific lines of research. A precedent for this was the so-called “Asilomar declaration” in 1975 whereby prominent molecular biologists refrained from some experiments involving the then new technique of gene-splicing. Just last month, experts in the more advanced techniques of “synthetic biology” proposed a similar ban.

Holzer, Protect Me 1980s

Jenny Holzer, Protect Me 1984

But a voluntary moratorium will be harder to achieve today: the academic community is larger, and competition (enhanced by commercial pressures) is more intense. To be effective, the consensus must be worldwide. If one country alone imposed regulations, the most dynamic researchers and companies would migrate to another that was more sympathetic or permissive. This is happening already in stem cell research.

How can we prioritise and regulate, to maximise the chance that applications are benign, and restrain their “dark side”? How can the best science be fed in to the political process?

There is an ever-widening gap between what science allows, and what we should actually do. There are many doors science can open that should be kept closed, on prudential or ethical grounds. Choices on how science is applied should not be made just by scientists. That is why everyone needs a “feel” for science and a realistic attitude to risk – otherwise public debate won’t get beyond sloganising. Jo Rotblat favoured a “Hippocratic oath” whereby scientists would pledge themselves to use their talents to human benefit.

Holzer, Abuse

Holzer, Abuse of Power 1980s

Scientists surely have a special responsibility. It is their ideas that form the basis of new technology. They should not be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas. They should forgo experiments that are risky or unethical. More than that, they should foster benign spin-offs, but resist dangerous or threatening applications. They should raise public consciousness of hazards to environment or health.

At the moment, scientific effort is deployed sub-optimally. This seems so whether we judge in purely intellectual terms, or take account of likely benefit to human welfare. Some subjects have had the inside track. Others, such as environmental research, renewable energy, biodiversity studies and so forth, deserve more effort. Within medical research the focus is disproportionately on ailments that loom largest in prosperous countries, rather than on the infections endemic in the tropics. The challenge of global warming should stimulate a whole raft of manifestly benign innovations – for conserving energy, and generating it by “clean” means (biofuels, innovative renewables, carbon sequestration, and nuclear fusion).

These scientific challenges deserve a priority and commitment from governments, akin to that accorded to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo moon landing. They should appeal to the idealistic young. But to safeguard our future and channel our efforts optimally and ethically we shall need effective campaigners, not just physicists, but biologists, computer experts, and environmentalists as well; latter-day counterparts of Jo Rotblat, inspired by his vision and building on his legacy.

· Martin Rees is president of the Royal Society. This essay is based on a talk he gave at the Guardian Hay literary festival

Source: Guardian Online

For more information on Martin Rees, click here.

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