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The Scientist as Conformist

Soviet Science

by Zhores A. Medvedev
Norton, 262 pp., $10.95

Scientists under Hitler: Politics and the Physics Community in the Third Reich

by Alan D. Beyerchen
Yale University Press, 287 pp., $18.50

Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko

by Dominique Lecourt, translated by Ben Brewster
NLB, distributed by Schocken, 170 pp., $11.50

In August 1945 British military intelligence unwittingly performed a splendid experiment in the social psychology of natural scientists. They delivered the news of Hiroshima to interned German atomic scientists, and secretly recorded the conversation that resulted. Only fragments of the record have got past restrictions on “classified” material, but they are enough to reveal the German scientists’ mentality—their soul, if I may use an outmoded term. They were conscience-stricken; they had failed “German science.” Casting about for reasons, they took note of the obvious disparity in size: the American A-bomb project had been enormously larger than their own. But that contrast only deepened the anguish of self-accusation. “We would not have had the moral courage,” Werner Heisenberg, the originator of the Uncertainty Principle, exclaimed, “to recommend to the government in the spring of 1942 that they should employ 120,000 people.”1

Implicit in that soul-searching was one measure of the scientist’s social and moral worth: his capacity to beat the competition, to win, whether fame for himself or wars for his country, or both together. When Heisenberg emerged from internment and discovered that the winners were uneasy, he turned to a different measure of the scientist’s worth. He and his colleagues had shown moral courage, he decided, of a higher order. They had dragged their feet, to withhold the A-bomb from their Nazi masters. Heisenberg inspired a gullible journalist to write that

the German nuclear physicists…obeyed the voice of conscience and attempted to prevent the construction of atomic bombs, while their professional colleagues in the democracies, who had no coercion to fear, with very few exceptions concentrated their whole energies on production of the new weapon…. “The scientists of totalitarian countries [said one of the German scientists] are rarely good patriots.”2

C.P. Snow went further, picturing scientists of all countries as unpredictable free spirits because they apply critical thought to all realms, not merely to their special fields. “Engineers and civil servants working on the A-bomb,” he wrote, “buckled to their jobs and gave no trouble, in America, in Russia, in Germany; it was not from them, but from the scientists, that came heretics, forerunners, martyrs, traitors.”3

The historical record does not sustain that romantic vision. An overwhelming majority of scientists have shown themselves to be single-minded devotees of winning, to the extent that they are venturesome, or of keeping their comfortable jobs, to the extent that they are cautious. They are prizefighters or pay-rollers, or some mixture of the two types. heisenberg’s initial anguish in August 1945 was that of a world-renowned champion realizing, in his mid-forties, that he had funked the chance at another great trophy. He was probably recalling a conference with the high brass in Berlin, June 7-8, 1942, at which he kindled their enthusiasm by declaring the A-bomb a feasible project within the time they estimated the war would last. A whole city could be destroyed with a lump of explosive the size of a pineapple, he had told them, cupping his hands in the delicious shape. But when Admiral Speer had eagerly asked how much money was needed, Heisenberg had backed off from a reckless commitment by requesting a small sum.4 In short, the moral courage he later accused himself of lacking was the courage to stick his neck out in the Nazi bureaucracy. At about the same time in America Vannevar Bush was urging a major project upon Roosevelt.

But we must not be too harsh on the German scientists. Sticking out one’s neck in the Nazi system required far more “moral courage” than in the American. To be fair, perhaps we should give highest marks in such courage to the handful of Soviet physicists who were urging an A-bomb project on Stalin at about the same time. His bureaucracy was by far the most fearsome place for extended necks. Yet somehow he got scientists to work hard and take for him, even when he imprisoned them.

Peter Kapitsa was among those astonishingly bold, early advocates of the Soviet bomb project.5 The widespread story, repeated by Medvedev, that he refused to work on the A-bomb is misleading. He has explained to the American physicist Herbert York that he supported the project but would not accept the particular task that “Beria” assigned to his institute. I am not trying to undermine Kapitsa’s well-deserved reputation for courageous liberalism. Medvedev is quite right to praise his legendary rescue of his brilliant young colleague Leo Landau from the NKVD in 1938, when Kapitsa threatened to resign unless Landau was released from arrest. I am merely trying to show that Kapitsa’s exceptional boldness was dedicated to the service of his country and its tyrannical masters, as Heisenberg’s cautious service was given to his—as, all over the world, participants in the cosmopolitan search for scientific truth serve whatever regime stands over them.

I disagree with Zhores Medvedev, who thinks that scientists can turn their masters to liberalism at home and to peaceful relations abroad. At times in his new book he seems to think that science alone can save the world:

Attempts to create global unions of states and governments, workers, writers, and religious or even artistic values, are certain to fail. Selfishness, egocentricity, nationalism, political dogmatism, racialism, and many other dividing factors affect almost all forms of human activity except genuine science.6

Einstein and Hitler were closer to the harsh reality. When Hitler was asked, in 1931, where he would get the brains to run a Nazi state, he countered with a scornful question of his own, lumping scientists with the Bürgertum or middle class:

Do you believe that the German middle class, this flower of the intelligentsia, would refuse to serve us and place their minds at our disposal? The German middle class would take its stand on the famed ground of the accomplished fact; we will do what we like with the middle class.7

Einstein was more precise. If a few scientists tear themselves loose from “the traditions of the herd,” that “is not attributable to intellectual capability but to human stature,…a strong feeling of justice.”8 Indeed, Einstein saw a connection between “the mechanized and specialized thinking” characteristic of natural science and the stunting of ethical feeling.9 I would turn that harsh judgment into a question. I wonder whether the ethics required for scientific work as for other specialized roles in modern society, the rules imposed by one’s “discipline,” may not be at odds with a broader human ethics.

Neither Medvedev nor Beyerchen puts such a sharp, uncomfortable question to himself. Their books are gently fuzzy. In his book on the Lysenko case, Lecourt, in spite of his Marxist posturing, never tries to place scientists in any socio-political hierarchy or ethical universe. Beyerchen begins with Paul Forman’s astute observation that German scientists concealed their right-wing political views within an ostensible disdain for politics. Thus they were prepared to ascribe “a great and noble goal” to the Nazis, though they might deplore their rough tactics, and nearly all the German physicists—including many of the Jews, who pleaded for the right to go on serving the Reich—were willing to work for the Nazi regime on the pretext that they were working for German science, which was not involved in politics. Yet Beyerchen demurs from Joseph Haberer’s realistic remark that “the scientists disengaged themselves from the problem of their responsibility in the crisis which involved them.”10

The facts are not at issue. Unless they were Jews and therefore forced into exile, nearly all the German scientists served the Nazi regime as best they could. It is the accusation of evaded responsibility that Beyerchen finds too harsh. He notes that few people could see the full implications of Nazism until it was too late, and he declares that the “political significance of science” was not obvious before Hiroshima. Neither excuse seems convincing to me. The Nazi death camps could not be foreseen in 1933, but the right-wing nationalism that bound the scientists to the Nazi regime had already, during the First World War, revealed its potential for mass murder. Nor is war the only issue in the debate over “the political significance of science,” which began long before Hiroshima. In 1898 Leo Tolstoy put the problem in its most basic terms, with the stunning simplicity that was characteristic of his moral vision:

If the arrangement of society is bad (as ours is), and a small number of people have power over the majority and oppress it, every victory over Nature will inevitably serve only to increase that power and that oppression. That is what is actually happening.11

Of course one can argue that Tolstoy oversimplified the scientist’s moral problem, which may be more complex than a stark choice between strengthening an evil society by pursuing science and abandoning science to work for a good society. But in simple or in complex forms, the problem is implicit in the scientists’ unctuous separation of power over nature, which they seek, from power over people, which they abjure. Modern ideologies, such as nationalism, democracy, and socialism, have intensified yet obscured the problem by fusing the individual with the collective that is supposed to have power over people, thereby blurring the sense of individual responsibility while increasing the individual’s willingness to enhance the collective’s power. Not only for scientists but for all of us skilled workers, Einstein’s metaphor of the herd may be less revealing than the metaphor of social insects—the ant hill that leaped to Dostoevsky’s mind when he saw the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. With this significant difference, that we are held to our specialized roles by ideologies and paychecks rather than by biochemicals.

Medvedev’s gentle fuzziness is different from Beyerchen’s, if only because Soviet totalitarianism, as he feels free to describe his country’s polity, has proved far more durable than the Nazi interlude in Germany, and has therefore posed many more, and far more complex, dilemmas. Medvedev sympathizes with those scientists and scholars who emigrated when the 1917 revolution shattered their dream of a liberal, constitutional Russia. (There were far more of them than there were of non-Jewish émigrés from Nazi Germany. The Bürgertum fears the left more than the right.) But Medvedev also sympathizes with those who stayed and helped the new regime to tear down old Russia and build a new one. His own father was a communist professor of philosophy at a military institute who fell victim to the terror in the Thirties, as many other scholars and scientists did. In spite of that tainted paternity, Zhores Medvedev managed to become a biochemist, and somehow kept the faith that the Soviet system was potentially good.

Indeed, he became one of the handful of Soviet scientists who have tried to make it good by criticizing its flagrant evils. The authorities responded by various harassments, which culminated in his banishment. Now working in a London research institute, Medvedev continues to argue for the reform of the Soviet system. Thus he finds himself denounced by former friends such as Solzhenitsyn who also worked quietly for the Soviet regime when it was most ruthlessly tryannical but have now decided that it is evil in the root as well as in the branch, suitable only for extirpation. The trouble is that they don’t know how to achieve the extirpation any more than Medvedev knows how to achieve reform.

  1. 1

    Quoted in David Irving, The German Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1967), pp. 121-122. Italics added.

  2. 2

    Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), p. 105.

  3. 3

    C.P. Snow, The New Men (Scribner’s, 1954), p. 176.

  4. 4

    Irving, German Atomic Bomb, p. 120.

  5. 5

    See Izvestia, October 14, 1941, as quoted in Herbert F. York, The Advisors (W.H. Freeman, 1975), p. 30.

  6. 6

    Medvedev, Soviet Science, p. 217.

  7. 7

    Quoted in Beyerchen, Scientists under Hitler, p. 10.

  8. 8

    Ibid., p. 209.

  9. 9

    Albert Einstein and Max Born, Briefwechsel (Munich, 1969), p. 203.

  10. 10

    Ibid., pp. 68-69. Quoted from Joseph Haberer, Politics and the Community of Science (Van Nostrand and Reinhold, 1969).

  11. 11

    Tolstoy, Recollections and Essays (Oxford, 1937), p. 185.

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