Scientists in Power
Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts
Science in a Free Society
Since Congress cannot repeal the law of gravitation, is physics at odds with democracy? That is high school humor, but it can be turned into scary questions, illustrated with human shadows burned into Hiroshima walls, bewildered refugees from Middletown, Pa., and amphitheaters of docile youths copying equations. Since the laws of nature are established by self-selected fellowships of scientists, may they not subject the innocent majority to their esoteric power? In that form the question still seems the product of an adolescent subculture; it recalls the horror comics that derive from gothic novels, increasingly silly caricatures of fearful belief in occult knowledge as power.
Modern culture has replaced such antique dreams by scientific knowledge, with baffling results. Natural science is not occult but accessible to any normal mind, and it generates real, not imaginary power—which confronts us as an alien force, which may even destroy us all. Nuclear bombs are the appropriate symbol, not only in their literal capacity to destroy us all, but also in the universal irresponsibility that they embody. Scientific inventors created them as an unrestricted gift to military and political leaders, who keep insisting in advance that “the adversary” will be responsible if “we” are “obliged” to initiate some “nuclear exchange.”
Creations of human minds confront us as external necessities; they not only push us toward self-destruction but mock us along the way for ever dreaming that people could freely shape their future by rational discussion and conscious decision. Not only in technology, but in science itself, as romantic thinkers have been complaining for two centuries, the mind’s knowledge of objects seems to stand outside the mind, like the things themselves, prohibiting some lines of thought, ordering others, restricting the mind to the discovery of necessity, turning the mind into another thing, like the calculating machines that guide smart missiles to their programmed goal.
Here are three more scholars grappling with such perplexities. Daniel Kevles is the least alarmed, or the most euphemistic. He discerns a manageable tension between “elitist science” and “democracy” in the history of American physics over the past century. Spencer Weart’s history of French nuclear physics illustrates a menacing title, Scientists in Power, with the usual symbols: a mushroom cloud on the dust jacket and a frontispiece photograph of a glowing apparatus magnetizing the intense gaze of the three Frankensteins who made it. Under a reassuring title, Science in a Free Society, Paul Feyerabend has written the most disturbed book, a diatribe against the “intellectual fascism of most of our leading philosophers, scientists, philosophers of science,” “a small gang of power and money-hungry intellectuals” who hold “common citizens” in “ideological and financial exploitation.”
Weart’s title seems to imply support for such accusations, but his excellent history shows how physicists were excluded from power, and not just in France. Weart has actually done a comparative history, for he has carefully traced French connections with British, US, and Canadian nuclear research. In all these countries, whenever scientists’ discoveries developed important technological implications, they…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.