Some chapters of The Scientist As Rebel are immediately attractive to scientists. “The Scientist As Rebel” and “Can Science Be Ethical?” for example. Indeed, at first glance scientists might wonder why they should even delve into chapters titled “Russians” and “Pacifists.” I think that physicists can find statements in all chapters of the book that encourage contemplation of the roles of both the individual physicist and the physics community. Surely we don’t want to remain in the two extreme camps that Professor Dyson mentions: pure scientists who are “detached from the mundane needs of humanity” and applied scientists who are “attached to immediate profitability.” To balance between the two requires contemplation of how we relate and connect to others in our field and outside of it.
Two chapters in the first section, “The Future Needs Us” and “What a World!”, specifically discuss issues, biological weapons and climate change respectively, that are still incredibly pertinent today. Certainly one can take an all or nothing approach to both of these issues, but the practical resolution to both will likely come somewhere in between. Both chapters present arguments from the reasonable ends of the spectrum. I thoroughly enjoyed the format of the chapters – Professor Dyson presents both sides of the arguments, weighs in, and still allows the reader room to come to their own conclusions. Actually, let me refine that last statement – the format of the chapters actually encourages readers to investigate these topics themselves and come to their own conclusions.
Most of the second section deals with war, which Professor Dyson admits “scientists are powerless to deal with.” I found it difficult to connect with the context of this section – my generation hasn’t lived through the threat of imminent nuclear disaster. Perhaps, as Professor Dyson suggests, this is an important part of the process – only by forgetting the nuclear weapons can the political maneuvers necessary to eliminate them be executed. Getting past the context though, the questions posed by each chapter are still pertinent questions: how do we balance between predictions that the world will fail magnificently and the possibly false hope that since humans have survived on Earth thus far, we will continue to survive? In our time, this question belongs less to the debate on nuclear weapons and more to the debate on climate change.
Professor Dyson suggests that “the international community of scientists may help to abolish war by setting an example to the world of practical cooperation extending across barriers of nationality, language, and culture.” This is what I hope we will all explore during the Congress. How can we, as a community and as individuals, succeed in establishing connections across disciplines for fuller understanding and across cultures and borders for increased world-wide stability?
Jenna Smith is a graduate student at Michigan State University, doing work at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. She’s been a long-time friend of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, and she attended the 2008 Physics Congress at Fermilab.