Science And The Sixth Of August
I got up early this morning to watch what, from every angle you look at it, was a triumph. However, I am not going to say it was a triumph of science and technology.
That said, going millions of kilometres and then landing something the size of a car that you have to slow down from terrific speeds and then, as someone memorably put it on twitter, “lower, using a parachute and a rocket-powered shelf” is an astonishing feat, and surely one of the most technologically challenging tasks ever successfully carried out.
Furthermore this mission, which should be able to run for years and send back vast amounts of information, cost much less than a quarter of the Olympics and much less than a month for an occupying army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It should really be something to remember the 6th of August for, were it not for something else that happened on the same date.
In 1945, the USA, determined to show who was going to be running things after the war, unnecessarily destroyed the town of Hiroshima (and later Nagasaki) in order to finally win a war that was already won (NB – this article probably isn’t going to go in the direction you think it is at this point).
Shortly after, when the Japanese generals were on trial, an American General said that if the Allies had lost the war, the Japanese would probably have been justified to in holding similar trials of the Allied commanders. Surely the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in his mind when he said this, as was probably the fire-bombing of Tokyo.
Humanitarian disgust at the act has never faded, and never should. I am against nuclear weapons and power and don’t want them anywhere, never mind Scotland.
However, there is a group of people who occasionally use the invention of the nuclear bomb as a way to push an “all science is bad” position and they usually follow this up with the Einstein quote…
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
As the “science is bad” community tend to go hand in hand with the supernatural/spiritualist types, they also don’t tend to do their research so well. If they want to quote out of context they could probably be using this Einstein one as well…
“Our entire much-praised technological progress, and civilization generally, could be compared to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.”
Returning to the first one though, it is surprising how often people read that to mean that Einstein was suggesting we should slow down technological discovery. Maybe, just maybe, he was in fact hinting that we should get a bloody move on with sorting out our humanity…
The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessary solving of an existing one. One could say it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively.
As an example of this you could think of the many pre-industrial societies that consumed or fought their way to their own demise.
Take this bit from a lecture he gave and pay attention to the bold…
Why does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us so little happiness? The simple answer runs: Because we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it. In war it serves that we may poison and mutilate each other. In peace it has made our lives hurried and uncertain. Instead of freeing us in great measure from spiritually exhausting labor, it has made men into slaves of machinery, who for the most part complete their monotonous long day’s work with disgust and must continually tremble for their poor rations. … It is not enough that you should understand about applied science in order that your work may increase man’s blessings. Concern for the man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours; concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.
At no point did he say that we should stop with technological development, what he said is that we “have not yet made sensible use of it”, which is a very different thing. I don’t think that means he is saying we should abandon it, just that we should try to be more sensible.
A lot of people are waiting for the technological big fix. A lot of others want to return to an imagined age of spiritual harmony (I always forget…was that harmony with flowers and trees or harmony with the Yersinia pestis bacterium that caused the black death?). This is probably because they tend to look at things like the Curiosity Rover and Hiroshima as triumphs or disasters of technology.
I think that the point, again, is that they are both triumphs and failures of humanity and therefore the struggle is the same one that has always been going on, that of sorting out our humanity. The technology will do what it is told, for good or for ill.
In the current economic system that means that very often, though by no means always, technological development is geared toward making more money for a very few people as quickly as possible. That doesn’t mean it has to be like that. Instead of mass-producing plastic fish that sing for Christmas presents that no one wants, a refocusing of what we are about could allow a bigger concentration on the fields of making lives easier, health better, work hours shorter, the environment cleaner, knowledge deeper and supernatural silliness less prevalent.