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science

 



Science and Technology Unleashed

Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his Notebooks that he had suppressed his invention of the submarine 'on account of the evil nature of men". "They
would employ it, he saw, to "practise assassinations at the bottom of the seas".
Leonardo had no doubt that scientific research and its technological application should be subordinated to moral and spiritual values.
In early 1945, while working towards the first atomic test at Los Alamos, the physicist Enrico Fermi frequently told questioners, "Don't bother me
with your conscientious scruples. Alter all the thing's superb physics!"
In the intervening centuries the second attitude had become general, if rarely stated with such baldness1. Science has become sacrosanct and,
despite the shocks of our time, Leonardo's outlook is widely regarded as a sort of blasphemy. Yet, for all the rigour, dedication and courage
involved in research, there is a tragic naivety in the notion that it can be pursued or applied in a kind of moral vacuum. The laboratory and
workshop grant no magic exemption from the tortures of responsibility. Not even "the pursuit of truth" can be wholly innocent. For knowledge
brings power and men abuse power; it cannot fail to create new potentials for good and ill.
The eruption of the nuclear dimension into history is only the most dramatic expression of a more general threat to the human prospect. Science
and technology have gathered an immense momentum2, carrying them far beyond humane direction let alone democratic control. They have done
much to reduce the squalor and indignity of previous centuries, yet their very successes have added to their prestige and to our difficulty in
directing and restraining them. They have become the most potent agents of a staggering economic and social transformation, the pace of which
is still accelerating. And innovation cannot help multiplying the effects of overambition and impatience, error and accident, greed and sheer
unawareness.
The momentum is not primarily due to the scientist's insatiable curiosity, the technologist's devotion to making things work or even to their shared
philosophy of "publish and be damned". Science has become something like an autonomous force, with a driving logic of its own. Science feeds on
itself.
Once secured and published, knowledge cannot easily be destroyed. And as it grows, new connections are made, more and more frontiers for
exploration are opened up. No one can know what lies beyond these frontiers: by definition, discovery is unpredictable. What is certain is that it will
constantly provide men with new opportunities to manipulate the environment. These opportunities are avidly seized.
There is a hunger for power and its fruits which is stimulated by a materialist growth-minded ethos and sanctioned by a naive faith that somehow we
shall keep our machines under control.
During the night of November 2, 1975, the American missile cruiser Belknap was badly damaged in a collision with the aircraft carrier J. F. Kennedy off
Sicily and several died. There were questions as to whether the Belknap was carrying nuclear arms but the fundamental point was innocently exposed
by a bewildered American official. The officers were, he said, faced with a "psychological difficulty" because a collision between two ships with such
sophisticated equipment was "theoretically inconceivable".
Our technological society has just this "psychological difficulty" writ large. Despite the "unsinkable" Titanic and the "impossible" repetition of the 1965
blackout of New York in 1977, our trust in systems is reducing our capacity to see their limitations and to adapt to their failure. We forget that old tag,
"Murphy's Law"3: "If anything can go wrong, sooner or later it will. (And if it can't it still will.)" Man is rapidly accumulating such powers that it is
becoming extremely difficult to believe they will not ultimately destroy him.
One reaction to this condition was typified by Lewis Mumford4 who, soon after Hiroshima, wrote, "If science itself were the main obstacle to mankind's
continued existence, reasonable men, fully awakened to the danger, would demolish science as readily as they would demolish a Congo fetish"5.
Such calls may sound brave and bold, yet science is not a destructible object but a mode of thought. Nor is technophobia more rational than
technomania.
Reasonable men can neither hope nor wish to demolish science. It has, I fear, made human existence permanently precarious but now we can only
learn to guide it. And this will need more research not less, especially in ecology and future studies.

(about 740 words)

(source not known)


Annotations:

1 baldness: directness, plain speaking
2 gather momentum: gain force and speed
3 Murphy's Law: name humorously used to describe the everyday experience of things inevitably going wrong
4 Lewis Mumford (1895-1990): American author, editor and social critic




Assignments

Note: Read all the questions first, then answer them in the given order. Use your own words as far as is appropriate.


1. Comprehension

1.1. Compare Leonardo's and Enrico Fermi's attitudes towards scientific research.
1.2. What criticism of scientists like Fermi is expressed in the third paragraph and what fundamental considerations is it based on?
1.3. What basic ambivalence inherent in the development of science and technology becomes evident in lines 11-18?
1.4. What conclusions does the writer reach in the final paragraph?

2. Analysis and discussion

2.1. What kind of reader is this text intended for? Examine the structure and language of the text to back up your answer. 2.2. "What was once thought can never be unthought." [Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists (1962)] Do you agree?
2.3. What reason do you see for the fact that, even today, more boys than girls choose a career related to science and technology?
2.4. What is your opinion of Utopian fiction as a form of literature? Explain your reasons, referring to at least one such work written in English. Write about
150 to 200 words.

 
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