Archive for September 2008

Scientific Self-Control

September 17, 2008

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (September 12), Brian Greene reassured us that the experiments now taking place in the Large Hadron Collider cannot produce a black hole that will swallow the earth. Apparently, Hawking has a theory that any black holes produced by the experiments will disappear almost instantly. We are reassured, that is, until we read the next-to-last paragraph where we are told “the most exciting prospect of all is that the experiments will reveal something completely unanticipated, something that forces us to rethink our most cherished explanations.”

We remember that when the first atomic bomb experiments were carried out in New Mexico some scientists feared that they might set off a conflagration that would burn up the world. It did not happen. But the end result, nevertheless, was the creation of a bomb and the subsequent creation of a larger bomb that when duplicated sufficiently could destroy civilizations, if not all life. Then we and the Russians armed ourselves with the capability to make quite possible a general catastrophe. We still have a sufficient capability to achieve this result, but luckily the probability of a massive use of nuclear weapons has faded into the background.

Many believe that the end of civilization will be brought about by too much knowledge instead of too little. Scientists seem quite unable to control their enthusiasm for the new, and governments or private individuals seem more than willing to support their efforts. Ninety percent of our worries about the increase in the numbers and capabilities of robots, or the creation of new pathogens for warfare or to defend against the pathogens others might create, or what will come of pushing back the frontiers of physics and chemistry, or breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain and how to enter into its deliberations from the outside (initially for treatment of disease perhaps) and so forth may be foolish imaginings. But I think we have developed faith enough in science to believe that a great deal that we cannot conceive of today will be conceived of in the future — and if conceptualized will eventually be rendered “useful”.

Is it not past time that the scientific community consider conditions under which they would agree to abandon further experiments in the general interest of humanity? These may be physical experiments; they may be biological experiments; they may be robotic experiments. The lead must be taken by prominent scientists involved in research in areas that threaten to move humanity into unknown and dangerous territory. Laymen simply cannot know enough to have anything very useful to say in this regard. They can only point out that there must be territory out there that it is too dangerous for science to invade. It may well be that the Hadron Collider is well within safe boundaries. In order to make this and countless similar decisions in the future, scientists need to develop criteria in physics and other fields that would allow them to decide when a dangerous boundary has been crossed.

What these criteria and limits might be are hard to forsee, and they would probably be different from one scientific field to another. The effort will involve difficult issues in the estimation of risk in relation to danger. It will be a major task, one eventually involving the international community. But it seems reasonable to ask that the effort be undertaken. Science is afire. It will solve so many of our problems. But it is also a tool that must be handled with care, and the more so, the more it progresses.

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Georgia and American Triumphalism

September 8, 2008

We can all agree that Russia was wrong in trying to subdue Georgia, in spite of Georgia’s foolish attacks beginning it all. But we should also reflect that events in Georgia are due in part to American attempts to extend its reach into areas that Russia rightly considers to be in its historical sphere of influence. In trying to assert itself in Georgia, Russia is striking back against what it considers an attempt by the United States to surround and diminish its presence in the world.  After the collapse of the USSR, the United States in a spirit of triumphalism developed close relations with all the former parts of the Soviet Union that it could contact.  In recent years, it has continuedto urge the eventual inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO and is moving to set up missile defense sites in Eastern Europe. Regardless of the arguments that may be made for such measures, we should take seriously th fact that they are seen asdirect affronts by Moscow.

I am reminded of the rollback strategy of Secretary Dulles that led to the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Without taking seriously the implications of our talk, we had embarked on a rhetorical offensive that led the Hungarians to rebel against the Soviets in the mistaken belief that we would come to their assistance. The result was a bloody suppression of the rebellion and the postponement of real freedom in Hungary for many years.  On Russia’s periphery we have once again been indulging in a rhetorical offensive that we cannot and should not back up with action.  By implicitly encouraging Saakashvili to move against South Ossetia, we gave Russia the excuse that it had been waiting for to reassert its influence over this and other former Soviet and Russian peoples. Brash statements by Rice and Cheney and Biden and the announcement of a one billion dollar aid package underline our weakness more than demonstrate resolve. If, as with Hungary in 1956, we actually had the power and the public support for an effectiveintervention in Georgia and neighboring states, then our policy might make sense.  But with the present attitude of our people and our presentweakened economic and military condition, we should rethink our policy along the borders of Russia to make sure that we don’t again endanger either the peoples involved or the world with our feckless ambition. Only in this way will we have a chance of once again making Russia a working partner.