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THE UNEASY MARRIAGE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND SOCIETY

By Robert C. CowenNatural science editor of The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 1980



The late James B. Conant -- chemist, educator, and president of Harvard University -- was a spoilsport among futurologists. Back in 1951, when nuclear power was only a radioactive gleam in its developers' eyes and visions of atom-based cornucopias abounded, he told the American Chemical Society's diamond jubilee dinner:

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"I see . . . neither an atomic holocaust nor the golden-age abundance of an atomic age. On the contrary, I see worried humanity endeavoring by one political device after another to find a way out of the atomic age."

Conant was out of step with his times, but the 1970s have vindicated his foresight. This gives perspective to the disillusionment with science and technology that is supposed to mark the decade. Developments that seem to call forth this dismay -- widespread chemical pollution, spray cans threatening Earth's ozone shield, satellites falling from the sky, the Three Mile Island incident and uncertainties of nuclear power -- all represent trends discernible decades ago by those scientists and technologists who looked at their work with clear eyes. It has just taken a while for the rest of us to catch up with them.

The dangers of which they tried to warn are no special property of the 1970s. They are part of the challenge humanity faces in learning to live on a planet where the impact of its numbers and its evolving technical prowess have become dominant factors. If we are seeing more clearly both the limitations and the potential of science and technology in helping us make the transition, that is a healthy thing.

Conant's words seem very much in tune with the decade of the long-playing Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) debates in foretelling how the world would avoid nuclear war. "Only by the narrowest of margins . . .," he said. "And only because . . . the military advisers could not guarantee ultimate success." He believed peace would come by agreement, with sufficient checks on armaments to enable nations to exist on the same planet without undue worry about one another's military stockpiles.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has monitored the progress of this uneasy peace, using the symbol of a clock with hands set a few minutes before midnight as an indicator. It started out in the 1950s at 3 minutes to the hour. That was a period when Bulletin editors thought circumstances to be especially threatening. It moved back to 12 minutes to midnight after such agreements as the nuclear test ban treaty brought a more relaxed atmosphere. Now the editors are moving the hands ahead -- to 7 minutes to midnight -- because the world seems less stable again.

Certainly, some of the military technology deployed or under study in recent years seems unsettling -- technology typified by cruise missiles, laser weapons, beams of high-energy particles, and the slow proliferation of nuclear arms. But there has been nothing to undercut Conant's basic point that major nuclear war would leave no victors.The fact that the world, by and large, continues to work to maintain global peace shows that this point is understood, and that is reason for hope.

Dr. Conant also seems to have been a prophet for our times in what he said about energy.Speaking of what was then the future, he said, "Once the illusion of prosperity for all through the splitting of the atom vanished . . . the air began to clear." And what would take the atom's place? What else but solar power? Its practical application, he said, would bring an abundance of inexhaustible energy and would make garden spots of seaside deserts as sunshine was used to distill fresh water.

Just how abundant solar energy will become remains to be seen. President Carter's goal of meeting 20 percent of US energy needs with sunshine by the century's end seems feasible. But experts generally agree that federal support for research, pilot projects, and market stimulation should be boosted fivefold, to $5 billion a year, to achieve this.

Conant also thought sunshine would be a cheap energy source. Its costs may indeed come to seem attractive as costs of oil, coal, and gas soar. But if there is one energy lesson the '70s have driven home with a vengeance, it is that energy, no matter what its source, is not "cheap," as that term was understood in the 1950s and '60s. That was a technological illusion which few people, if any, saw through before this decade.