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:
"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.
While the 1970s have made this point, they have not resolved the larger issues of how energy development should proceed -- how it can be used more efficiently and produced in ways that can be sustained without overstraining the environment. Nations will need a mix of energy sources -- coal, oil, gas, geothermal, solar, and, yes, nuclear. Yet the balance of that energy mix depends not only on a country's particular resources, it requires basic political decisions also.
The struggle over energy policy is really a conflict over the future structure of society. It raises questions of who makes key decisions, of who benefits and who sacrifices when it comes to costs, environmental disruption, and the like. This is evident in the United States in such things as the fight over a "windfall profits" tax on oil companies, demands of Indian tribes with energy resources for a new "social contract," political pressures at state and local levels to "do something" to help people meet unprecedented heating bills this winter, and the general inability to agree on a national energy strategy despite more than half a decade's debate.
Special-interest groups have long regarded energy strategy as primarily a social issue. This puts the emotionalism into their stands. But this basic fact is only beginning to dawn on most people. It is another of the decade's major lessons. And, as it sinks in, it will strengthen the trend toward public participation in the management of science and technology which emerged so strongly in the '70s. This marks the decade as a watershed between an era when matters scientific and technological were left largely to the experts and a new age in which society at large is demanding a share in decisions as to goals, resource allocations, and restraints on the scientific-technological enterprise.
The disillusionment with that enterprise that is supposed to have arisen during the past decade is no loss of faith in the experts. Most people never had the romantic belief in the miraculous nature of science and technology which newspaper and television reports often suggest. Thus, the shocks of the '70s did not bring disillusionment so much as they confirmed an inherent skepticism.
Alan McGowan, president of the Scientists' Institute for Public Information, puts it this way: ". . . the public is smarter than many scientists and engineers think. Many never believed the claims of some that all would be solved by technology. People don't believe in magic." however, he added, "Most polls show the scientific community retaining its high standing relative to other groups (authority of all kinds is in question, but the scientific community least of all). If anything, we have gained a more realistic perception of the costs and benefits of technological society, and have realized that technology can only be a tool -- albeit essential -- in the solution of social problems."
Seen in this perspective, the interest that even some local communities have taken in the regulation of recombinant DNA research, the emergence of "public interest" groups as major challengers of technological trends, and the rise of the notion of "science for the people" are symptoms of a new public involvement with science and technology that can only be healthy in the long run.
If the public can feel it has a stake in the scientific enterprise and some control over its destiny, then that enterprise will prosper. It is only if the public were to become alienated that the enterprise would be in trouble and its badly needed contribution stymied. Jerome Wiesner, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasizes this in reviewing the uneasy marriage between the scientific community and the public as it evolved in the ' 70s. He notes that "the need now is for reconciliation between technology, social evolution, and human aspirations -- between freedom to innovate and governmental direction. Without this, each year society becomes less able to understand its problems."
Meanwhile, science and technology have brought some remarkable developments in their own right during the decade. Only a few highlights among them can be reflected here.
* In meteorology, both the weather and research have cooperated to warn humanity that it has been living under the dangerous illusion that technology could shield it from weather extremes. Recurring drought in Africa, punishing winters in North America and Europe, plus a "200 year" mid-decade drought in Britain spurred climatic research that shows such things to be an expectable part of "normal" climate. National planners have neglected this fact at their nations' long-term peril. New crop varieties, new farm technology, and the "Green Revolution" all have increased food yields. But many of the agricultural gains of preceding decades were also due to relatively benign weather, which people had come to take for granted. Thus, the United States began the decade with no substantial climatic program and with the Department of Agriculture officially attributing higher crop yields to a victory of technology over weather. It now has both a strong climatic research effort and an agricultural policy that at least is beginning to emphasize the need for climatic foresight.
* In physics, the decade has brought deep new insight into the basic structure of matter -- insight that encourages physicists to believe they are finding a new underlying unity. The concept of the quark -- a sort of ultimate particle that makes up more familiar particles, such as protons or neutrons -- has become firmly established. The 1979 Nobel Prize to Sheldon L. Glashow and Steven Weinberg of Harvard University and physicist Abdus Salam of Pakistan emphasized the hope for a deeper understanding. It was given for theoretical work that unifies nuclear and electromagnetic forces at a basic level -- a synthesis reminiscent of the unity between electricity and magnetism shown by British physicist Clerk Maxwell in the last century.
* In earth science, an avalanche of discovery has confirmed a theory, once considered heretical, that the planet's crust is composed of a set of larger and smaller plates that carry continents and seabed and move relative to one another. New material for these plates wells up from within the earth along the great mid-ocean ridges. Old plate material is recycled to the interior when it dives beneath other plates, creating island arcs such as the Philippines or Japan in the process. Establishment of this "plate tectonic" model has revolutionized earth science. It has given its geological aspects a unifying concept which has done much to explain earthquakes (most occur because of stresses associated with plate boundaries) and promises to shed new light on mineral formation.
* In astronomy, scientists have decisively broken through a historic barrier. Satellites are carrying their instruments beyond the distortions and obscurations of Earth's atmosphere. Equipment to observe X-rays, gamma rays, and other radiations blocked by the atmosphere has opened important new channels for study. And the space telescope -- a joint project of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency -- is well under way. Scheduled for launching in 1983, this 2.4- meter (94.5-inch) optical telescope will open up a volume of space 350 times that which astronomers now can study with ground-based telescopes and will bring a tenfold gain in image sharpness. Coupled with a revolution in data processing that enables astronomers to handle their data far more efficiently and incisively, this observational breakthrough has made the 1970s the opening decade of a new astronomical era.
* In space, a decade that began with men still going to the moon closed with the firm realization that the needs of Earth come first. Dreams of manned missions to Mars and of orbiting space colonies have given way to a policy that emphasizes Earth-oriented applications. Communications, weather, land-scanning, and other useful satellites are being emphasized. Even manned spaceflight will be in Earth orbit for the foreseeable future, as the US space shuttle becomes operational in the early 1980s and the Soviet Union continues developing its space station capability.
At the same time, the 1970s have been the decade of planetary research, with probes to Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn, plus the Viking landings on Mars. More has been learned about the planets in this decade than had been discovered in all prior human history. Scientists were disappointed that the Viking probes found no evidence of Martian life. But that doesn't foreclose the issue. And the disappointment has been more than offset by the flood of information that has created a new planetary science in which several planets (including the moon) can be studied in detail and the knowledge gained used to give a better understanding of Earth.
As Carl Sagan of Cornell University put it with characteristic exuberance in reviewing the decade for New Scientist: "The eighth decade of the 20th century -- more exactly, the period between 1967 and 1979 -- inaugurated a new age of discovery, the era of the scientific exploration of the solar system." He added, "These discoveries, and the tiny, versatile robot spacecraft which made them, will, I believe, make our times famous for a thousand years."
* In technology, perhaps the most remarkable development has been the explosive evolution of the computer. In 1970, the common computational aid was pencil, paper, and perhaps a cumbersome adding machine. Now you can zip through your budget with the help of a pocket calculator. And the computing power that scientists and engineers once had in a medium-size computer can be held in the palm of a hand.
As computers themselves have shrunk in size and cost, their use has spread far beyond mathematics. They have become flexible information-handling machines of great capability and complexity. They control manufacturing processes and coordinate airlines (and your ticket reservations). Computer library and information networks have become an international communications network paralleling that of the telephone and mail. The electronic games found under many Christmas trees this season foreshadow the home computer that soon will be an information and educational center for an entire family. Even this report, which, in 1970, would have been written on a typewritter, was prepared on a computer.
* In biology, the overriding development has, of course, been the rise of recombinant DNA technology. When the decade opened, biologists were studying intensively the chemical known as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). It is the carrier of the genetic code -- the blueprints that underlie living organisms. Scientists were analyzing it, decoding it, and beginning to speculate about redesigning it. By now, the technology for such design has become routine, although its full implications have yet to be worked out.
In learning how to cut up the DNA molecule, often combining bits from different organisms, biologists have begun to rearrange the material of organic life at its most fundamental level. The possibility of creating dangerous microbes and the overtones of hubris that some biologists saw in this work led to an unprecedented self-imposed moratorium on the research. This, in turn, inspired the political debates and imposition of research controls previously mentioned.
By now, biologists realize that the dangers of such research were exaggerated. Its benefits have already been substantial. It is an efficient tool for learning more about the genetic code. It also holds promise of designing new organisms (actually inserting new genes into the genetic blueprints of certain bacteria) for industrial purposes -- engineering bacteria to produce valuable biochemicals, for example.
Along with the evolution of computer technology, this is one of the two most important scientific-technological developments of the 1970s in terms of far-reaching, and still dimly glimpsed, implications. And like the computer (with its issues of privacy and of who is to wield the power that flows from information control), DNA research raises social and ethical questions that transcend the laboratory. Is it any wonder that the main theme of science and technology in the '70s has encompassed such larger issues?