Natural science in the 20th century

From astronomy to zoology, the sciences have shaped a new world view. The emergence of man on Earth is seen as part of the unfoldment of a universe whose most remarkable feature is the rise of intelligence that can reflect upon it and aspire to comprehend it. Few scientists now claim the scientific method to be the only approach to knowledge. Yet within its limits, the knowledge they are developing challenges people to see themselves in cosmic perspective.

Along with this new perspective have come awesome responsibilities. Scientific research now penetrates ever more deeply into areas once thought beyond the reach of mankind - brain research and mind control, genetic engineering and redesign of some organic life forms, basic physical forces released with terrifying destructive potential in nuclear weapons. Even scientists wonder if all knowledge that could be developed should be developed. Who is to set the limits, if any? Who is to exercise control? Indeed, can society exert such control over the sciences and not stifle them?

Such was the perspective with which a series in this newspaper viewed the challenge of the natural sciences in the 1980s. Certainly, that challenge vastly differs in this 75th anniversary year of The Christian Science Monitor from what it was when the paper was founded in 1908.

There was little natural science coverage then. Technological developments - the Wright brothers' ''fliers,'' the spreading use of telephones, progress of the automobile - all were duly reported and commented upon. But the fundamental changes in thought that began with publication in 1905 of Einstein's special theory of relativity and of his discovery of the particle (quantum) nature of light - work that laid the foundation for a revolution in the scientist's view of physical nature - were largely unreflected in the pages of the Monitor or of most other newspapers of the day. Unlike politics, economics, or technology, it would take the rise of a new field of journalism to chronicle the unfoldment of these basic thought forces - the profession of science writing.

Developing in the years after World War I, science writing was becoming a recognized branch of journalism by 1930, and the Monitor took a leading role in its progress. Herbert B. Nichols, a botany student at Harvard, began writing science news stories for the paper. After graduation, Mr. Nichols, who was to become the Monitor's first natural science editor, joined with science writers of other major newspapers and the news wire services to found the National Association of Science Writers. A new kind of professional had joined the ranks of news people - men and women who combined a reporter's skill with the knowledge needed to penetrate the arcane world of the physicist, chemist, and biologist.

Along with reports of gathering war clouds in Europe and of struggles with economic depression, the Monitor's pages now carried equally portentous news of the sciences.

By then, astronomers had realized that some of the nebulous patches in the sky are actually other galaxies of stars. Our own Milky Way star system was but one of millions of such systems in a vast universe whose full extent and age had yet to be determined.

But new instruments to explore this cosmos were on the way. The blank for the 200-inch mirror of what, after World War II, would become the Mt. Palomar telescope was poured. Engineers began developing electronic aids to boost the observing power of optical telescopes. This line of work, which continues today, would eventually allow astronomers to ''see'' the universe with radio waves, X-rays, and infrared (heat) radiation. In one especially prophetic statement, an article in 1933 suggested that astronomers would be able to study celestial objects in such detail that ''grammar school youngsters of the future may have to include the geography of the planets in their studies.'' That prophecy has been abundantly fulfilled with the atlases of Mars, Venus, Mercury, and even of the larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn now published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and US Geological Survey.

Meanwhile, physicists in the 1930s were becoming accustomed to living with uncertainty.

Experimental data no longer supported the old concept of matter as solid objective substance. Matter and energy were recognized as interchangeable. In fact, matter could appear out of pure energy where no mass had existed before.

Moreover, at the atomic level, predictability of cause and effect had yielded to the realization that phenomena are statistical in nature. Individual events cannot be predicted. Such events cannot be separated from the observer. The new quantum theory of atomic behavior even maintained as a matter of fundamental principle that such events have no meaning without the observer whose action brings them into being.

Einstein, who felt uncomfortable with a physics governed by probabilities rather than cause-effect certainty, disliked this concept. Walking with a physicist friend one evening, he asked if that friend really believed that the moon shining behind them didn't exist unless they turned around and looked at it. Yet weird as the concepts of the new physics seemed then - and still seem today - they have stood the test of decades of rigorous experimentation.

The new physics was also laying the foundation for practical developments that would profoundly change the world. In 1934, a story typifying these developments proclaimed that ''Einstein's . . . outline of mass energy-equivalence raises hopes of unlocked power.'' It went on to report that scientists ''have concluded that 99 percent of all solid substances in the earth and its atmosphere are contained in the atomic nuclei. Now a new branch of science, nuclear chemistry, is striving to discover ways of tapping this 99 percent - of energy as well as of mass.'' Never mind that prestigious skeptics such as physicist Robert Andrews Millikan insisted, ''There will never be enough energy available to mankind from the atom to run a peanut whistle.'' Many physicists did indeed anticipate some form of atomic power. But even the most farsighted of them scarcely realized how awesome that power would turn out to be.

Nevertheless, concern about the larger consequences of scientific research was beginning to stir. A report in 1938 quoted Sir Richard Gregory, then retiring as editor of the British journal Nature, as warning scientists that ''they can no longer remain indifferent to the social consequences of discovery and invention.''

''It would be a betrayal of the scientific movement if scientific workers failed to play an active part in solving the social problems they are partly responsible for,'' he said. Soon the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki would drive home this precept with a vengeance.

In 1939, with an uncharacteristic lack of insight, the Monitor assured readers that the war that now seemed imminent would unleash no new secret weapons, no ''super-terrible bomb.'' But Monitor editors did not remain ignorant of this development. One editor's neighbor, who was involved with the project, indiscreetly talked about it. The subsequent story hinting at interesting developments in nuclear physics brought a prompt visit from the FBI. From then on, Monitor readers, if not the editors, were kept in ignorance of the bomb project until the weapons were dropped on Japan.

The relationship between science and society, science and government, science and human welfare, would never be the same again. In the colorful phrase of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the atom bomb development, physicists had known sin. What had been a wonderfully exciting game of understanding basic natural forces had produced a weapon that threatened the very existence of civilization.

This sense of sin continues to haunt the atomic scientists. As a news report noted in 1981, ''for many US physicists, the top priority on their personal and professional agendas is avoidance of nuclear war.'' And any issue of the paper these days may well carry further reports of physicists' efforts to reduce the nuclear arsenals. Many other people now join in this quest. But for the surviving veterans of the atom bomb project, it has often become a matter of personal penance.

Meanwhile, scientists in all fields had found they had a new prominence in the post-World War II period. Because of their wartime achievements, government now looked upon them as a source of national wealth and power as well as of basic knowledge. Research money was more easily found. But along with it came tighter government control in fields considered to have military importance.

A new tension had entered the lives of many scientists - the tension between the need for freedom of research and communication and the government's desire to keep discoveries secret. This tension continues to sour the science-government relationship. Here again, almost any current issue of the paper may report a protest from university or industrial scientists against federal efforts to restrict nonsecret nondefense scientific information. Several university presidents have repeatedly warned that this could undermine the vitality of US science.

Thus an editorial published in 1946 seems peculiarly timely. Entitled ''Freedom of Research,'' it warns: ''There is growing wrath among the natural scientists these days. In fact, some of them are just about ready to go on strike'' over the secrecy issue. Finding the healthy balance between the demands of national security, as perceived in Washington, and the need for freedom, as perceived in the laboratory, seems to be a never-ending quest in a free society.

So too is the search for sound science and math teaching in the nation's schools. The recent report from the National Science Foundation on the sad state of such teaching echoes concern expressed in the immediate post-World War II years. Again in the mid-1950s, news reports warn that poor science education threatens the supply of future scientists. Industry is urged to free employees to teach in schools. Extra pay is recommended for science teachers. The sense of national crisis aroused by the appearance of the first Soviet Earth satellite in 1957 brought a temporary revitalization of elementary and high school science and math education. But as the recent NSF report notes, that impetus was lost within a decade.

Something more fundamental than lack of ''federal leadership'' or of ''federal funding'' has held back US science education. In a country where control and support of the school system rests with local communities, people have not been persuaded to give the priority to science and mathematics education that the leaders in these fields and in Washington say is needed. If these leaders have a case to make, they have not made it at the grass-roots level over a very long period of time.

Then there has been the growth of the scientists' ''conscience.'' Quite apart from, but along with, particular concern over nuclear weapons has come a larger concern with the place of the scientific enterprise in society. A dispatch from the 1946 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that ''very few engineers or men of research still feel 'it's none of the public's business' what goes on in laboratories.''

This concern has continued to grow. By 1980, a retrospective survey could report that ''the decade of the '70s will stand as a watershed between an era when matters of science and technology were largely left to the experts and a new age when society-at-large began to demand a new decisionmaking role.'' Several local communities had worked out arrangements with universities to ensure the safety of genetic experiments. Federal guidelines, too, had been established for this work. Other citizen groups closely monitored technology's impact on the environment.

The survey went on to note: ''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. . . .'' A quotation from Jerome Wiesner, then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasized this point. He explained 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.''

Here, certainly, is a decades-old issue that will be high on the political and scientific agenda in the United States in the 1980s. It is likely to be there still when this newspaper celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2008.

Thus the new knowledge, insights, and technological payoffs of 20th-century science have brought a new sense of realism about their social impact. Most people probably never did share the romantic view of the nobility of research and inherent goodness of its fruits that had beguiled yesterday's scientists. Now the scientists themselves know better, as some of them had known all along.

The late James B. Conant - chemist, educator, and president of Harvard University - was one such skeptic. At the dawn of the atomic age, many experts talked euphorically about a new abundance based on cheap nuclear power. But Conant told the American Chemical Society's diamond jubilee dinner in 1951, ''I see . . . neither an atomic holocaust nor the golden-age abundance of the atomic age. On the contrary, I see worried humanity endeavoring by one political device or another to find a way out of the atomic age.'' He added that holocaust would be avoided ''only by the narrowest of margins. . . . And only because . . . the military advisers could not guarantee ultimate success.''

Among the valuable insights we have gained from the sciences is the grace to see ourselves from the perspective of space. In 1955, a report on a meeting of space experts asked rhetorically, ''What will men think when they look back from space on the full rounded figure of their familiar world?'' It added, ''In terms of the thread of human history, this is the most significant question raised by the imminent prospect of launching the exploration of space.''

That question has been well answered now by the astronauts who have orbited Earth and walked on the moon. Dr. William Thornton summed up the feelings often expressed by these space travelers when, after returning from the latest shuttle flight, he called it ''a pretty humbling experience.'' He said it made him think ''that this may be the only spot that supports life in at least five light-years and maybe more. . . . It is a very unique spot indeed, and I think one that deserves very careful assessment of our responsibilities to it.''

The sciences are also challenging people to rethink their concept of life itself. A report in 1957 on what was then the ''new biology'' noted that some, but by no means all, biologists were questioning how far life could be reduced to a mere property of matter. For example, the late Loren Eiseley, a paleontologist, in commenting on possible creation of organic life in the laboratory, had written: ''I do not think, if someone finally twists the key successfully in the tiniest and most humble house of life, that many of (the basic) questions will be answered. . . . Rather, I would say that if 'dead' matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering men, it must be plain to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful, powers, and may not impossibly be, as Hardy suggested, 'but one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind.' ''

By 1980, when genetic engineers had begun to consider the redesign of living organisms, if not creation of organic life itself, the basic question - what is life? - still nagged. The US National Academy of Sciences summed up the present state of biological knowledge by explaining: ''It is not unreasonable to say that the secret of life has been discovered - or, better, that many secrets have been discovered. Each involves known physical and chemical forces. These results make it very unlikely that any vital forces remain to be discovered. . . . However, this triumph of the mechanistic approach to biology in no way diminishes the unique qualities and the marvel of the living world and the human spirit. Rather, we can only stand in awe. . . . Although there is no unique vital force in living organisms, there is a unique molecular basis for their organization which is not found in the inorganic world: the molecular storage of information programming the development and function of the organism.'' Thus Eiseley's challenge still stands.

Whatever their views on the ultimate nature of life, however, many scientists have come to distrust too deep a materialism. They simply do not like what it does to one's concept of man. I.I. Rabi, a Nobelist and one of the original atomic scientists, made this point strongly in a recent comment on nuclear weapons and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said simply, ''It treated human beings as matter.''

This newspaper, published by a church, has striven to keep theology out of its news columns. It endeavors to make its coverage of science news unbiased, factual, and reasonably complete. But when the occasion demands, it has not hesitated to nail its colors to the masthead. Thus it has taken stands on the moral, ethical, and social issues raised by the sciences.

Editorially, it has supported free inquiry and the dissemination of scientific knowledge. It has urged wider public participation in the oversight and regulation of socially important research, as in genetic engineering. It has welcomed the larger view of mankind, of our place in the cosmos, and of our responsibilities to our home planet that the sciences are developing. It has endorsed the principle of separation of church and state in the classroom and decried efforts to debase science teaching to please certain fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

In short, considering the challenges that 20th-century exploration of the cosmos, of Earth, and of life upon it have raised, one might well be reminded of a particular Old Testament verse (Deut. 30:19): ''I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.''

This newspaper has given editorial support to the progress of the sciences in the hope that the insights gained by free exploration of the natural world will help humanity choose life.

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