Thursday, 6 August 2015

Responsibility in the Atomic Age

The commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing has caused me to reflect on my grandfather. The son of an illiterate carpenter, after surviving duty in the Royal Engineers during the first World War, he was able to go to Cambridge and subsequently became joint Editor of the science journal Nature. In all the years he worked for Nature, he wrote only two editorials - one after Hiroshima, and the other after Nagasaki.

The kind people at Nature allowed me to have pdfs of both editorials for personal use only, so I'm not sure how much I should quote. If I have gone beyond what is acceptable, then I apologise. If you want to read the editorials in full, then you'll have to utilise a subscription to a library service of some sort. However, today at least, I leave you with my grandfather's thoughts at the time.

"...the very successfulness [of the development of an atomic bomb] induces a feeling akin to dismay that science should contribute such an engine of destruction to the world. .... There is another facet of the world situation which this scientific and technical development has brought to the forefront, namely, the immense responsibility now placed in the hands of those with exact knowledge of the steps necessary to release atomic energy. ... ..the United Nations, and especially Great Britain, the United States and Canada, hold in their hands a weapon with which they can dominate the world - a responsibility the discharge of which will require the highest degree of statesmanship. They also hold a potential source of power capable of contributing immensely to the welfare and material progress of mankind - a further and even greater responsibility. How will they use it? Governments are notoriously impersonal and they come and go. It therefore devolves upon the individual, be he man of science or layman, to understand the potentialities of atomic energy, even he understands little of the method of its release; and to ensure that his elected representatives ... are also aware of their responsibilities in the matter. It is not a matter of exact knowledge so much as an appreciation of right and wrong in dealing with our neighbours, who are now every nation of the world. ... There can be no question of halting investigations until mankind is fitter to receive them; if material research has outstripped the progress of knowledge of man, then the tempo of investigation of man as a social being must be increased until both can progress, side by side, carrying man onwards to the higher ideals of life for which the best of each generation are always striving."  from Nature 156 11 August p.154

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