Monday, 18 February 2008

Physics World: February 2008 issue

A trip into London today gave me the chance to read the February issue of "Physics World". This is the monthly magazine of the UK's Institute of Physics, and alone justifies the annual membership fee of that august organisation. As well as carrying news about physics, it usually contains articles that review contemporary developments in physics. Thankfully, a special effort is now made to ensure that those articles are intelligible to those who do not have specialist knowledge of the area of physics concerned (or, like me, whose physics study only reached to undergraduate level and that too many years ago for me to like to admit). Items of interest in this month's issue:

1. "Physicists count the cost of opposition to the Pope"

This is the headline of the coverage of the recent controversy over Pope Benedict's (cancelled) visit to La Sapienza university. To my embarrassment, many of those involved in campaigning against the Pope's visit were staff or students of the physics faculty at La Sapienza. The letter to the communist newspaper Il manifesto, which began the events leading to the controversy in November 2007, was written by an emeritus physics professor of La Sapienza; subsequently, the internal letter to the Rector of La Sapienza protesting against the Pope's visit and endorsing the letter published in the newspaper, was signed mainly by members of the physics department. While Physics World's report makes no reference to the extent of the support shown to Pope Benedict at the Sunday angelus three days after the day of the cancelled visit, it does give a flavour of the nature of the activities taking place at La Sapienza, naming them as "anticlerical activities", and describing the vandalism of a student's meeting room in the physics department at La Sapienza (though the circumstances of this are not clear from the report, the placing of the paragaph hints that it was a reaction against the anti-papal protest, something I find unlikely). One of the letter writers is quoted in the Physics World report as recognising that the often confrontational style of the students was "not so beautiful" and that many of the students did not understand the point of the letter. Physics World's report also describes a uniform negative reaction from the world of politics towards the protests at La Sapienza.

The headline of the report refers to another consequence of the events surrounding the Pope's cancelled visit. Lucianao Maiani, a physics faculty member at La Sapienza and a signatory of the internal letter to the Rector, had been selected by the Italian government to head up Italy's National Research Centre (the largest research organisation in Italy, which supports some 4 000 researchers across a range of subject areas). Members of the Italian parliament had been expected to rubber stamp his appointment, but, when they learnt that he had signed "the" letter, they put their decision on hold. Events since then have seen the resignation of the government and the calling of an election - so Maiani's appointment is still on hold ...

2. Book Review - Joseph Rotblat: Visionary for Peace

Joseph Rotblat was involved in the Manhattan Project (the American project that developed and then manufactured the atomic bomb) during the Second World War. He was the only scientist to resign from his work on the project, and subsequently was a leading figure among the scientists who argued for nuclear disarmament. He initiated the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Pugwash being the location of the first meeting. This book is a collection of essays about Rotblat and his work, and includes some of Rotblat's own writings.

I attended a talk some years ago organised by the London Branch of the Institute of Physics, at which Joseph Rotblat was the speaker. In his presentation, Joseph Rotblat talked about his resignation from the Manhattan Project, which came about when it became clear to him that the Germans were not going to successfully develop an atomic weapon and that the American project clearly had an intention as much to strengthen the American hand in dealing with the Russians as it did with defeating the Germans and Japanese. Like many of the other scientists who joined the Manhattan Project, Rotblat did so in the context of a possible German nuclear weapon. Wondering to myself whether his resignation was based more on an ethical view that was in practice pragmatic rather than principled (and I don't mean by this to question in any way the sincerity or integrity of Rotblat's decision), I asked him whether his resignation from the Manhattan Project involved some sort of ethical conversion or change. I do not recall the terms of his answer, but do remember feeling that he ducked the question pretty thorougly.

The Physics World book review sheds some light on this. It describes how Rotblat felt able to join the Manhattan Project on the basis of the nuclear weapon being developed for use only as a deterrent, in the context of a possible German project. When it became apparent that there was no prospect of a German weapon being successfully developed, and he learnt of the political intentions of the nuclear weapon vis a vis the Russians, he resigned. The deterrent principle no longer applied. In his subsequent writing, Rotblat was to be very critical of the nuclear deterrence argument that was his justification for joining the Project. My question was probably, without my realising it at the time, a bit naive on my part and perhaps embarrasing to him in a personal way.

Two interesting points arising in the review, though:

Rotblat firmly held that scientists had a social responsibility for their work, that they could not stay in their "ivory towers" and disregard the ethical implications of their work (this was largely what the Pugwash conferences expressed). He was in favour of a kind of "hippocratic oath" for scientists, and for the implementation of a range of safeguards to prevent the misuse of scientific knowledge and developments.

One of the success factors in the Pugwash Conferences is that each individual attends and speaks only in their own capacity and not as a representative of any organisation or government. This means that they speak according to their own conscience - and are not constrained by policy or principles set by an organisation. It is a sad comment on the way contemporary society works that this should appear so unusual, and shows just how much conscience is constrained.

3. Physics Twins

The letters page contains six letters describing instances of identical twin physicists, following up an article in the January issue. One pair of girls attended Imperial College, both as students in material science, both winning scholarships after their first year examinations, joint winners of a prize as they graduated, joint winners of a prize for their PhD research. They then parted company, as one is still a member of the Institute of Physics while the other "defected" to the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining.

Another pair of twins attended the then University College of Swansea for their undergraduate studies and PhDs - R W L Thomas and W R L Thomas. They apparently managed to publish some joint research papers, though they worked on different areas of Physics for their research.


Rita said...

Rotblat is definitely one of my heroes. It would be a much safer world is Joseph Rotblat's ideas weren't seen as so totally counter-cultural.

VA said...

During my 3rd year as a physics undergrad I realised that I could understand Fermi's 'Don't bother me about your conscientious scruples. After all, the thing is beautiful physics' (which scared me silly - I'm now trying to remedy it with a bunch of philosophy classes, but they haven't kicked in yet :) ).

Ethics has a way of lagging behind invention... probably because you can't really predict what the invention is going to be exactly and how it will affect society. I don't think many scientists will like having to pause and check whether their research will be ethically defendable, or whether they'll have to change course or even pull the plug.

Joe said...

One of the difficulties seems to me that scientists don't always study any philosophy (even as to the nature of the knowledge that they gain through scientific study). Continental Europe seems better in this regard than the UK.

Another problem is that, if you try to study ethics without having studied the philosophy of the human person, you can end up with a "menu" of ethical methodologies and no way of judging between them. Ethics then drifts into arguing from consequences - and, as VA says, it isn't always easy for a scientist to look ahead and see the consequences, or balances of consequnces, of their work for society (or, as may be more important, the consequences for the dignity of the human person).

Whilst Joseph Rotblat argues for an "ethical science", I have not read enough of his proposals to know how sound they actually are. If they are "pragmatic" (and I mean that in the best sense, not in a derogatory sense) they will not ultimately stand up.

After the Second World War, Rotblat moved into the field of medical physics, where his knowledge of nuclear science could be put to a positive use. A good example of "changing course".