Science In a War-Stricken World


By DR. ARTHUR H. COMPTON, Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago and Nobel Prize Winner, 1927

Delivered at New York Herald Tribune Forum, October 25, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 70-72.

IT is indeed appropriate that in this time of world strife the sponsors of the New York Herald Tribune Forum should have given a prominent place to the role of science. With the powers of science and technology the world has carried itself to the brink of destruction. These same powers have, nevertheless, enabled us to see more clearly than ever before how we may establish on earth the kingdom of heaven.

The story of a millennium is now being written. Shall war, hatred and sectionalism destroy the accumulated cultureof the centuries? Or shall the lesson taught by science, as well as by history and religion, that the common good must be placed above individual or group selfishness, make mankind live as brothers in peace and prosperity? If science is to serve man, this service can continue only as his spirit grows in the desire to work for the common good.

"Science in a War-Stricken World." I know that many of you as you have read this title will have thought, "Would that we had not known science. Then our world would not be in its desperate plight. Has not science by its neglect ofart, philosophy and religion kept us away from things of human value? Has it not implied that these things are worthless, that the machine is of greater value than the human soul? Has not science made of us a group of specialists, little more than cogs in a great social machine? With the tools of science have we not created new and more powerful instruments for our own destruction?" This is the dark picture of science which we too often see.

Is there a brighter side to the picture? A few months ago I had the privilege of sharing in the dedication of a great new telescope. Here was an instrument ingeniously devised to enlarge human vision. Those who had built the great observatory were seeking to satisfy the human hunger for a better understanding of man's place in his world. Yet the techniques developed for building such great telescopes have likewise been applied to constructing more accurate range finders to control with deadly precision the fire of great guns. One is reminded of the comment of the Venetian Senators when Galileo first demonstrated to them his newly invented telescope, "This glass will give us great advantages in time of war." War was the thought that darkened those old men's eyes. They did not hear the man of science when he hinted at his hope of opening up the heavens for mankind with that new power of bringing far things near.

The human contributions of science are indeed real. With its aid nature will now for the first time in history give man all the food and shelter that he needs. Disease and pain are made less deadly. By travel, easy communication and entertainment our daily lives are enriched. In an age of strife we look to science to defend the precious freedom that we have won. At the same time science has given us a clearer understanding of our own powers and limitations, and has opened to us new visions of a greater world that we may build. History shows, I believe, no other agency that has in an equal length of time so greatly improved the economic, social and intellectual life of mankind as has science during the last century.

Yet it remains true that the great values of life are not revealed by science alone. We must go far back into history to find a time when men felt lost as they do today. The anchor of religion has been dropped by great groups of men and has been found to drag in the storm by many others who have held to it for security. I do not mean to imply that religion has nothing to offer. On the contrary, it seems to me that when rightly interpreted we have in religion our greatest hope of reaching a stable and satisfying life. Religion needs, however, the discipline of thought supplied by science to fit our modern needs. In this age as men throughout the world are trying to formulate a philosophy by which they can live, it is to science that they are turning with confidence in its truth.

Let us remind ourselves of some of its major contributions, which have made science the basis of modern society. Just as an earlier world was based upon agriculture and trade, so modern communities are built upon the scientific foundations which make possible rapid transportation and communication, the preservation and distribution of food, and adequate sanitation. With only primitive knowledge of metallurgy, mechanics, electricity, chemistry and hygiene, our cities could not exist. With them gone, country life also could have only a primitive form. Science has thus proved its practical value. The indications are that the future leaders of mankind will be those who guide their actions, not by whim or impulse or guesswork, but by carefully acquired scientific knowledge.

Science has made of man a citizen of the world. By geographic exploration, steam and motor transportation, telegraph and telephone, and radio we share each other's lives and rely for our daily needs upon our fellows in far corners of the earth. The present turmoil is at least in part ascribable to the need of a technological world for the development of larger economic and political units. We are rapidly moving toward the condition under which the only stable life is that of a unified world community. The techniques for transportation and communication necessary for this development are already here. Our economic inter-dependencies are already intricate. It is largely outworn tradition which prevents the realization now of world political unity. Before the era of the telegraph, the moving picture and the radio, such a development could have been only a dream. Unless the growth of science and technology is sharply retarded, some kind of world government now seems inevitable and in the not distant future.

One of the greatest threats to human society is that of a declining racial heritage. The. growth of scientific knowledge and the development of artificial methods of birth control are sometimes blamed for the rapid decline in birth rate among our urban communities. One needs only to recall the sharp decline in the birth rate of imperial Rome to see that this new knowledge is not the primary source of the difficulty. On the contrary, our understanding of human biology and the factors underlying genetics are perhaps our greatest hope in solving this problem. It is through such studies that we have come to realize the dangers involved in permitting the rapid reproduction of decadent stock and we can more intelligently search for practical methods of improving man's heritage.

The principle of evolution serves as a most valuable guide to man's development. Our evolution is not individual, but social. One of the most striking of biological phenomena is indeed the change of man in a few hundred generations from an individualistic to a social type of animal. It is noteworthy that this social change is largely due to the development of sciences and techniques. But, whatever their origin, the fact that such changes are in rapid progress emphasizes the applicability to mankind of the fundamental law of evolution, namely, that those modifications in our mode of life will eventually survive which give strength to the human group that adopts them.

This principle carries with it consequences of the utmost importance. If we as a people would survive and prosper, we must fulfill at least the following requirements. First, we must learn the laws that govern the world of nature and of man and we must learn to apply these laws. This means science and technology. In a war-stricken world it is only too clear that if we would successfully defend what we have won, we can do so only by use of all the strength that our science can give us.

Second, we must learn to work together. Without cooperation knowledge cannot be made fully effective. If men divide into antagonistic groups, it may become terribly destructive. Viewed from the standpoint of evolution the ultimate growth of social cooperation would thus seem to be inevitable. For those social groups which cooperate are thereby stronger and must thrive in competition with others. Just as the automobile demands sobriety or congested life demands hygiene, so the mutual dependence of a technological civilization implies consideration of the rights of others. Thus, in the technological society of which we are a part, science through industry is emphasizing as never before the need of love of our neighbors. If the urgency of the universal acceptance of this central doctrine of Christianity has not been recognized, it would seem to be merely because the social implications of our increasingly complex life have not become generally evident within the brief decades of the world's growing social unity.

Third, along with cooperation we must have competition. History has shown again and again that any group which becomes too confident and self-satisfied, for which life is too easy, rapidly declines. At the moment this is not a danger which besets our community. This is a day of fierce competition, a day when disaster threatens any people which cannot hold its place in the race. It is perhaps of some comfort to recall that this is just the condition under which growth is most rapid and those factors which tend toward weakness, such as ignorance, hate, and internal dissension, are most rapidly eliminated. It is important for us, nevertheless, to see that this competition becomes a constructive, not a destructive one.

Fourth, and perhaps most significant of the factors that give strength to man, is the vision of a goal which he recognizes as worthy of his supreme effort. We need a purpose in order that we may live. To many of its followers science gives a basis for the appreciation of man's place in the universe. It helps him to see himself as he is, a creature with animal limitations, but with Godlike powers, sharing with his Creator the responsibilities for making this world a fit place for life. The man of science may not feel qualified to choose for others that which gives life dignity and worth, but he can at least supply the data on which that choice must be made. How can we orient ourselves without learning the facts about the world and calmly and dispassionately considering their implications? It is, I believe, in just this direction that science must ultimately make its greatest contribution. Science must clarify the vision of the seers who would point out to us the goal of life.

It is noteworthy that these things which give us strength are likewise those that make life worth while, the understanding of man and nature, the love of one's neighbor with the acceptance of responsibility for his welfare, the spirit of keen competition, the finding of a goal worthy of our best efforts. If science aids us in these directions, it has indeed justified itself to man.

In these difficult times we need to cultivate that veracity of thought which springs alone from the search for truth. As men see in their studies of physics and chemistry how the work of the world is being done, as they see the advances in agriculture from the knowledge of botany, as they are made aware of the doubling of man's expectant life through the use of biology, the importance of exact, reliable knowledge becomes burned into their consciousness. If our young men see visions of a new world they hope to create and our old men dream dreams of an ideal society, it is largely because of faith in the new powers given us by the increasing knowledge of science. In learning to solve our problems by disinterested judgment based upon adequate information we thus find new hope for man's future.

Yet we see the very truths that science has discovered with such hope being used to man's destruction. If one nation elects to bend its great technical and scientific strength for enhancing its military might, can any neighboring nation safely refrain from using its efforts in developing its defenses? Is it really justifiable for able men to devote theirefforts to solving mysteries remote from daily life when about us we see civilization shaking and crumbling under violent attacks?

Here is a pressing problem which in these difficult days no responsible man of science can escape. Yet he likewise sees in his science the heritage of the ages, the light of truth, which alone can guide man's steps aright. Military victory would be empty if it were secured at the cost of freedom and those cultural values which make life worth while. In addition to its technical responsibilities, therefore, science must also do its part in guiding the growth of the soul of man.

There is a passage in Plato's "Phaedo" in which Socrates describes his early interest in science, and how that interest waned when he found how inadequate science was to account for man's actions. Then he turned to philosophy. It was because Socrates was a man of honor that he remained in Athens to drink the hemlock, not because of any tensions of the muscles of his body. Such moral forces as honor were not to be explained by science. The result was that the followers of Socrates and Plato abandoned science when it did not satisfy their human needs, and the spirit of unfettered search for truth lay dormant for a thousand years.

We, likewise, have feared the inhuman world which science presents. Yet science has enriched our lives and has helped us catch a vision of a new and better world. Shall we then again give up science and with it the tools by means of which we may hope to attain that better world? Should we not rather use science as a guide in interpreting our place in nature, our relations to each other, and our attitudes toward those higher powers which we call God?

I have come to you from Ryerson Physical Laboratory, noted in the annals of science for Michelson's measurement of the speed of light, Millikan's measurement of the charge of the electron, and Dempster's measurement of the masses of atoms. In our laboratory, precision measurement is the basis of reliable knowledge. Does this seem cold and inhuman? Let me then close with a verse from the "Ballad of Ryerson."

"Now this is the law of Ryerson and this is the price of peace—
That men shall learn to measure or ever their strife shall cease.
They shall measure the cost of killing, and measure the hearts that bleed,
And measure the earth for sowing, and measure the sowing of seed.
For if they slay the dreamers and the riches the dreamers gave,
They shall get them back to the benches and be as the galley slave.
But if they be wise to measure the star beneath their feet,
Intense with tissue of power and woven with waiting heat,
There are starry uses of stars. Let them love their planet and see
How it longeth to bear the burden and let the slave go free.
They shall loose the lightning gently, the granite shall bloom with grain,
And under the rainbow glory young Eden shall come again."