Science Friday: Science and War: Twins?

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This Feb. 27, 2018, photo shows electronics for use in a quantum computer in the quantum computing lab at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Describing the inner workings of a quantum computer isn’t easy, even for top scholars. That’s because the machines process information at the scale of elementary particles such as electrons and photons, where different laws of physics apply. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In a recent NPR article, famed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson commented on the connection between advances in science/technology and advances in military technology. Tyson examines how when countries are in a period of war, oftentimes they use scientists’ knowledge to develop new military technology. The classic example of this is the military using knowledge of physics to create the atom bomb in World War II. Tyson makes an interesting point; our quest for knowledge as a society has benefited us for sure, but it has also given us the ability to destroy ourselves with the press of a button. Ethically speaking then, is the pursuit of science and knowledge actually harmful to humanity?

It seems like the study of physics especially has given humanity the ammunition to perform some especially terrible actions, such as detonating nuclear weapons for allowing for other dangerous weapons to be developed. Physics allowed for submarines to be built and therefore ships to be sunk; it allowed for the development of the bombs that President Trump dropped in Syria, and the chemical weapons that Bashar al-Assad used against his people. Sure, we have also began to understand the universe around us and the natural rules that govern it, but is it worth all the destruction? Is physics research an ethical pursuit if it can result in such atrocities?

Think about why the government funds scientific research. Especially with today’s current administration, it is doubtful that research is funded for the simple purpose of expanding Humanity’s knowledge. The United States wants to make sure that it has the intellectual capital in case a period of war starts.

Another factor to think about is the emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education; it is apparent that many colleges in the US want more science and technology majors. Perhaps the underlying reason for this is because these graduates will be the most valuable in wartime. Connecticut gave $841.4 million for Academic and Research facilities to the Next Gen program, which focuses on STEM education; with all this emphasis being placed on science and technology, it is easy to take the pessimistic view and think that this is all being motivated by the desire for our country to be a prepared as possible for a potential war by having more people who could come up with solutions for improved military infrastructure. But perhaps the underlying reason for scientific research and education is not just intellectual capital in case the worst happens.

The beauty of science is that although it can lead to horrible developments, it actually does improve our knowledge of the world and awareness of the destruction we can cause. Think about developments in communication technology; although it can be used to coordinate military attacks, communication technology lets us talk to anyone in the world, no matter how far away they are. This globalization brings the world closer together, which could ultimately contribute to getting rid of war. Military strikes in the Middle East feel much more real when video of them can be seen on the internet right after they happen. Also, developments in physical sciences can help people realize that war can alter the planet for good and make life much harder; if more people were aware of these facts, then the need for war may be driven away one day. It is easy to take the pessimistic route and believe that science contributes to destruction much more than it benefits people, but the very thing that led to this destruction could one day be the institution that causes people to realize that war and conflict simply isn’t worth it.


Ben Crnic is a contributor for the The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at benjamin.crnic@uconn.edu.

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