Physics in the Contemporary World
J. R. Oppenheimer, Physics in the Contemporary World, 1948.
As it did on everything else, the last war had a great and at least a temporarily disastrous effect on the prosecution of pure science. The demands of military technology in this country and in Britain, the equally over-riding demands of the Resistance in much of Europe, distracted the physicists from their normal occupations as they distracted most other men.
We in this country, who take our wars rather spastically, perhaps witnessed a more total cessation of true professional activity in the field of physics, even in its training, than any other people. For in all the doings of war we, as a country, have been a little like the young physicist who went to Washington to work for the NDRC in 1940. There he met his first Civil Service questionnaire, and came to the questions on drinking-never, occasionally, habitually, to excess. He checked both "occasionally" and "to excess." So, in the past we have taken war.
All over the world, whether because of the closing of universities, or the distractions of scientists called in one way or another to serve their countries, or because of devastation and terror and attrition, there was a great gap in physical science. It has been an exciting and an inspiring sight to watch the recovery: a recovery testifying to extraordinary vitality and vigor in this human activity. Today, barely two years after the end of hostilities, physics is booming.
One may have gained the impression that this boom derives primarily from the application of the new techniques developed during the war, such as the atomic reactor and micro-wave equipment; one may have gained the impression that in large part the flourishing of physics lies in exploitation of the eagerness of governments to promote it. These are indeed important factors. But they are only a small part of the story. Without in anyway deprecating the great value of wartime technology, one nevertheless sees how much of what is today new knowledge can trace its origin directly, by an orderly yet imaginative extension, to the kind of things that physicists were doing in their laboratories and with their pencils almost decade ago [...].
Yet in those areas of the world where science has not merely been disturbed or arrested by war and by terror, but where terror and its official philosophy have, in a deep sense, corrupted its very foundations, even the traditional fraternity of scientists has not proved adequate protection against decay. It may not be clear to us in what way and to what extent the spirit of scientific inquiry may come to apply to matters not yet, and perhaps never to be, part of the domain of science; but that it does apply there is one very brutal indication. Tyranny, when it gets to be absolute, or when it tends so to become, finds it impossible to continue to live with science.
Even in the good ways of contemporary physics, we are reluctantly made aware of our dependence on things which lie outside our science. The experience of the war, for those who were called upon to serve the survival of their civilization through the Resistance, and for those who contributed more remotely, if far more decisively, by the development of new instruments and weapons of war, has left us with a legacy of concern. In these troubled times it is not likely that we shall be free of it altogether. Nor perhaps is it right that we should be.
Nowhere is this troubled sense of responsibility more acute, and surely nowhere has it been more prolix, than among those who participated in the development of atomic energy for military purposes. I should think that most historians would agree that other technical developments, notably radar, played a more decisive part in determining the outcome of this last war. But I doubt whether that participation would, of itself, have created the deep trouble and moral concern which so many of us who were physicists have felt, have voiced, and have tried to get over feeling. It is not hard to understand why this should be so. The physics which played the decisive part in the development of the atomic bomb came straight out of our laboratories and our journals. Despite the vision and the far seeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving, the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no over-statement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose [...].
The great testimony of history shows how often in fact the development of science has emerged in response to technological, and even economic needs, and how in the economy of social effort, science, even of the most abstract and recondite kind, pays for itself again and again in providing the basis for radically new technological developments. In fact, most people, when they think of science as a good thing, when they think of it as worthy of encouragement, when they are willing to see their governments spend substance upon it, when they greatly do honor to men who in science have attained some eminence, have in mind that the conditions of their life have been altered just by such technology, of which they may be reluctant to be deprived.
The debt of science to technology is just as great. Even the most abstract researches owe their very existence to things that have taken place quite outside of science, and with the primary purpose of altering and improving the conditions of man's life. As long as there is a healthy physics, this mutual fructification will surely continue. Out of its work there will come in the future, as so often in the past, and with an apparently chaotic un-predictability, things which will improve man's health, ease his labor, and divert and edify him. There will come things which, properly handled, will shorten his working day and takeaway the most burdensome part of his effort, which will enable him to communicate, to travel, and to have a wider choice both in the general question of how he is to spend his life, and in the specific question of how he is to spend an hour of his leisure. There is no need to belabor this point, nor its obverse-that out of science there will come, as there has in this last war, a host of instruments of destruction which will facilitate that labor, even as they have facilitated all others [...].
If one looks at past history, one may derive some encouragement for the hope that science, as one of the forms of reason, will nourish all of its forms. One may note how integral the love and cultivation of science was with the whole awakening of the human spirit which characterized the Renaissance. Or one may look at the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in France and England, and see what pleasure and what stimulation the men of that time derived from the growth of physics, astronomy and mathematics. What perhaps characterizes these periods of the past, which we must be careful not to make more heroic because of their remoteness, was that there were many men who were able to combine in their own lives the activities of a scientist with activities of art and learning and politics, and were able to carry over from the one into the others this combination of courage and modesty which is the lesson that science always tries to teach to anyone who practices it.
J.R. Oppenheimer, “Physics in the Contemporary World,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists vol. 4, Issue 3 (1948), pp. 65-68.