Science For Peace has special reason to rejoice in the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Professor John Polanyi of the University of Toronto. This is the highest honor that can be awarded a member of the world’s scientific community. John Polanyi has combined a record of being a pioneer in research into the molecular motions in chemical reactions with being one of the most effective and outstanding champions of the cause of peace on the international as well as the national stage. As one of the founding members of Science for Peace, he has consistently urged resisting the financial temptations of becoming involved in the military applications of scientific discoveries.

John Polanyi’s work helped him lay the scientific foundation for laser technology. Lasers has become practically a household word, having been publicized as a key to extending military operations into space. John Polanyi foresaw this misapplication of science and warned against using laser technology for Star Wars. Einstein, too, warned against military uses of his Nobel Prize winning work, but only when the atomic bomb was already in production.

Today any scientist who is in a position to extend the horizon of human knowledge faces the same dilemma. How can he guard against the terrible misuse of his discoveries? Should he, for fear of such misuse, not pursue a line of research which, he has reason to suppose, can possibly lead to production of more horrendous weapons? There is no way of foretelling to what uses scientific discoveries discoveries can lead. When Einstein hit upon the resolution of the paradox generated by the results of the Michaelson-Morley experiment, he could not have foreseen a chain of events that would lead from this insight into the the nature of space and time to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and would ultimately bring humanity to the brink of extinction. Pasteur and Koch, who pioneered medical applications of microbiology, could not have foreseen its later applications to biological warfare. The same can happen to any discovery, no matter how benign or harmless it may seem.

Where should the scientist opposing the application of the death penalty to humanity draw the line? You can’t stop the progress of science, so the argument goes. Most scientists would agree that you ought not stop it. The “progress” of science, it seems, is irreversible. This irreversibility gives support to the argument that “you can’t disinvent” nuclear weapons and all the other lethal products of “scientific advances”. Neither can you “disinvent” the guillotine, the electric chair or the gas chamber. But you can abolish the death penalty and consign the killing machines to museums.

Michael Gorbachev, for example, proposed such a line when he consented to tolerate US basic science research that might be applied to the militarization as long as it was confined to the laboratory. Testing military devices outside the laboratory would be prima facie evidence of hostile intent. Secrecy imposed on research findings is another giveaway of intended uses.

Wherever the line is drawn, every scientist who faces his responsibility can refuse to collaborate in the preparation of war, warn against misuses of science, expose and oppose schemes that are sure to accelerate the arms race and put a further strain on the string from which the Sword of Damocles is suspended over all of us.

Science For Peace is proud to number in its ranks the two living Canadian Nobel Laureates, John Polanyi and Gerhard Herzberg, and the Canadian winner of the “Alternative Nobel Prize”, Sister Rosalie Bertell. As John and Rosalie address their new world-wide audiences, they speak for us, carrying the message they helped to formulate. This should be a challenge to the rest of us to increase our efforts to influence our fellow scientists to join us in “doing” science for peace.

- George Ignatieff and Anatol Rapoport

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ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)