President's corner

I dreamed I found this letter, written 193 years ago:

Dear Citizen Guillotine:

In reply to yours of the 17th inst., your sentiments do you cre­dit. But you must learn to think positively. Your machine is a boon to humanity. Besides making the process virtually painless, it makes it ever so much easier on the executioner. He needn’t worry about botching the job. All he needs to do is press a button. Anyone can do it.

Besides, you can’t dininvent it.

Vive la liberté, l’égalité, la fraternité!

— Robespierre

That Dr. Guillotin, like Robes­pierre, perished by the instrument that bears his name is a legend. Robespierre did. But Guillotin died peacefully in 1814, aged 76. Nor is there evidence that he wrote a letter urging Robes­pierre to refrain from making use of the invention. In my dream, I must have got Guillotin mixed up with Einstein and Szilard.(See last month’s BULLETIN.) As a matter of fact, Guillotin did not invent the guillo­tine. In an antiquarian museum in Edinburgh, Scotland, a rude guillotine is preserved. By this instrument the regent Morton was decapitated in 1581.

But it doesn’t hurt to add one more legend to the existing stock, especial­ly since legends (like fables) are often instructive. There is a saying even more ancient than the legend about Dr. Guillotin: “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.”

Coming back to Robespierre’s apo­cryphal letter, about one thing he was absolutely right: you can’t disinvent it. And this is what we keep hearing from our atomic warriors. But just because no one can disinvent the guil­lotine doesn’t mean it has to be used, much less that think-tanks must be es­tablished where brilliant people can be inventing improvements and thinking up more creative ways of using it or threatening to use it.

Now the reason the push-button axe was named after the good doctor was because he proposed the use of it as a “humane” instrument of execution and in order to extend the right to be de­capitated (which used to be confined to nobles) to every one. (This is historical, not apocryphal.) Thus the guillotine was meant to be a contribu­tion to democracy. So is the bomb. It extends the right to die for one’s country to all in the holocaust — an honour once confined to soldiers.

The two legends that inspired the concoction about Guillotine and Robes­pierre are those about Eve and her apple and about Pandora and her box. Adam succumbed to seduction, Epime­theus to nagging. The implied moral: Treasure your ignorance. Once lost, It is lost forever. You can’t extin­guish knowledge about good and evil; you can’t chase the ugly creatures back into their box; you can’t dis­invent the guillotine; and, of course you can’t disinvent the Bomb.

As if that were the problem.

Of course you can’t reverse the irreversible. But you can put the irreversible processes to better uses. Knowledge of good and evil provides the opportunity to cherish the one and shun the other knowingly. Ignorance makes the choice between good and evil a matter of chance.

The monsters couldn’t be kept in the box forever. But they could be exterminated once they got out.

You can’t disinvent the H-Bomb, nor the neutron bomb, nor napalm, nor binary gases, nor the obscenities of biological warfare. But it doesn’t follow (as is insidiously implied by the “you can’t disinvent” argument) that, since you can’t disinvent them, you’ve got to keep them (deterrence) or think up ways of using them “effec­tively” (strategic analysis) or, worst of all, use them (prevailing).

The way of science is not to stifle curiosity, not to curb creativity, nor to shrink from awesome knowledge. It is not the pursuit of truth wherever it may lead that has besmirched the good name of science and brought fear of science to people of good will. It is the disavowal of responsibility for their work by scientists seduced into making what is “technically sweet” (J. Robert Op­penheimer) or into working for the highest bidder.

Whole issue on one page | as PDF

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