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Scientific Research — good or evil?

IT HAS been reported that when the English scientist Michael Faraday discovered how to produce electricity by inventing the electric generator in the 1830's, someone questioned him negatively: "But what good is it?"

With past, present and future electrical blackouts in major metropolitan areas, this question today seems rather stupid. But is it typical of present attitudes?

Many scientific discoveries and research findings have been ignored because of a lack of vision by people who must see immediate results. Indeed, a scientist himself may not know at the time of his invention what the future use of that invention will be. Certainly Faraday could not envision the ultimate use of an electric generator.

As far back as the 1890's, the famous electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz pointed out to a young newspaperman that the production of the first 60,000 kilowatt turbine generator was big news. This one generator produced as much energy as five million four hundred thousand men. Contrast this with the total slave population in 1860 — four million seven hundred thousand! Here was a machine which could more than replace the energy of all of the slave labor prior to the Civil War. This was certainly big news.

Consider the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel, the famous Swedish scientist. In 1867, Nobel found that a safer explosive could be produced by mixing nitroglycerin with an inert substance called kieselguhr. The mixture was called dynamite. This discovery was made at a decisive moment, for it was one of the principle inventions which resulted in the rapid industrialization of the United States. North America, with its vast territorial possessions, needed it desperately. Railroads required excavation of tunnels and mountain passes; harbors, canals, and river ways needed to be built or deepened, and rapid mining of needed ores and coal was required to meet the increasing demand for fuel and metals.

Without the invention of dynamite, the United States would have been too slow in its development. But with this invention, just as with the discovery of atomic power later, mankind has also been able to kill other men more effectively.

Now, are these scientific inventions, of themselves, detrimental to mankind? Or is man himself — instead of inventions — the potential threat to his very existence?

Alfred Nobel believed in living the Golden Rule. He was deeply concerned about world peace. He gave his employees benefits for working hard at a time when other businessmen took advantage of their men. He recognized that in order to establish peace the entire world must live by laws and that these laws must be enforced by a unifying, worldwide government. And because of his deep interest in peace, Alfred Nobel, who at that time was probably one of the richest men in the world, left part of his vast wealth for the (sometimes abused) Nobel peace prize (see Chemistry, Vol. 41, p. 22, 1968).

A logical appraisal of the evidence can lead to but one conclusion. It is not usually the invention itself, but the misuse of that invention by human beings in government, in business, in farming, etc., that is the danger. Because of the greed of one nation for another's wealth, because of the desire of the businessman, farmer and others for more wealth or someone else's wealth, and because of the lack of man's concern for his fellowman, scientific discoveries have been misused and now threaten the very existence of mankind.

Scientists themselves are no exception. They are human as well. But it is not necessarily the invention or the inventor which has produced today's situation. Rather, it is man's nature and his universal greed. Scientific research can be used for the betterment of mankind. Scientific research is not, in itself, evil, but man's nature can turn it toward evil.