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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948

Problems For the Physicist

Problems For the Physicist

In the Fifty Years from the discovery of the electron in 1897 to the culmination of that magnificent project which produced the atomic bomb, civilization has seen what must he an unparalleled expansion of human knowledge. But, at the same time, has come a host of new problems for the scientist and for the layman, problems which may broadly be resolved into two groups, one involving the freedom of the scientist in the community, and the other involving the attitude of the layman, the educated non-scientist, to scientific progress in general.

The war gave the physicist an unequalled opportunity to show his place in society. Whereas before the war, physicists worked in a world apart, and were thought of as engineers, metallurgists, or a queer species of chemist, as the case demanded, they now became known as the designing force in atomic bombs, radar sets, and proximity fuses. A quickening interest in their work is shown by public interest in popular scientific lectures on these subjects, and the physicist has endeavoured to meet it by producing a larger number of elementary text-books explaining in simple language these highly technical problems. In the education of the layman, the scientist is doing all he can.

The war also enabled the larger, privately owned companies to persuade their shareholders to pay over a larger proportion of their income on research—even on research page 34 which did not appear to have the slightest connection with the work in hand. In this way, many leading scientists have been attracted into positions which formerly did not exist, and the mere fact that research in industry is still expanding is evidence of its continued support by the boards of directors. While this, unfortunately, can only be applied to the larger Continental and American firms, it may be said that New Zealand industry will benefit greatly from the work of these men, and New Zealand University men, 'exporting 'themselves overseas, will find more opportunity in choosing employment than before the war.

In New Zealand, however, the primary interest of physicists will be centred on the attitude of the Government, which, during the war, with the competent Dr Marsden to advise them, expanded its Scientific and Industrial Research Department many-fold. Before 1939, a young physicist was lucky if he could obtain an interesting job in a branch of D.S.I.R., but he will now find the Dominion Physical Laboratory (incorporating the wartime Radio Development Laboratory), or the Industrial Laboratories at Auckland and Christchurch, eager to add him to their large and busy staffs. And New Zealand firms are making a greater and greater use of the resources of these laboratories, a sure sign of their success. The Universities, too, have benefited in the past few years in increased grants, enabling more lecturers to be appointed and bringing nearer the day when the Universities will fulfil their true function as a research unit doing important original work.

While all this means greater security for the scientist, the war has left behind its legacy of problems which endanger the actual freedom of research, the freedom of movement and particularly the freedom of expression, always jealously guarded. The war saw scientists marshalled to research projects, and, in the big, highly secret plans such as atomic bomb construction, kept rigourously isolated from the outside world in some cheerful place like the Mojave Desert. Only now, three years after the end of the war, are the reports of their work on pure research, of no military value whatsoever, coming to hand. Research on atomic piles in America is continuing under the control of the Army, or, more recently, the Atomic Energy Commission, and scientists are finding the controls by bureaucrats, who know nothing of the problems involved, so irksome that many are drifting away from this vital study to less spectacular but equally interesting lines of research in the big Universities. In Britain, too, secrecy entirely surrounds the work at Harwell, and difficulty is being found in recruiting scientists for work there. The problem is no doubt enhanced by the fact that, only in particular cases are younger scientists permitted to submit reports of their works to Universities for higher degrees, and recognition means a great deal to a keen research man.

Part of the problem really lies in the fact that science lacks any ethical basis. A scientist who aids in atomic bomb manufacture can no more be branded as a criminal than a man who makes shell fuses, but one could imagine that there might be ethical limits beyond which no scientist could go in applying his knowledge to the ends of human destruction. A scientist, one supposes, has no more right than the layman to protest at his regimentation in a national emergency, but it must be realized that a trained physicist has in his hands a power of destruction and a responsibility which he did not possess ten years ago. It is for scientists to organize, through such movements as The Association of Scientific Workers, to outlaw the destructive uses of Atomic Energy, to consolidate their freedom, and to demand to be able to apply their discoveries to the satisfaction of the needs of mankind.