Field of Science

Why the world needs more Leo Szilards

The body of men and women who built the atomic bomb was vast, diverse, talented and multitudinous. Every conceivable kind of professional - from theoretical physics to plumber - worked on the Manhattan Project for three years over an enterprise that spread across the country and equaled the US automobile industry in its marshaling of resources like metals and electricity.
The project may have been the product of this sprawling hive mind, but one man saw both the essence and the implications of the bomb, in both science and politics, long before anyone else. Stepping off the curb at a traffic light across from the British Museum in London in 1933, Leo Szilard saw the true nature and the consequences of the chain reaction six years before reality breathed heft and energy into its abstract soul. In one sense though, this remarkable propensity for seeing into the future was business as usual for the Hungarian scientist. Born into a Europe that was rapidly crumbling in the face of onslaughts of fascism even as it was being elevated by revolutionary discoveries in science, Szilard grasped early in his youth both a world split apart by totalitarian regimes and the necessity of international cooperation engendered by the rapidly developing abilities of humankind to destroy itself with science. During his later years Szilard once told an audience, "Physics and politics were my two great interests". Throughout his life he would try to forge the essential partnership between the two which he thought was necessary to save the human species from annihilation.
A few years ago, Bill Lanouette brought out a new, revised edition of his authoritative, sensitive and sparkling biography of Szilard. It is essential reading for those who want to understand the nature of science, both as an abstract flight into the deep secrets of nature and a practical tool that can be wielded for humanity's salvation and destruction. As I read the book and pondered Szilard's life I realized that the twentieth century Hungarian would have been right at home in the twenty-first. More than anything else, what makes Szilard remarkable is how prophetically his visions have played out since his death in 1962, all the way to the year 2014. But Szilard was also the quintessential example of a multifaceted individual. If you look at the essential events of the man's life you can see several Szilards, each of whom holds great relevance for the modern world.
There's of course Leo Szilard the brilliant physicist. Where he came from precocious ability was commonplace. Szilard belonged to the crop of men known as the "Martians" - scientists whose intellectual powers were off scale - who played key roles in European and American science during the mid-twentieth century. On a strict scientific basis Szilard was perhaps not as accomplished as his fellow Martians John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner but that is probably because he found a higher calling in his life. However he certainly did not lack originality. As a graduate student in Berlin - where he hobnobbed with the likes of Einstein and von Laue - Szilard came up with a novel way to consolidate the two microscopic and macroscopic aspects of the science of heat, now called statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. He also wrote a paper connecting entropy and energy to information, predating Claude Shannon's seminal creation of information theory by three decades. In another prescient paper he set forth the principle of the cyclotron, a device which was to secure a Nobel Prize for its recognized inventor - physicist Ernest Lawrence - more than a decade later.
Later during the 1930s, after he was done campaigning on behalf of expelled Jewish scientists and saw visions of neutrons branching out and releasing prodigious amounts of energy, Szilard performed some of the earliest experiments in the United States demonstrating fission. And while he famously disdained getting his hands dirty, he played a key role in helping Enrico Fermi set up the world's first nuclear reactor.
Szilard as scientist also drives home the importance of interdisciplinary research, a fact which hardly deserves explication in today's scientific world where researchers from one discipline routinely team up with those from others and cross interdisciplinary boundaries with impunity. After the war Szilard became truly interdisciplinary when he left physics for biology and inspired some of the earliest founders of molecular biology, including Jacques Monod, James Watson and Max Delbruck. His reason for leaving physics for biology should be taken to heart by young researchers - he said that while physics was a relatively mature science, biology was a young science where even low hanging fruits were ripe for the picking.
Szilard was not only a notable theoretical scientist but he also had another strong streak, one which has helped so many scientists put their supposedly rarefied knowledge to practical use - that of scientific entrepreneur. His early training had been in chemical engineering, and during his days in Berlin he famously patented an electromagnetic refrigerator with his friend and colleague Albert Einstein; by alerting Einstein to the tragic accidents caused by leakage in mechanical refrigerators, he helped the former technically savvy patent clerk put his knowledge of engineering to good use (as another indication of how underappreciated Szilard remains, the Wikipedia entry on the device is called the "Einstein refrigerator"). Szilard was also finely attuned to the patent system, filing a patent for the nuclear chain reaction with the British Admiralty in 1934 before anyone had an inkling what element would make it work, as well as a later patent for a nuclear reactor with Fermi.
He also excelled at what we today called networking; his networking skills were on full display for instance when he secured rare, impurity-free graphite from a commercial supplier as a moderator in Fermi's nuclear reactor; in fact the failure of German scientists to secure such pure graphite and the subsequent inability of the contaminated graphite to sustain fission damaged their belief in the viability of a chain reaction and held them back. Szilard's networking abilities were also evident in his connections with prominent financiers and bankers who he constantly tried to conscript in supporting his scientific and political adventures; in attaining his goals he would not hesitate to write any letter, ring any doorbell, ask for any amount of money, travel to any land and generally try to use all means at his disposal to secure support from the right authorities. In his case the "right authorities" ranged, at various times in his life, from top scientists to bankers to a Secretary of State (James Byrnes), a President of the United States (FDR) and a Premier of the Soviet Union (Nikita Khrushchev).
I am convinced that had Szilard been alive today, his abilities to jump across disciplinary boundaries, his taste for exploiting the practical benefits of his knowledge and his savvy public relations skills would have made him feel as much at home in the world of Boston or San Francisco venture capitalism as in the ivory tower.
If Szilard had accomplished his scientific milestones and nothing more he would already have been a notable name in twentieth century science. But more than almost any other scientist of his time Szilard was also imbued with an intense desire to engage himself politically - "save the world" as he put it - from an early age. Among other scientists of his time, only Niels Bohr probably came closest to exhibiting the same kind of genuine and passionate concern for the social consequences of science that Szilard did. This was Leo Szilard the political activist. Even in his teens, when the Great War had not even broken out, he could see how the geopolitical landscape of Europe would change, how Russia would "lose" even if it won the war. When Hitler came to power in 1933 and others were not yet taking him seriously Szilard was one of the few scientists who foresaw the horrific legacy that this madman would bequeath Europe. This realization was what prompted him to help Jewish scientists find jobs in the UK, at about the same time that he also had his prophetic vision at the traffic light.
It was during the war that Szilard's striking role as conscientious political advocate became clear. He famously alerted Einstein to the implications of fission - at this point in time (July 1939) Szilard and his fellow Hungarian expatriates were probably the only scientists who clearly saw the danger - and helped Einstein draft the now iconic letter to President Roosevelt. Einstein's name remains attached to the letter, Szilard's is often sidelined; a recent article about the letter from the Institute for Advanced study on my Facebook mentioned the former but not the latter. Without Szilard the bomb would have certainly been built, but the letter may never have been written and the beginnings of fission research in the US may have been delayed. When he was invited to join the Manhattan Project Szilard snubbed the invitation, declaring that anyone who went to Los Alamos would go crazy. He did remain connected to the project through the Met Lab in Chicago, however. In the process he drove Manhattan Project security up the wall through his rejection of compartmentalization; throughout his life Szilard had been - in the words of the biologist Jacques Monod - "as generous with his ideas as a Maori chief with his wives" and he favored open and honest scientific inquiry. At one point General Groves who was the head of the project even wrote a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson asking the secretary to consider incarcerating Szilard; Stimson who was a wise and humane man - he later took ancient and sacred Kyoto off Groves's atomic bomb target list - refused.
Szilard's day in the sun came when he circulated a petition directed toward the president and signed by 70 scientists advocating a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese and an attempt at cooperation in the field of atomic energy with the Soviets. This was activist Leo Szilard at his best. Groves was livid, Oppenheimer - who by now had tasted power and was an establishment man - was deeply hesitant and the petition was stashed away in a safe until after the war. Szilard's disappointment that his advice was not heeded turned to even bigger concern after the war when he witnessed the arms race between the two superpowers. In 1949 he wrote a remarkable fictitious story titled 'My Trial As A War Criminal' in which he imagined what would have happened had the United States lost the war to the Soviets; Szilard's point was that in participating in the creation of nuclear weapons, American scientists were no less or more complicit than their Russian counterparts. Szilard's take on the matter raised valuable questions about the moral responsibility of scientists, an issue that we are grappling with even today. The story played a small part in inspiring Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov in his campaign for nuclear disarmament. Szilard also helped organize the Pugwash Conferences for disarmament, gave talks around the world on nuclear weapons, and met with Nikita Khrushchev in Manhattan in 1960; the result of this amiable meeting was both the gift of a Schick razor to Khrushchev and, more importantly, Khrushchev agreeing with Szilard's suggestion that a telephone hot-line be installed between Moscow and Washington for emergencies. The significance of this hot-line was acutely highlighted by the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Sadly Szilard's later two attempts at meeting with Khrushchev failed.
After playing a key role in the founding of the Salk Institute in California, Szilard died peacefully in his sleep in 1964, hoping that the genie whose face he had seen at the traffic light in 1933 would treat human beings with kindness.
Since Szilard the common and deep roots that underlie the tree of science and politics have become far clearer. Today we need scientists like Szilard to stand up for science every time a scientific issue such as climate change or evolution collides with politics. When Szilard pushed scientists to get involved in politics it may have looked like an anomaly, but today we are struggling with very similar issues. As in many of his other actions, Szilard's motto for the interaction of science with politics was one of accommodation. He was always an ardent believer in the common goals that human beings seek, irrespective of the divergent beliefs that they may hold. He was also an exemplar of combining thought with action, projecting an ideal meld of the idealist and the realist. Whether he was balancing thermodynamic thoughts with refrigeration concerns or following up political idealism with letters to prominent politicians, he taught us all how to both think and do. As interdisciplinary scientist, as astute technological inventor, as conscientious political activist, as a troublemaker of the best kind, Leo Szilard leaves us with an outstanding role model and an enduring legacy. It is up to us to fill his shoes.

October, 1949: Oppenheimer is on the cover of LIFE, and cigarettes are still cool

Back in the good old days of the late 1940s, the age of innocence still writ large on this country's lifeline, LIFE magazine was a microcosm of American life, a daily staple that brought the leading lights and events of the country into the living rooms of the middle class. When readers received the October, 1949 issue in their mail they found the godlike face of American science and technology gazing beneficently at them from the cover. Thanks to the substantial capabilities of eBAY I was able to retrieve a copy.

J. Robert Oppenheimer had already become a household name because of his leadership of the atomic bomb project, and now he seemed to have outdone himself by becoming the director of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, effectively making himself the boss of Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel. The 1949 issue paints a picture of Oppenheimer as the quintessential polymath genius and new frontiersman, with a healthy contribution from Oppenheimer the Family Man making the picture complete. There are also other goodies in the installment, with a cheerful smattering of old-fashioned 1940s sexism advertising household products for men and their doting wives. And yes, the biggest concern about cigarettes is throat irritation, a myth reassuringly dismissed by Camel.

The good old times.

First, the father of the atomic bomb inspiring readers with his steel-blue eyes, thoughtful gaze and ever-present cigarette.

Oppenheimer was regarded as the quintessential intellectual plumbing the intricate depths of physics. His signature porkpie hat, cigarette, dazzling mastery of topics as far-flung as French poetry and Sanskrit literature made him the poster boy for the rarefied American intellectual, a species which until then had largely seemed endemic to Europe.

Daddy's Home!: The glowing, breathless profile packed with quotes from Oppie painted Oppenheimer as that rare combination of ivory tower genius and everyman with a great family life who enjoyed romping around with his kids when he returned from work. Reality was different: his wife Kitty was given to bouts of heavy drinking even during the day, and she could be a very unpleasant person in personal interactions. His children Toni and Peter lived in the shadow of their often acerbic and absent father, and both their lives ended in tragedy: Toni committed suicide after her parents' deaths, and Peter Oppenheimer is a recluse who very rarely talks about his father.

But enough about Oppie. Nothing says class and poise better than Van Heusen shirts for the modern American man, worn especially when his wife lovingly bathes him.

Finally, a piece of good news to divert readers' minds from all that heavy mathematical physics and philosophizing. Camel cigarettes don't cause any throat irritation! (only lung cancer).

On John F. Kennedy's 100th birthday: Let us begin

It’s Bostonian John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday today. Kennedy largely remains a hero on both sides of the aisle; for his moderate liberalism, for his passion for civil rights of minorities, for his tough yet cautious stance against the Soviet Union, for his calls to public service, and most importantly, for the unflagging optimism and positive vision for the future of America which he embodied. More than any other presidency in the last forty years, and in stark contrast to now, his tenure inspired Americans to believe that they were unified, and that their best days lay ahead of them. There have been few times in the history of this country when that optimism has been more sorely needed.

JFK was known for many things, but one of the enduring hallmarks of his legacy has been the words in his speeches. Among all presidents he was one of the most eloquent, and after him only Barack Obama came close to displaying the same fluency of language. There are many speeches of JFKs that are worth reading and remembering, but one that truly stands out is a speech on June 10, 1963 in which he made an impassioned plea for peace. The speech, delivered at American University in Washington D.C., was carefully crafted, copies were shown to only a few trusted advisors for comment, and Kennedy's indispensable speechwriter Ted Sorensen worked on it day and night to meet the president's schedule. In his book "To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace”, the economist Jeffrey Sachs considers this to be Kennedy's most important speech, and I tend to agree.

JFK's dedication to peacemaking shines through in his words. The piece contains one of the most memorable paragraphs that I have seen in any exhortation, political or otherwise. In words that are now famous, Kennedy appealed to our basic connection on this planet as the most powerful argument for worldwide peace:

"So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

In a time of deep societal division, this call to finding common ground and building on our common values rather than our differences cannot be overemphasized. Kennedy was also saying these words through hard practical experience, against the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that had brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. Recently declassified documents now indicate that the Soviets had more than 150 nuclear weapons in Cuba, and there were many close calls which could have sent the world over the precipice into thermonuclear destruction. For instance a little known submarine officer Vasili Arkhipov refused to launch his submarine's nuclear torpedo even as American planes were dropping dummy depth charges around the submarine. When the crisis was averted everyone thought that it was because of rational men's rational actions, but Kennedy knew better; he and his advisors understood how ultimately, helped as they were by their stubborn refusal to give in to military hardliners' insistence that Cuba should be bombed, it was dumb luck that saved humanity.

Kennedy was thus well aware in 1963 of how quickly and unpredictably war in general and nuclear war in particular can spiral out of everyone's hands; two years before, in another well-known speech in front of the United Nations, Kennedy had talked about the ominous and omnipresent sword of Damocles that everyone lives under, "hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness". His Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev understood this too, cautioning JFK to not tighten the "knot of war" which would eventually have to be catastrophically severed. As one consequence of the crisis, a telephone hotline was established between the two countries that would allow their leaders to efficiently communicate with each other.

Kennedy followed the Peace Speech with one of the signal achievements of his presidency, the signing and ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) which banned nuclear tests in the air, underwater and in space. Sachs describes how Kennedy used all the powers of persuasion at his disposal to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republican hardliners and Southern Democrats to endorse the treaty, while at the same time striking compromises with them that would encourage underground nuclear testing.

How has Kennedy's understanding of the dangers of nuclear war, his commitment to securing peace and his efforts toward nuclear disarmament played out in the fifty years after his tragic and untimely death? On one hand there is much cause for optimism. Kennedy's pessimistic prediction that in 1975 ten or twenty countries would have nuclear weapons has not come true. In fact the PTBT was followed in 1968 by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which for all its flaws has served as a deterrent to the formation of new nuclear states. Other treaties like SALT, START and most recently NEW START have drastically reduced the number of nuclear weapons to a fraction of what they were during the heyday of the Cold War; ironically it was Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush who must be credited with the greatest arms reductions. In addition there are several success stories of countries like South Africa, Sweden, Libya, Brazil and the former Soviet Republics giving up nuclear weapons after wisely realizing that they would be better off without them.

Yet there are troubling signs that Kennedy's dream is still very much a dream. Countries like Israel and India which did not sign the NPT have acquired nuclear arsenals. North Korea is baring its nuclear teeth and Iran seems to be meandering even if not resolutely marching toward acquiring a bomb. In addition loose nuclear material, non-state actors and unstable regimes like Pakistan pose an ever-present challenge that threatens to spiral out of control; the possibility of "accident, or miscalculation, or madness" is very much still with us.

There are also little signs that the United States is going to unilaterally disassemble its nuclear arsenal in spite of having the most sophisticated and powerful conventional weapons in the world, ones which can hit almost any target anywhere with massive destruction. The US did unilaterally disarm its biological weapons arsenal in the 70s, but nuclear weapons still seem to inspire myths and illusions that cannot be easily dispelled. A factor that's not much discussed but which is definitely the massive elephant in the room is spending on nuclear weapons; depending on which source you are looking at, the US spends anywhere between 20 to 50 billion dollars every year on the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal, more than what it did during the Cold War! Thousands of weapons are still deployment-ready, years after the Cold War has ended.

It goes without saying that this kind of spending is unconscionable, especially when it takes valuable resources away from pressing problems like healthcare and education. Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex lamented exactly this glut of misguided priorities in his own "Chance for Peace" speech in 1953:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

It is of course inconceivable to imagine a conservative politician saying this today, but more tragically it is disconcerting to find exactly the same problems that Eisenhower and Kennedy pointed out in the 50s and 60s looming over our future.

In a greater sense too Kennedy's vision is facing serious challenges. Jeffrey Sachs believes that sustainable development has replaced nuclear weapons as the cardinal problem facing us today and until now the signs for sustainable development have not been very promising. When it comes to states struggling with poverty, Sachs accurately reminds us that countries like the US often "regard these nations as foreign policy irrelevancies; except when poverty leads to chaos and extremism, in which case they suddenly turn into military or terrorist threats". The usual policy toward such countries is akin to the policy of a doctor who instead of preventing a disease waits until it turns into a full-blown infection, and then delivers medication that almost kills the patient without getting rid of the root cause. Sadly for both parties in this country, drones are a much bigger priority than dams. This has to change.

We are still struggling with the goal laid out by John Kennedy in his Peace Speech, and in our own times his words are as crucial and as desperately needed as they ever were, but Kennedy also realistically realized that reaching the goal would be a gradual, dogged and piecemeal process. He made it clear in his inaugural speech:

"There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems...(from the inaugural speech). All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

Indeed. We do not know how it will end, nor do we even know how it will progress, but we can begin. 

On the primacy of doubt in an age of illusory certainty

This is my second monthly column for the website 3 Quarks Daily.

We live in a fractured age when many seem to be convinced that their beliefs are right, and that they can never agree with the other side on anything to any degree. Science has always been the best antidote against this bias, because while political truths are highly subjective and subject to the whims of the majority, most scientific truths are starkly objective. You may try to pass a law by majority vote in Congress saying that two and two equals five, or that DNA is not a double helix, but these falsehoods are not going to stay hidden for too long because the bare facts say otherwise. You may keep on denying global warming, but that will not make the warming stop. What makes science different is that its facts are true irrespective of whether you believe they are true.

But combined with this undeniable nature of scientific facts exists a way of doing things that almost seems paradoxical to proclamations about hard scientific truth. That is the essential, never-ending role of doubt, skepticism and uncertainty in the practice of science. Yes, DNA is a double helix, and yes, it almost seems impossible that this fact will someday be overturned, but even then we should not hold the fact as sacrosanct. "Truth" in science, no matter how convincing, is always regarded as provisional and subject to change. Some scientific facts are now so well documented that they approach the status of "truth", and yet considering them so literally would mean abandoning the scientific method. Seen this way, truth in science can be considered to be an asymptotic limit, one which we can always get closer to but can never definitively reach.

It's this seemingly paradoxical and yet crucial yin-and-yang aspect of science that I believe is still quite hard to grasp for non-scientists. Niels Bohr would have appreciated the tension. Bohr bequeathed to the world the concept of complementarity. Complementarity means the existence of seemingly opposite ideas that are still required together to explain the world. In the physical world, complementarity was first glimpsed in the behavior of subatomic particles which can sometimes behave as waves and sometime as particles, depending on the experiment. Waves and particles may seem to be contradictory concepts, and yet as the pioneers of quantum mechanics showed us, you cannot explain reality without assuming that electrons or photons are both. In his later life, Bohr extended the idea of complementarity to many aspects of the human world; good and evil, freedom and restraint, war and peace. He realized that all of these seemingly paradoxical aspects of the human and physical world have to essentially co-exist, not just if we want to understand reality as it is but if we want to develop tolerance for opposing ideas. Niels Bohr played a very significant role in making us comfortable with paradox and uncertainty.

In some sense the twentieth century was the age when science once and for all destroyed Platonic notions of certainty. The one idea from that time that really struck at the heart of certainty was Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem. Gödel showed us that we can never know everything even in the supposedly pristine and completely precise world of pure mathematics; even in this world we could keep on finding facts that are unprovable, and so mathematics will always be inexhaustible. At about the same time, Max Born and Werner Heisenberg demonstrated the fundamental probabilistic nature of the subatomic world. In one way, neither of these ideas destroyed certainty as much as they redefined it, but they did tell us that certainty is a very slippery concept, and one that needs us at the very least to recalibrate our expectations from both the physical and the abstract universe. At the same time, neither development portended the end of science in any shape or form; mathematicians went on proving important theorems in spite of Gödel, and physicists went on discovering important facts about the material world in spite of Heisenberg.

Some people are confused about how certainty and uncertainty can both co-exist at the same time in science, while too many opportunists (creationists and climate change deniers for instance) are ready to pounce on shreds of uncertain knowledge in the peripherals to declare the entire edifice uncertain and hollow. As science communicators, I think that we still fail to convey this co-existence of hard facts and room for doubt to non-specialists, and this failure is a significant reason for so many of our troubles in establishing a dialogue about science with the public.

One of those few who did a remarkably accessible job communicating the role of uncertainty in science was Richard Feynman. In "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out", he 
made the point that many people look for certainty as an emotional aid; hence the rise of systems like religion. But as Feynman says, the only way we can make scientific progress is if we remain skeptical, if we expose even the best-known facts of science to the glare of doubt. To do this requires fearlessness, the courage to abandon even your most cherished beliefs in the face of evidence. But the scientists of lore understood well this need for courage. There is a reason why the Royal Society, when it was founded in 1660, chose at its motto the Latin phrase "Nullius in verba": Nobody's word is final. At the time, this way of looking at the world, of not regarding any authority including the King's as the final word, was a novel and revolutionary way of doing things. It marked a great transition from the age of kings to the age of reason. 

And it was a message that Feynman emphasized throughout his career:

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about some things, but I am not absolutely sure about many things, and there are some things which I don’t know anything about…such as whether it means anything to ask why we are here, and what the question might mean.

But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing. By feeling lost in this mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”

Skepticism engendered by fearlessness is an integral aspect of science; not only as some formal, abstract protocol, but as a necessary tool without which progress would be impossible. I would say the same attitude applies to the conduct of our social and political affairs, although as current events demonstrate, it's been exceedingly difficult to profess doubt and uncertainty in the political arena.

Today I find myself troubled by what I see as the misplaced conviction and lack of skepticism on both the left and the right in this country and in other lands. The real problem of course is not lack of skepticism in the beliefs of others but skepticism regarding one's own beliefs: as Feynman again memorably put it, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

The bedrock of presumed certainty in what one sees as hard, incontrovertible facts not only roots one's beliefs in certain sacred values, but it often simply precludes one from understanding subtleties and rationally responding to arguments on the other side. The concept of sacred values was popularized by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in trying to explain why otherwise intelligent people sometimes become irrationally wedded to their viewpoints. The central reason is that humans tend to infuse scientific facts and findings with their own preconceived moral meanings. Once that happens it becomes quite difficult to accept or agree with facts that seem to collide with those values.

This knee-jerk disapproval manifests itself on both sides of the political aisle. The right is too skeptical even of the basic facts of global warming, while the left holds the science of global warming perfect and sacrosanct and believes that the science is largely settled. The right believes that genetics and race play a disproportionate role in mental qualities like IQ and creativity, while the left believes that environment can almost completely compensate for any such differences. In fact the left fears the right’s viewpoint so much that it gropes for support for the equality of all human beings in science, even when science and human value systems should really be kept separate from each other. The right looks into science for the contention held by some of its members that one gender may be inferior to the other. The left is so fearful of this contention that it is quick to interpret any studies demonstrating even subtle or uncontroversial gender differences as evidence of discrimination against one gender or another. 

Generally speaking, the right is quick to point out differences rather than similarities while the left is quick to assume that pointing out differences is tantamount to pointing out inferiority or superiority. The left's sacred values are purportedly equality and justice; the right's are purportedly freedom and God. Each side is frightened to give even a little ground for fear that the other side may declare victory. This fear is causing both sides to closet themselves into bubbles and echo chambers, into rejecting - as is being done on college campuses for example - even the possibility of exposing themselves to the other side's viewpoints and engaging with them. And the profligacy of social media, because of its ability to quickly surround yourself with like-minded people, creates an enduring illusion of your convictions being absolutely right.

Part of the solution to reconciling our sacred beliefs with each other is to again go back to that notion of complementarity extolled by Niels Bohr and to realize that many of our beliefs simply may not be completely compatible with each other, but that they still have to co-exist in order for us to form a complete picture of the world and to live in harmony. This point was made very clearly by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a 1996 commencement address at the University of Toronto; the talk was appropriately titled "A Message to the 21st Century". Throughout his life Berlin emphasized the plurality of human thoughts and values, and this theme was what he expounded upon:

"The central values by which most men have lived, in a great many lands at a great many times—these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition. Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted. Indeed, not everyone seeks security or peace, otherwise some would not have sought glory in battle or in dangerous sports.

Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on."

It is the inability to grasp this fundamental tussle between different values that in part leads people to believe in holy truths. Human beings are uncomfortable with multiple answers, especially if they seem contradictory; but multiple, contradictory, complementary answers comprise the very essence of the world. Berlin however is honest and reflective enough to admit that he sees no straightforward solution to the dilemma. This is perhaps because the only solution is to admit the dilemma and live with it, to respect a plurality of opinion and abide by the views of multitudes, to recognize that the contradictions that man presents are the contradictions that man contains. In fact this reconciliation with differing views lies at the heart of both liberal democracy and scientific exploration.

Many decades before Feynman, another famous scientist had eloquently advocated for openness in both science and politics:

"There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry … There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress."

More than almost anyone at the time, Robert Oppenheimer knew how crucial open inquiry was, again not as a formal, pedagogic aspect of science but as an error-correcting tool. Error correction is an important part of both pure and applied science. It can allow you to discover fundamental particles and mathematical theorems, but it can equally allow you to build a better integrated circuit and invent new drugs for cancer. As Oppenheimer realized, the atomic bomb had made this need for correcting error literally a matter of life and death. Even the politicians - deeply susceptible as they are to the effects of integrated circuits, cancer and atomic bombs - should be able to get on board with that urgency.

But perhaps we should leave the last word on the many virtues of doubt, uncertainty, self-skepticism and openness to a man who told us a cautionary tale about the horrific ends that result from the acts of men and women who throw all these values out of the window, convinced as they are of the indelible truth of their own beliefs. As he bent down to pick up mud from a pond at Auschwitz, Jacob Bronowski issued a plea to question our beliefs that is as ominous and heartfelt as it is relevant to our modern times.

“It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken...we have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power."

You may be mistaken. Think it possible. 

Brave New World: A review of Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg's "A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution"

For four and a half billion years, evolution on our planet progressed at its own pace, through blind fortune and culling, creating dinosaurs and diatoms, butterflies and blue whales. The organisms that this evolution forged were at the mercy of random mutations, natural selection and the ceaseless slash-and-burn of the unsparing environment. They had no say in their making, no purposeful modification of their form and function. Then, about fifty thousand years ago, a creature appeared who, for the first time, had the wherewithal to actually mold himself in his own image and defy the laws of biology. This was Homo sapiens.

For most of the next fifty thousand years, men and women largely changed their environment to provide comfort, security and prosperity for themselves. They made fire, built cities and cleared out large areas of virgin forest and grassland for agriculture. They domesticated other animals for their meat, milk and other products. They warded off diseases and predators and learnt how to travel long distances. In doing this they were fighting against the blind forces of nature that had shaped them, bending these forces to their will, delaying the natural course of death and exposure to the elements that these forces had visited upon them since the beginning.

This spectacular success was the result of two unique features that evolution itself had fashioned for man by building big brains for him: intelligence and language. Both these features caused a paradigm shift that completely transformed the nature of life on this planet. It led to wheels and cast iron, to automobiles and the computer, to architecture and antibiotics, to mass extinctions and climate change. And perhaps the ultimate impact of these two unique inventions of evolution was the discovery of genes. With this discovery man had finally learnt not just to fight, but to potentially completely hack the very process that made him.

It is only in the last fifty years that we have become realistically able to wield this awesome force. And it’s only in the last ten years that the force has created what is probably its most promising, far-reaching and consequential technological application, one that will truly lead to changes in our very beings, changes whose effects are frankly impossible to predict. This technology is germline gene editing, made possible by a biological tool called CRISPR. CRISPR holds promises for curing some of the most debilitating diseases afflicting humanity, revolutionizing agriculture and environmental sustainability and putting the power of genetics in the hands of parents who might want to have healthy, disease-free babies. And there are few better people to explain CRISPR than two of its principal inventors, Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. Their book on the technology is a very good read, laying out both the technical details and the social implications with honesty, clear explanations and sensitivity.

So what is CRISPR? In one sentence, it’s cheap precision gene editing. The words “cheap” and “precision” are both key to its looming dominance over lives. Gene editing itself is not a new concept and has been around for at least thirty years, ever since the genetic code was cracked and methods were invented to cut, copy and paste genes into genomes. There was an enormous amount of enthusiasm in the promise of these techniques to cure genetic diseases in human beings, especially ones where the problem was caused by one or two malfunctioning genes that in principle could be removed or replaced by healthy versions. But as Doudna and Sternberg explain, most of these methods are haphazard and unpredictable, and they are also very expensive. They can paste genes in the wrong part of the genome, and they can do this with very low efficiency. CRISPR circumvents both of these problems.

To understand why CRISPR is a real breakthrough, it’s useful to think of drugs. Almost every drug faces two principal challenges; efficacy and side effects. Many drugs fail simply because they are not very effective, and those that do succeed inevitably have side effects, sometimes serious ones. Imagine, then, a drug that is one hundred percent effective in curing a disease and has zero side effects, a so-called “magic bullet” if you will. The older technologies were like drugs with low efficacy and multiple unpredictable side effects. CRISPR is a magic bullet. More accurately, CRISPR holds the promise of being a magic bullet.

From a technical standpoint, think of a genetic defect as one that can be excised by a pair of scissors. A faulty gene essentially consists of a spelling mistake in a short stretch of DNA, the material that codes for all of life. The main machinery of CRISPR consists of two parts; a stretch of DNA that has the right spelling, a complementary sequence that can latch on to the original wrong spelling, and a protein that guides this complementary sequence to the right location in the genome like a benign guided missile. The protein, which is called Cas9, can be very specific in being guided to that particular spelling; a spelling that is different by even one or two letters may keep it from reaching its target. In addition, CRISPR can edit any gene from the 25,000 or so genes in the human genome. This high specificity and universality is what makes it so exciting.

One of the most important lessons from the history of CRISPR is that it was the product not of applied research but of undirected, curiosity-driven laboratory research. Doudna and Sternberg strongly emphasize this point, and it it’s especially critical in an era in which funding for the basic sciences and institutions like the National Institutes of Health is increasingly gutted. The original system was discovered in bacteria which use it to excise and destroy the genomes of invading viruses. The initial papers on this appeared in the 80s as a pure academic curiosity, but Doudna became aware of it only about ten years ago. Another important lesson from the CRISPR tale is that it is necessarily the work of many people. Doudna certainly is one of the key researchers, but there are many others who discovered critical aspects of the system; two of these are unfortunately engaged in a patent battle with Doudna, signifying the high stakes in the battle. One very important component was discovered by researchers working for the yogurt company Danisco who wanted to know how they could use the system for making yogurt cultures resistant to viral infection. Thus, the one take home message from the CRISPR story is that it was an international one, a product of pure science and multiple academic and industrial labs.

The first part of the book lays out this story well. Doudna is also adept at describing the everyday personal excitement of research, the accidental discoveries and the triumphs and frustrations. She stumbled upon CRISPR entirely by accident, when a fellow scientist, a geologist working on understanding the interactions between microorganisms in rocky environments, contacted her. Her major paper on the topic came about through an accidental meeting in Puerto Rico with Emmanuele Charpentier, a scientist working in the Netherlands who was curious to know what the Cas9 protein did. As her story illustrates, it’s often chance encounters between scientists that lead to the most exciting discoveries. That is why it is important to maintain the flow of scientific collaboration between various countries, especially in this era of global political upheaval and nativism.

Once the book lays out the basic technology of CRISPR and its history, the second part talks about the societal implications, many of which could be very consequential indeed. Apart from its accuracy, what distinguishes CRISPR from older technologies is its ease of use; even high school students can be taught to edit genes with it, at least in simple organisms like yeast and fruit flies. It is also inexpensive, so cost is not a huge hurdle for amateurs. Naturally both these features can lend themselves to beneficial as well as nefarious use; the latter made possible, say, by terrorists who might want to edit the genome of a bacterium to make it resistant to all antibiotics. The CIA and the DOD have started including CRISPR in their threat assessment reports. It’s hard to think of another technology except nuclear weapons which might requite such vigilance; the scary thing about CRISPR is that it’s far more accessible to the layperson compared to a nuclear weapon.

Using CRISPR, it has become possible for the first time to edit, replace and substitute genes with unprecedented accuracy. Until now it could take months or even years to substitute multiple genes in a cell. Now we can do it in weeks. The authors give many examples of CRISPR editing defective genes in genetically inherited diseases like Sickle Cell Anemia. They also describe its use in tackling more complex disease like cancer and AIDS. Cancer is essentially a genetic disease caused by mutations in various genes, so at least in principle, CRISPR can correct these mutations by replacing those genes. In case of AIDS, there is a specific gene whose mutations confer resistance to the virus in a few lucky individuals. Again in principle, CRISPR can mutate the normal version of this gene found in all of us. Much of this has already been accomplished in test tubes, in cells and in animals like mice and monkeys. Human clinical trials on these and other diseases are underway.

Agriculture too could be revolutionized using CRISPR. Using the technology you could breed healthier or stronger animals for meat with minimal environmental impact, you could breed crops that could be resistance to all kinds of infections, and you could even breed crops that make beneficial growth factors or drugs for human beings. This part of the book is particularly interesting because the author comes down very clearly on the side of these GMOs. She finds most of the rhetoric against GMOs unscientific. Her main argument, with which I agree, is that we have been changing the genes of crops and livestock for decades now without any ill effects. In spite of what proponents of non-GMO food would like to tell us, it’s impossible to escape having GMO foods in our diet, and these foods being cheaper and more abundant have kept scores of populations from starvation. But here’s the rub; these GMO foods and animals have actually been produced using technologies that are far more haphazard and unpredictable than CRISPR. They have introduced all kinds of unwanted changes in their hosts (their safety profile is thus even more impressive in light of this non-specificity). If anything, CRISPR with its unprecedented accuracy is going to make GMOs even safer and more effective than before. Currently there is thus no good scientific argument for not using CRISPR, at least for the kinds of changes in crops and livestock that we have been doing for years.

But the most consequential application of CRISPR, and one that could truly have a huge impact on the life of the average man and woman, is germline editing. This is editing of the genes in an embryo, or even in the sperm and egg which make up the embryo. As the authors explain, it is only germline editing that can truly eliminate genetic diseases from their inception. Not only that, but using CRISPR to select viable, disease-free embryos before implantation won’t be much different in kind from the kind of embryonic selection that is done to pick viable embryos through traditional IVF technologies.

What would prevent parents from asking doctors and scientists to use CRISPR to edit out potentially defective genes from a future child? Much more troublingly, what would prevent parents from using the technology for genetic enhancement, for making babies that are potentially taller, calmer, stronger and more intelligent? It’s a scenario that has been explored in science fiction movies like "Gattaca", but CRISPR has brought the possibility to our doorstep. The social implications are troubling and generate distant echoes of the horrific history of eugenics experiments in the early twentieth century. In a scenario like this, what would prevent society from morphing into one where only the rich have this ability? And what would keep us from considering genetically unenhanced individuals as inferior – or, chillingly – undesired? And yet the simple desire of parents to get rid of genes that are known to lead to horrible diseases is a positive case of eugenics, and it’s hard to argue against it. The problem with CRISPR, as with all technologies, is that the ethical dimensions of its use lie on a continuum.

Another very far-reaching application of the method is in creating what is called a ‘gene drive’. A gene drive is a diabolical system in which the genes for making CRISPR itself are included using CRISPR in a genome. This kind of self-referential magic can ensure that when the genome replicates, it also replicates the CRISPR machinery. The implications of this technically ingenious manipulation is that when you incorporate it in the germline of a single organism and allow it to reproduce, the change will be effected in almost every one of its children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren and so on. You would have essentially circumvented the natural laws of Mendelian inheritance.

Using gene drives, you could change the genetic makeup of an entire species in a few months or years. One example of a gene drive cited in the book is an experiment that changes fruit fly color from red to yellow: the researchers calculated that if one of these CRISPRed fruit flies escaped from the lab, within a few years one in every four fruit flies around the world would be yellow. This is a very compelling scenario, and while it has been proposed for some very beneficial applications like malaria eradication, its more unseemly applications are indeed very concerning: using gene drives terrorists could introduce all kinds of mutations in our food, in our crops, and in our very bodies through manipulating the all-important microbiome that resides in us.

It is when we start contemplating gene drives that the quip from the character in Jurassic Park suddenly starts appearing very urgent: when scientists are very busy doing things just because they could, they seldom stop to consider if they should. The last part of the book has a cogent discussion of these societal implications of gene editing and potential safeguards. In 2015 Doudna and her colleagues came out with a joint paper that categorically argued against germline editing before we fully understand the consequences; 
but not before Chinese scientists had already tested the method in a few (non-viable) human embryos. She also fully recognizes that lawmakers, politicians, ethicists and the general public will have to be as much a part of the conversation as scientists. At the same, she again comes down on the side of proceeding with CRISPR applications when it comes to safety concerns. The opponents are asking how we can proceed with the technology when its full effects are not understood. In Doudna’s mind, we have always used new technologies without fully understanding their pros and cons. We use vaccines and drugs, not just when we don’t know how to get rid of their side effects, but in full knowledge of these limitations. We fly in airplanes and drive on roads knowing all the time that the technology that enables us to do this is not one hundred percent safe. In each of these cases, we use the technology because we as a society have collectively decided that the benefits outweigh the risks. There is no reason per se why it should be different with CRISPR, even with its far more consequential impact on humanity.

So should we all start rejoicing at the positive implications of CRISPR or start feeling cowed with fear at its misuse in evil hands? Not so fast. It's going to be a while before you can buy a "Grow Your Own Organic Meat CRISPR Kit" at the local Whole Foods, let alone a "Grow a Bodybuilder Baby" kit. One aspect of gene editing that I wish the authors had discussed much more is the fact that no technological breakthrough can be used efficiently if we simply don’t know how to use it. For instance CRISPR can repair certain genes involved in diseases, but the simple fact is that it can do so only if we know in the first place that those genes are involved. As the authors allude to, many important diseases like cancer, diabetes and especially psychiatric disorders have causes embedded in the subtle action of dozens - maybe even hundreds - of genes. It is impossible to use CRISPR to treat or cure these diseases when we don’t’ know where to apply it in the first place. The problem is not one of technology; it’s one of fundamental knowledge. The good thing is that CRISPR itself can be used fruitfully to interrogate the genetic causes of these diseases, but it’s going to take a long time before it can be used to treat them. This limitation is even truer of germline editing applications. Parents might very well want to edit embryonic genes that make their kids smarter or less anxious, but even now we are in the dark ages when it comes to understand the genetic basis of intelligence or anxiety. It might very well be possible to tweak simple traits like height and eye color, but we are again a long way off when it comes to imagining a race of superhumans. In addition, as the Chinese study noted above demonstrated, CRISPR still has some significant issues with side effects and efficacy, similar to those of drugs. The future sure seems like it’s here, but not yet.

Ultimately the social and scientific problems with CRISPR are no different in principle from problems with any number of new technologies that humanity has unleashed on itself and the planet, from fossil fuels and antibiotics to nuclear power and plastics. This well written book brings us up to date on one technology that does hold a lot of potential, as long as we understand its true capabilities, don’t fall for breathless hype and have a collective conversation about its pros and cons. It underscores the spirit of pure scientific inquiry and collaboration, and emphasizes the inevitable meld between science and society that we all must grapple with. And ultimately it leaves the ethical problems open. As the physicist Richard Feynman once quoted a Japanese piece of wisdom, we have all been given the key to heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell. It is up to us which door to approach.