I came across an interesting post that got me thinking about the implications of science.
The above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) and is titled “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”. Here, Wright has captured a moment in history where enlightened civilization is beginning to understand how the natural universe works and how we can manipulate it to our own ends. Sir Isaac Newton (and others), who lived during the earlier part of the 18th century heralded in this new age of discovery and scientific research. Man’s relationship with nature was beginning to move away from that which could not be explained to that which will soon be understood and Wright’s painting gives us a glimpse into the birth of this new age.
A hundred years previously the experiment in this painting may have seemed like magic (or worse, devilry) so the artist has tempered this demonstration with two clever juxtapositions. First, and most obvious, is the young girl who is upset that the bird has become the focus of a scientific demonstration. What is interesting is that hers’ is the only face we do not see clearly, she hides her tears with her hands. Is the artist telling us that science outweighs emotional attachments and that they should be hidden away shamefully? Or is Wright demonstrating the devastating loss this poor girl must feel by not showing her face to force us to empathize with her grief and thus lead us to believe we should find science dispassionate and ugly?
Now observe the young boy at the far right of the painting. He is the only figure not part of the circle, your eye must seek him out at the edge of the composition. Notice that outside the window he is standing next to the only natural light source in the painting – the moon. For all of human history man could only see at night by the light of the moon; fear and evil lurked in the darkness of a moonless night. In the enlightened age, man had overcome this obstacle and his evenings could now be spent reading by candlelight or entertaining guests with a scientific demonstration.
The boy is also one of only two figures actually looking at the viewer; the old man carrying out the experiment is the other. The old man holds the fate of the bird in his hands. He is taller than any other figure in the circle and he seems to have an expression similar to that of a professor giving an instruction we must all understand. The young boy, on the other hand, holds the draw string to close the curtain, thus attempting to block the moon (a metaphor for the superstitious past) and is looking at us expectantly as if he is waiting to see if we will take the side of science and progress (the old man), or that of passion (the young girl). A choice must be made by the viewer because the artist has only presented the problem.
At stake in the painting is but a child’s bird and though I too would be as upset as the girl if someone did the same experiment on my dog, science has carried out far more upsetting observations which one could say rivals that of the crusades.
When the scientists at Los Alamos were ready to test the first nuclear device they actually took bets on the chances that the splitting of the atom would set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire. Though we now know that such an event is impossible, at the time there were serious concerns about that very possibility and yet the experiment was carried out anyway. For the sake of winning World War II, the US government was willing to put the fate of every living creature on this planet at grave risk.
From the 1930’s to 1950’s a device known as the shoe-fitting fluoroscope could be found in many shoe stores. Customers could determine their exact shoe size by looking into the device and actually see the bone structure of their feet. The device emitted x-rays directly into people’s feet at rem rates hundreds of times higher than that allowed for nuclear power plant workers for an entire year! At the time there were scientists who had an idea of how harmful radiation could be but when faced with the devastation in Japan and the horrible side effects caused by radiation, scientists were able to study these effects on the mass population.
The initial victims of the nuclear age probably never knew what happened because they were vaporized instantly in a light so bright and hot all that remained of them were their shadows burnt onto walls. Those who survived suffered a much crueler fate. “For no apparent reason” the survivors “health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And then bleeding began from the ears, nose and mouth”. Doctors “gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died”.
Other experiments were being carried out during the middle of the 20th century that were just as cruel. In Germany a man named Eduard Pernkopf was working on his “Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy“, an atlas detailing human anatomy to a degree not seen since the similar works of Leonardo da Vinci. Though Pernkopf’s work was seen as a landmark for human biology, “speculation and indirect evidence have led to the conclusion that Pernkopf used the murdered bodies of men, women, and children from the Holocaust for his atlas of anatomy.” True, his work provided doctors with an invaluable tool with which to study the human body (and possibly help cure patients in the long run) but at what cost to those who died like lab rats?
There are countless other examples.
So is science, for lack of a better word, better than religion? Do the dispassionate observations of the scientist achieve a morality more acceptable than that of an Islamic suicide bomber? History is filled with rational, scientific minded persons who have lobbied for their discoveries to be utilized in an ethical manner. Einstein was asked to take part in the Manhattan Project and though he refused for moral reasons, he was intrigued by the research because it lay at the heart of his own interests in science. Einstein even believed America should harness the atom because he was afraid Germany might be doing so as well. Leonardo da Vinci made good money designing weapons of war for his own government. That list too goes on and on.
Religion, in theory anyway, attempts to see the universe through the lens of morality. Gods are invented to make sure people are being ethical even when nobody else is looking. Science, on the other hand is interested mainly in observation. The ethical dilemmas that arise because of those observations are dealt with later. Each individual scientist must consider his or her own morality against their ambitions. Ironically, it is often the scientist who is naive and allows people with strong religious tendencies to corrupt their work for war and murder but this is not always the case. The scientists at Los Alamos may have been more interested in discovering the mysteries of the atom then making bombs, but at the end of the day they still knew they were making bombs.
In closing, science is not free of the terrors that have been usually attributed to religion. Science may help us gain a keener insight into the actual workings of the universe, but science has done little to advance the human species enough to know how to use that information responsibly. Personally I do side with rational, scientific thinking but I also understand that knowledge without ethics and morality is dangerous and does not outweigh the possible benefits that may arise from that knowledge. Science is not without blame and scientists should hold science to the same critical standards that religious leaders should point at their own beliefs.