Science as Means of International Understanding

Dear Kommilitonen!

It has often been said that science should be a bridge between peoples and should help to better international understanding. It has also repeatedly been stressed, with full justification, that science is international and that it directs man’s thoughts to matters which are understood by all peoples and in whose solution scientist of the most diverse languages, races or religions can participate equally. In speaking to you about this role of science at this particular time it is important that we should not make things too easy for ourselves. We must also discuss the opposite thesis, which is still fresh in our ears, that science is national and that the ideas of the various races are fundamentally different. It was held that science had to serve one’s own people in the first instance and help to secure one’s own political power: that science forms the basis of all technical developments, and hence of all progress, as well as of all military power. It was also held that the task of the pure sciences as well as of philosophy was to support our Weltanschauung and our beliefs. These in turn were regarded as the foundation of political power among our own people. I should like to discuss which of these two views is correct and what are the relative merits of the arguments that can be produced in their favour.

To gain clarity on this question we shall have to discover, in the first instance, how science is carried on, how an individual is brought into contact with scientific problems and how these problems excite his interest. Since I know only my own science well, you will not misunderstand me if I speak about atomic physics and if I recall my own experience as a student.

When I left school in 1920 in order to attend at the University of Munich, the position of our youth as citizens was very similar to what it is today. Our defeat in the first world war had produced a deep mistrust of all the ideals which had been used during the war and which had lost us the war. They seemed hollow now and we wanted to find out for ourselves what was of value in this world and what was not: we did not want to rely on our parents or our teachers. Apart from many other values we re-discovered science in this process. After having studied a few popular books I began to take an interest in the branch of science concerned with atoms, and wanted to form an opinion of the peculiar statements which were being made about space and time in the theory of relativity. In this way I came to attend the lectures of my later teacher, Sommerfeld, who fanned this interest and from whom I learnt, in the course of the term, how a new and deeper understanding of atoms had developed as a result of the researches of Röntgen, Planck, Rutherford, and Bohr. I came to know that the Dane, Niels Bohr, and the Englishman, Lord Rutherford, imagined an atom to be a planetary system in miniature and that it was likely that all the chemical properties of the elements would, in the future, be predictable with the help of Bohr’s theory, by making use of the planetary orbits of the electrons. At that time, however, this had not been achieved. This last point naturally interested me most and every new work of Bohr was discussed at the Munich Seminar with vigor and passion. You can well imagine what it meant for me when Sommerfeld invited me, in the summer of 1921, to accompany him to Göttingen to hear a series of lectures given by Niels Bohr about his atomic theory. It was held in this very ‘Collegienhaus’. This cycle of lectures in Göttingen, which in future was always to be referred to as the ‘Bohr Festival’, has in many ways determined my future attitude to science and especially to atomic physics.

First of all, we could sense in Bohr’s lectures the power of the ideas of a man who had seriously grappled with these problems and who understood them better than anyone else in the whole world. Secondly, there were some points on which I had previously formed an opinion different from that expounded by Bohr. These questions were fought out during long walks to the Rohns and to the Hainberg.

These conversations left a deep impression on me. First I learnt that when trying to understand atomic structure it was obviously quite immaterial whether one was German, Danish or English. I also learnt something perhaps even more important, namly that in science a decision can always be reached as to what is right and what is wrong. It was not a question of belief, or Weltanschauung, or hypothesis; bat a certain statement could either be simply right and another statement simply wrong. Neither origin nor race decides this question: it is decided by nature, or if you prefer, by God, in any case not by man.

Very much enriched by these experiences, I returned to Munich and continued, under Sommerfeld’s direction, with my own experiments on atomic structures. When I had completed my Doctor’s examination I went to Copenhagen, in the autumn of 1924, with the aid of a so-called Rockefeller Grant, in order to work with Bohr. There I came into a circle of young people of the most diverse nationalities – English, American, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch and Japanese – all of whom wanted to work on the same problem, Bohr’s atomic theory. They nearly always joined together like a big family for excursions, games, social gatherings and sports. In this circle of physicists I had the opportunity of really getting to know people from other nations and their ways of thought. The learning and speaking of other languages which this necessitated was the best way of becoming really familiar with other ways of life, foreign literatures and foreign art. I could see more and more clearly how little mattered the diversity of nations and races when there was common effort centered on a difficult scientific problem. The differences of thought which were so clearly shown in art seemed to me more of an enrichment of one’s own possibilities than a disturbing factor.

With this background I arrived in Cambridge in the summer of 1925, and spoke about my work to a small circle of theoreticians in a College, in the study of the Russian physicist Kapitza. Among those present, there was an unusually gifted student hardly twenty-three years old who took my problems and constructed, within a few months, a comprehensive theory of the atomic shell. His name was Dirac and he was a man of outstanding mathematical ability. His methods of thought were vastly different from mine, his mathematical methods more elegant and more unusual than those to which we were used at Göttingen. However, in the end, he arrived at the same results as Born, Jordan and I, at least on all points of importance. This confirmation and the fact that the results were so beautifully complementary served as further proof of the ‘objectivity’ of science and its independence of language, race or belief.

As well as Copenhagen and Cambridge, Göttingen remained a centre for this international family of atomic physicists. The work was directed by Franck, Born and Pohl and many of the scientists about whom you read in the newspapers in connection with the atomic bomb, such as Oppenheimer and Blackett, as well as Fermi who studied in Göttingen at that time.

I have quotes these personal reminiscences only in order to give an example of the internationalism of the community of science. It has, of course, been the same for centuries in many other sciences and this family of atomic physicists was in no way out of the ordinary. I could quote many international groups of ‘savants’ from history of science who were linked through the frontiers of nations by common work.

Perhaps I might mention one other group of scientists who, in the seventeenth century, founded mathematical science in Europe. It is especially appropriate to do so because the memory of Leibnitz is being celebrated this year as well as the foundation of the Scientific Academies. I should like to quote a few sentences of Dilthey’s description of that epoch.

‘A bond, unhampered by any limitations of language or nationality, linked the few individuals who devoted their lives to this new science. They formed a new aristocracy and were conscious of it, just as before in the days of the Renaissance, humanists and artists had felt themselves to be such an aristocracy. The Latin and, later on, the French language rendered the easiest mutual understanding possible and they became the instrument of scientific world literature. Already around the middle of the seventeenth century, Paris had become the centre of collaboration between philosophers and scientists. There Gassendi, Marsenne and Hobbes exchanged ideas and even the proud Descartes joined their circle for a time. His presence made an unforgettable impression on Hobbes and later Leibnitz; for it was there that both became devoted to the ideas of mathematical science. Later, London became another centre….’

We can see then that science has been carried on in this way throughout the history and that the ‘Republic of Sages’ has always played an important part in the life of Europe. It has always been considered self-evident that adherence to such an international circle would not prevent the individual scientist from devotedly serving his own people and feeling himself one of them. On the contrary, such a broadening of one’s horizon frequently enhances esteem for the best aspects of the life of one’s own country. One learns to love it and feels indebted to it.

Having said all this I must now also deal with the question of why all this scientific collaboration, all these real human relationships, seemingly do so little in preventing animosity and war.

First of all it must be stressed that science represents only a small part of public life and that only very few people in each country are really connected with science. Politics, however, are shaped by stronger forces. They have to take into account the actions of large masses of people, their economic position and the struggle for power of a few privileged groups favoured by tradition. These forces have, so far, always overpowered the small number of people who were ready to discuss disputed questions in a scientific way – that is, objectively, dispassionately and in the spirit of mutual understanding. The political influence of science has always been very small, and this is understandable enough. It does, however, frequently place the scientist in a position, which is in some ways more difficult than that of any other group of men. For science has, in its practical applications, a very great influence in the life of the people. Prosperity and political power depend on the state of science and the scientist cannot ignore these practical consequences even if his own interest in science is of less practical nature. Thus, the action of an individual scientist often carries far more weight than he would wish and he frequently has to decide, according to his own conscience, whether a cause is good or bad. When the differences between nations can no longer be reconciled he is therefore often faced with the painful decision either of cutting himself off from his own people or from those friends who are linked with him by their common work. The position in the various sciences is here somewhat different. The medical practitioner, who helps people irrespective of their nationality, can more easily reconcile his actions to the demands of the state and of his own conscience than the physicist, whose discoveries may lead to the manufacture of weapons of destruction. But, by and large, there always remains this tension; there are on the one hand the demands of the state, which wants to enlist science particularly for the benefit of its own people and hence the strengthening of its political power. On the other hand there is the duty owed by the scientist to his work which links him to people of other nations.

The relations between the scientist and the state have changed in a characteristic way during the past decades. During the first world war the scientists were so closely tied to their states that Academies frequently expelled scientists of other countries or signed resolutions in favour of their own cause and against the cause of the other nation. This hardly happened at all during the second world war. The link between the scientists was frequently much stronger, even to the extent, in many countries, of difficulties arising between them and their own governments. Scientists claimed the right to judge the policies of their governments independently and without ideological bias. The State, on its side, viewed the international relations of scientists with deep mistrust so that eventually scientists were sometimes even treated like prisoners in their own country and their international relations considered almost immoral. Conversely it has now become almost a matter of course that scientists will help their colleagues wherever possible, even though they belong to the enemy country. This development may lead to a fortunate strengthening of international, as against national, relations, but care will have to be taken that it does not become the origin of a dangerous wave of mistrust and enmity of larger masses of people against the profession of science itself.

There have been such difficulties in previous centuries when men in science stood up for the principle of tolerance and independence from dogma against the current political power. We need only think of Galileo or a Giordano Bruno. That these difficulties have assumed ever greater importance to-day may be because the practical effects of science can directly decide the fate of millions of people.

This brings me to a frightening aspect of our present-day existence which has to be clearly recognized so that the correct action can be taken. I am not only thinking of the new sources of energy which physics has mastered during the last year and which could lead to unimaginable destruction. New possibilities of interfering with nature are threatening us in many other fields, though it is true that chemical means of destroying life have hardly been used in this last war. In biology, too, we have gained such insight into the process of heredity and into the structure and chemistry of large albumen molecules that it has become a practical possibility to produce infectious diseases artificially, and perhaps worse, even the biological development of man may be influenced in the direction of some predetermined selective breeding. Finally, the mental and spiritual state of people could be influenced and, if this were carried out from a scientific point of view, it could lead to terrible mental deformations of great masses of people. One has the impression that science approaches on a broad front a region in which life and death of humanity at large can become dependent on the actions of a few, very small groups of people. Up to now these things have been discussed in a journalistic and sensational way in the newspapers and most people have not realized the terrible danger which threatens them as a result of further inevitable scientific developments. It is certainly the task of science to rouse humanity to these dangers and to show them how important it is that all mankind, independent of national and ideological views, should unite to meet the peril. Of course, this is more easily said than done, but it is certainly a task which we can no longer escape.

For the individual scientist there remains, however, the necessity of deciding according to his own conscience and free from all ties, whether a cause is good or even which of two causes is less bad. We cannot escape the fact that large masses of people, and with them those who hold the power of government, often act senselessly and with blind prejudice. By giving them the scientific knowledge the scientist can easily be manouvered into a position which Schiller describes in these verses:

‘Woe to those who bestow the light of heaven on him who is for ever blind, it sheds no light for him, it can but char and blacken lands and cities.’

Can science really contribute to understanding between the peoples when it is faced with such a situation? It has the power to release great forces, greater than have ever before been in the control of man, but these forces will lead into chaos unless they are sensibly used.

This leads me to the real inherent task of science. The development which I have just described and which has apparently turned against himself those forces which man controls and which can lead to the most terrible destruction, this development must certainly be closely connected with some spiritual process of our time, and it is necessary to speak briefly about these.

Let us look back a few centuries. At the end of the Middle Ages man discovered, apart from the Christian reality centred round the divine revelation, yet another reality of material experience. That was ‘objective’ reality which we experience through our senses or by experiment. But in this advance into a new field certain methods of thought remained unchanged. Nature consisted of things in space which changed in time according to cause and effect. Outside of this there was the world of spirit, that is, the reality of one’s own mind which reflected the external world like a more or less perfect mirror. Much as the reality determined by the sciences differed from the Christian reality, it nevertheless represented also a divine world order with man’s action based on a firm foundation, and in which there could be little doubt about purpose of life. The world was infinite in space and time, it had in a way replaced God or had at least become, by its infinity, a symbol of the divine.

But this view of nature has also become undermined during our century. Funda-mental attitudes of thought lost their absolute importance as concrete action moved more and more into the centre of our world. Even time and space became a subject of experience and lost their symbolic content. In science we realize more and more that our understanding of nature cannot begin with some definite cognition, that it cannot be built on such a rock-like foundation, but that all cognition is, so to speak, suspended over an unfathomable depth.

This development of science corresponds probably to the increasingly relative assessment of all values in the life of man, an assessment which has been noticeable for some decades and which can easily end up in a generally sceptical attitude capped by the desperate question ‘for what purpose’. Thus develops the attitude of unbelief which we call ‘nihilism’. From this point of view life appears to be purposeless or, at best, an adventure which we have to endure while having had no say in it. We find this attitude in many parts of the world to-day and its most unpleasant form is illusionary nihilism, as v.Weizsäcker recently called it. It is nihilism disguised by illusion and self-deception.

The characteristic trait of every nihilist attitude is the lack of a solid belief which can give direction and strength to all the reactions of an individual. Nihilism shows itself in the life of an individual by his lack of an unerring instinct for right and wrong, for what is an illusion and what is a reality. In the life of nations it leads to a change of direction in which the immense forces, which have been gathered for the achievement of a certain aim, have the very opposite result and this can cause great destruction. People are often so blinded by hatred that they cynically watch this change and dispose of it with a shrug of the shoulder.

I said a little earlier that this development in the outlook of men may have some relation to the development of scientific thought. We must therefore ask whether science too has lost its solid beliefs. I am very anxious to make it quite clear that there can be no question of this. The very opposite is true. The present situation of science is probably the strongest argument we possess for a more optimistic attitude to the great problems of the world.

For in those branches of science in which we have found that our knowledge is ‘suspended in mid-air’ in just those branches have we achieved a crystal clear understanding of the relevant phenomena. This knowledge is so transparent and carries such force of conviction that scientists of the most diverse peoples and races have accepted it as the undoubted basis of all further thought and cognition. Of course, we also make mistakes in science and it may take some time before these are found and corrected. But we can rest assured that there will be a final decision as to what is right and what is wrong. This decision will not depend on the belief, race or origin of the scientist, but it will be taken by a higher power and will then apply to all men for all time. While we cannot avoid in political life a constant change of values, a struggle of one set of illusions and misleading ideas against another set of illusions and equally misleading ideas, there will always be a ‘right or wrong’ in science. There is a higher power, not influenced by our wishes, which finally decides and judges. The core of science is formed, to my mind, by the pure sciences, which are not concerned with practical applications. They are the branches in which pure thought attempts to discover the hidden harmonies of nature. Mankind to-day may find this innermost circle in which science and art can hardly be separated, in which the personification of pure truth is no longer disguised by human ideologies and desires.

You may, of course, object that the great mass of people has no access to this truth and that it can therefore exert little influence on the attitude of people. But at no time did the great mass of people have direct access to the centre and it may be that people to-day will be satisfied to know that though the gate is not open to everyone there can be no deceit beyond the gate. We have no power there – the decisions are taken by a higher power. People have used different words at different times for this ‘centre’. They called it ‘spirit’ or ‘God’, or they spoke in similes, or in terms of sound picture. There are many ways to this centre, even to-day, and science is only one of them. Perhaps we have no longer a generally recognized language in which we can make ourselves intelligible. That may be the reason why so many people cannot see it, but it is there to-day as it has always been, and any world order must be based in it. Such a world order must be guided by men who have not lost sight of it.

Science can contribute to the understanding between peoples. It can do so not because it can render succour to the sick, nor because the terror which some political power may wield with its aid, but only by turning our attention to that ‘centre’ which can establish order in the world at large, perhaps simply to the fact that the world is beautiful. It may appear presumptuous to attribute such importance to science but may I remind you that though we have cause to envy previous epochs in many aspects of life, our age is second to none in scientific achievement, in the pure cognition of nature.

Whatever may happen, interest in knowledge itself will remain a potent force in mankind for the next few decades. Even though this interest may for some time be overshadowed by the practical consequences of science and by the struggle for power it must eventually triumph and link together people of all nations and races. In all parts of the world people will be happy when they have gained new knowledge and they will be grateful to the man who first discovered it.

Dear Kommilitonen, you are gathered here to contribute in your circle to an understanding between peoples. There can be no better way of doing this than by getting to know, with the freedom and spontaneity of youth, people of other nations, their ways of thought and their feelings. Take from your scientific work a serious and incorruptible method of thought, help to spread it, because no understanding is possible without it. Revere those things beyond science which really matter and about which it is so difficult to speak.