Is War a Necessary Tool of Scientific Progress?
Historically, most technological development occurs during times of conflict. Is the only hope for human progress a future of violence and bloodshed?
It is true that the most rapid scientific development occurs during times of war. Without war, it is doubtful whether mankind would have reached its present level of technology. Yet the science that takes place during wartime is not conducted for its own sake, for the curiosity about the universe around him that perhaps represents man’s finest quality; far from it. In war or in peacetime, man takes science and applies it to his own ends.
The Science of the Atomic Bomb
The theory leading to the derivation of that most famous of equations, E=mc2, was initially seen by its discoverer, Albert Einstein, as a municipal energy source. Einstein, however, fully aware of his own species’ foibles, also recognised the destructive potential in such a source.
In a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, then President of the United States during the initial days of the Second World War, he wrote, “Some recent work…leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the near future…it is conceivable…that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may be constructed.”
Atomic energy taken as a theory is without question entirely harmless. If it were not for the principles of E=mc2 the universe could not exist as it does. It is mankind, however, which took those principles and distorted them into the horrifying consequences of the atomic bomb, the misuse of which could well lead to the extermination of the homo sapiens species and indeed much of life on Earth.
As J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the bomb development project, grimly commented later, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Yet the research into atomic energy which began with the bomb has grown into a means of producing power and caused countless developments in the fields of particle and nuclear physics which would have been more or less ignored without military input to fund them.
Misused Miracles – Biotechnology and Bioweapons
Nor is atomic energy the only facet of science that has been advanced in order to develop more sophisticated weaponry. Biotechnology, genetics and chemical research have all been twisted from their original purpose to develop a variety of monstrosities ready to be unleashed in times of war.
Biotechnology — although it has a myriad of brilliant applications in medicine and agriculture — holds the threat of widespread use of engineered superdiseases or other such bioweapons has led to the stigma of an entire area of scientific research.
On another level, genetic engineering could eliminate crippling hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Down Syndrome. But it is very likely that these areas of study would never have reached their current level of sophistication without the drive of weapons development behind them, and so all the positive developments that have come from the field would never have taken place.
War on the Internet
Advances in computing in recent times are startling in their speed. The Western world places a significant level of importance on the movement of information and utilises complex networked computer systems to facilitate it. As a result a lot of society’s most basic survival requirements are almost entirely reliant on the functionality of these computer systems.
The internet was first conceived by Tim Berners-Lee at the Centre for European Particle Research as a way of freely sharing information between scientists and the general public. This dream has been partially realised in the proliferation of free search engines such as Google.com and public archiving sites such as Wikipedia, but also perverted into something altogether different; identity theft, deception and actual fraud, to name but a few negatives, are rife in Western society as a result.
So-called “IT Warfare” is already in use on a small scale as hackers interfere with commercial systems to obtain information that can then be sold on to rivals for considerable sums of money, but in the future there is every possibility for this exploitation to take a more combative manner.
Unfortunately, there is a definite stigma in most circles – particularly those associated with funding – against so called “blue sky research.” Scientists and other developers come under great criticism during peacetime for investigating avenues without direct applications. During war, however, all reservations are often put aside, giving researches more free reign to discover whatever they can just in case a weapon could be developed from what they find. It is a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.