Thursday, February 28, 2008

Control Over Experiments - Respect For Nature?

Physicists are saying to nature "Surprise me, tell me something more about yourself, but do it while following these rules." (If you were asked for the same question, how much would you tell?) And the surprise that nature gives us, the gift of new knowledge - it then becomes "ours," and gives us new power over nature. At least one writer compares scientific experiment to "putting nature on the rack" to force her to divulge her secrets. It is possible to pursue the scientific endeavour in a way that really respects and treasures the nature that is being studied, but for many researchers the attitude has been more a pursuit of dominance, an effort to conquer nature and bend her to our will. If the truth be told all too many individual scientists, like so many other hard workers in today's competitive economy, are obsessed with their own personal success, and nature is their tool for getting there. This tendency is magnified by the current alignment between the scientific community and the power centers of government, business, consumer markets, and military machines.

If there is an analogy between love and the experimentalist's attentive observation of the world (as I claimed earlier in this blog), this analogy has its limits, because all too often the end result has been something that looks a lot more like rape than like peaceful harmony. In the small it looks like plastic wrappers in the trash and children and old people alike wasting away in front of TVs; in the large it looks like a planet whose species are devastated, whose hidden treasures are excavated, pumped, and burned, and whose peoples destroy and enslave each other with the most advanced technologies.

Is this tendency for science to result in the abuse of persons and of the environment something external to physics (as many scientists would like to think) or built into physics from its very foundations?

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