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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Science and ethics: When the devil offered a no-strings research post ...

In an earlier post, I quoted British science journalist Geoffrey Lean warning against the "institutionalised idolatry of science." An instructive study subject would be the gifted Werner von Braun, who worked for Nazi Germany and later the United States.

Von Braun, in the words of Mark Walker ("A 20th-Century Faust", a review of Neufeld's recent von Braun biography),
Wernher von Braun is an iconic figure of the 20th century, someone who built deadly missiles for Adolf Hitler and the Saturn V rockets that sent Americans to the Moon. Michael J. Neufeld's long-awaited biography, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, steers a course between the extremes of demonization and hagiography. "Von Braun has often been depicted as a saint or a devil, as a hero of spaceflight or as a Nazi war criminal," observes Neufeld. "It is comforting to pigeonhole him as either white or black," he goes on to explain, "because then one does not have to deal with his ambiguity and complexity, or the ambiguity and complexity of the moral and political choices offered to scientists and engineers in the modern era." Neufeld's thorough, nuanced, insightful account does this challenging subject justice.

[ ... ]

Nevertheless, von Braun was one of the most important men of his time. Neufeld characterizes him as "a twentieth-century Faust," someone who succumbed to "the temptation to work with an evil regime in return for the resources to carry out the research closest to one's heart." This book, truly a historian's masterpiece, will become the definitive biography.
Faust might find the field a bit crowded today. I still remember our Canadian geneticist turned environment activist David Suzuki pointing out back in the 1970s that the defense industry (i.e. war) was the major employer of scientists. I hope that's changed now, but it must have left some imprint on a generation.

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