The Ethics Choice of a Scientist: the Example of Robert Oppenheimer

Berkeley Connect Physics panel discusses social responsibility of scientists 


On November 26, Berkeley Connect Physics tackled the tough questions. Assembled to talk about Robert Oppenheimer’s life and to answer questions about ethics in science were faculty from diverse backgrounds: Professors Joonhong Ahn (Nuclear Engineering),  Cathryn Carson  (History), Steven Glazer (Civil and Mechanical Engineering), Raymond Jeanloz (Earth and Planetary Science),  Randy Katz (Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences), and Holger Müller (Physics). The discussion was moderated by Berkeley Connect Physics Director Bernard Sadoulet.

“This is a fitting place and fitting room for a discussion about Robert Oppenheimer,” Professor Cathryn Carson, who studies the history and philosophy of science, remarked. Robert Oppenheimer was a professor at UC Berkeley when he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, a research project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb, the first nuclear weapon ever used in war.  As Professor Carson noted, scientists continue to face decisions with the potential to reach far beyond the research laboratory. “What attracts many people to physics is the clarity and abstraction that allows them to escape the messy reality of the world – but it’s impossible to really ignore the real-world implications of your work.”

A complicating factor is that scientists must increasingly turn to government funding to support their projects, as Professor Katz pointed out. Professor Glazer said that scientists need to be fully conscious of the context of their decisions. He added that he personally refuses to join aggressively military projects and carefully considers any military-related projects. On the topic of nuclear weapons, he was clear. “Creating nuclear weapons goes against everything the university states it stands for.”

Professor Jeanloz agreed. He is a part of the International Security and Arms Control committee and hopes for a nuclear-free future. “The objective of science is to make the world a better place, whether it’s by advancing basic knowledge or finding practical problems,” he said. “Oppenheimer’s time was one of the deadliest times in history, and technology played a part. We can do better – and should do better.”

Professor Ahn presented a different perspective. A 3rd-generation Korean born in Japan, Joonhong was never treated as a citizen in Japan and barred from voting. He voted for the first time in his life this November, after finally becoming an American citizen. Patriotism, something often intertwined with military research, is thus a difficult question for Professor Ahn. Having specialized in radioactive waste disposal, he was actively involved in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and admitted that he thought often about Oppenheimer during that time.

Professor Holger Müller remarked that Oppenheimer may have had it easier. “There was a clear enemy then,” he said. “Now it’s never so clear.”

The floor was then opened for questions from students. One asked about the involvement of scientists in military projects: “Is it better not to take military funding at all or to take it and try to have some influence over its direction?” Professor Müller remarked that it is important for scientists to be a part of these projects. Recounting a situation in which the man next to him was completely unable to grasp the concepts behind the project, he stressed the need for people with expertise to be part of the decision-making process.

This extends beyond projects to politics. “There is a utter lack of scientists and engineers in politics, and that is a shame,” Professor Glazer said. “A lot of policy questions involves science, and many people don’t know that much about it.” When a student asked how scientists could be involved in the political realm, Professor Jeanloz pointed out that they don’t necessarily need to give up their career in science to do it. “You can get involved in organizations and agencies,” he said. “You have the freedom to decide whether it’s what you want, without giving up your research.” Professor Carson warned that it is difficult, however. “Being a consultant is no unambiguous thing,” she said, using the experience of Oppenheimer as an example. After World War II, Oppenheimer was a vocal supporter for nuclear control, but his words were often dismissed. He was eventually removed from his position on the Atomic Energy Commission’s advisory committee.

“What about our personal responsibility to educate people about theoretical issues?,” another student wanted to know. Professor Carson noted that communication is a two-way street. Citing Professor Ahn’s involvement with Fukashima, she stressed the importance of dialogue. “Earlier, Joonhong mentioned listening, and that’s not a word a lot of physicists use,” she said of her colleague. “He was willing to listen, and he garnered a lot of trust that way.” When asked his thoughts on her words, Professor Ahn joked, “I was listening.”

The panel also touched on the debate on ethical weapons today. Much like Oppenheimer, scientists today grapple with this question in the face of rapidly advancing technology. One professor questioned the existence of ethical weapons, while others agreed it was a fine line. “We have to ask ourselves: how far have we come if we have to ask what an ethical weapon is?,” Professor Müller asked.

In closing, Professor Sadoulet urged everyone to continue these discussions. “There are choices to make. Don’t be fooled – there is nothing that is pure physics,” he said. “We all have to face ethical choices.”

Science may be neutral, but its use in society is not, and scientists’ work often has unintended consequences that must be considered carefully, as all the speakers emphasized. Scientists – like us all – have a social responsibility that is impossible to ignore, and it’s important for young scientists at Berkeley to continue to talk about it.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant