Via Bora at Science and Politics

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born at New York City on this day in 1904. In school he took the math and science classes befitting his early genius, but he really thrived on languages. He was known to learn a language just to read a single book in the original language, and he once accepted a speaking assignment in the Netherlands that allowed only six weeks to learn the language before his presentation. He graduated from Harvard, but language was no barrier to getting his PhD in Germany before taking teaching positions at Berkeley and Cal Tech. He was tapped to head the Manhattan Project to build the first US atomic bombs, but like many of the brilliant characters involved, he chose to examine the ethics of creating such weapons. In the anti-communist furor of the early fifties, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, which ended his influence on science policy:

This is a world in which each of us, knowing his limitations, knowing the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue, will have to cling to what is close to him, to what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing.

There must be no barriers for freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any asssertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.

We knew the world could not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am became Death, the destroyers of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

As long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost and science can never regress.

The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.

– All from J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1904 – 1967

Where are today’s Oppenheimers?

With the current mad-ministrations reckless desire to wave a nuclear wand over Iran, and its history of scientific disregard, I guess even an modern-day Oppenheimer might not even be able to dissuade them from their madness.

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