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From alchemists to mad scientists: Part III

Writers wrestling with the Bomb

Kirk Smith 27 February 2016

PR problem: the shadow of the Manhattan Project

The mid-twentieth century was a time when everyone including scientists themselves began to re-evaluate the dark side of scientific progress

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the last of a three-part essay review of a truly classic text in the history of science in fiction – From Faust to Strangelove by Roslynn B. Haynes – by our regular contributor Kirk Smith. Use the navigation buttons on the top right to catch up.

The last hundred pages of From Faust to Strangelove by Roslynn D. Haynes posed at least three challenges for me. The first was how to organize this review. The second was whether or not to focus on the impact that the first use of a nuclear weapon of mass destruction at Hiroshima had on the way science and scientists were represented in the novels, short stories, plays and movies that appeared between the end of WWI and the 1980s. The third problem was whether to emphasize the sheer number of scientist-protagonists in the works of fiction that appeared, especially those written by well-known writers, playwrights and directors, or to describe a few examples indicative of the trends.

I decided to use a little of all three approaches. First, I’ll provide an overview of the historical developments of this period and how they relate to the way authors viewed science and how they chose to characterize scientists in their fiction. Next, I’ll describe how Haynes has organized the works she covers. Then, I’ll focus on the large number of stories that took as their starting point the development of the atomic bomb. Finally, I’ll devote the remainder of this part of my review to discussing specific novels (and one play). My hope is that this three-part review will encourage followers of to search Haynes’s book for interesting stories about scientists they might otherwise not have realized existed.

What is clear in the picture Haynes paints is that the mid-twentieth century was a time when everyone including scientists themselves began to re-evaluate the dark side of scientific progress. The literature of these years reflected this rethinking of the role of science in society. Some of the simpler portraits of scientists displayed characters that were impersonal, amoral, careless and irresponsible people. Some were clearly criminals. But the more nuanced treatments of main characters portrayed the complex mixture of motives and weaknesses that led to undesirable and even evil consequences. These writers never lose sight of the positive contributions science and technology have made to society. What I think is missing, however, is a sympathetic handling of scientists’ drive to understand how nature works. Often, this is treated as negative trait, reflecting lack of a moral compass or willful ignorance of the uses to which people put scientific knowledge.

Haynes herself collected the fiction she discusses into four chapters titled “The Impersonal Scientist,” “The Amoral Scientist,” “The Scientist’s Science Out of Control,” and “The Scientist Rehabilitated.” The division makes sense, but it is sometimes difficult to follow the historical trends because the various titles don’t appear in chronological order. As in previous centuries, there wasn’t a single pattern of change. Instead, two works appearing in the same year sometimes treated its scientist-protagonist in opposite ways – as savior of the world in one and as evil genius bent on destroying the world in the other.

The physicists who developed the atomic bomb best reflect these aspects of the fiction of the time. At first seen as the heroes who ended the carnage of WWII, they quickly became the villains who should have resisted the urge to test their explosive devices on two large cities. Haynes cites Pearl Buck’s Command the Morning (1959) as an example of how the physicists at Los Alamos wrestled with these issues. Buck combines fictional characters with the real people who participated in the Manhattan Project. For example, she has Enrico Fermi saying, “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples. After all, the thing is superb physics.”

More interesting is Buck’s handling of the scientists who change their minds. At the beginning they have serious misgivings about their work being used to kill large numbers of people. But with time they are persuaded that actually using the bomb is the only way to end the war or that the Germans are close to having a similar device that they will not hesitate to use. The number of works of fiction that were stimulated by the physicists at Los Alamos is impressive. Clearly, the men who created the first bomb were fertile soil for fiction writers fascinated by the ethics of physicists in particular and scientists in general. While some writers incorporated physicists as characters, others drew implicit parallels in other sciences or made explicit comparisons to physicists by way of showing their moral inadequacies of all scientists.

Although Aldous Huxley is best known for his novel Brave New World (1932), several of his novels have impersonal scientist-protagonists, They are all first-class professionals but immature and disengaged from people. Haynes singles out Henry Maartens in The Genius and the Goddess (1955) as Huxley’s best example of a brilliant scientist with a selfish, childish personality. He’s so preoccupied with his own needs and desires that he isn’t able to form any real friendships. And because he’s completely ignorant of the implications of his work, he allows it to be used destructively. Huxley explicitly compares his behavior to that of the physicists who developed the atomic bomb. This characterization doesn’t prevent Huxley from presenting Maartens sympathetically. The reader comes to feel sorry for someone so devoid of human emotion, including joy and love.

A sample of titles and characters covered in the chapter on “The Amoral Scientist” speaks for itself. (Haynes begins this chapter by describing the amoral scientist as a “…distinctive subset of the stereotype of the impersonal scientist.”) In addition to Buck’s Command the Morning, she briefly describes the following representative works of fiction:

The Accident (1955) by Dexter Masters is a fictionalized version of a fatal radiation accident resulting from the carelessness of the physicist who was also the victim. In Cat’s Cradle (1936) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a fictional father of the atomic bomb discovers a new form of water called “ice-9” that winds up turning the earth into a wasteland. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966), a play by Edward Albee (and later a movie), portrays a young geophysicist being raked over the humanist coals for his insensitivity and inhumanity. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) by Saul Bellow, an Indian engineer makes the case for space travel under the supervision of wise scientists and engineers. He explicitly references the vision of H. G. Wells in The World Set Free.

Still another amoral scientist appears in one of the many works in German – as well as other European languages – cited by Haynes. In Jan Hammerström’s novel Die Abenteur von Sibylle Kyberneta (1963), an American cyberneticist, Sibylle von Koçalski, develops a computer program for the rational management of human affairs. As Haynes points out, Hammerström’s novel is unusual in two respects: Sibylle is a rare example of a woman as an amoral scientist, and the story is one of the few examples of a favorable portrait of an amoral approach to humanity’s problems based on science.

Haynes cites C. P. Snow’s The New Men (1954) as one of the most balanced and realistic descriptions of scientists in twentieth-century fiction. Snow, who was trained in crystallography at Cambridge, became technical director of the British Ministry of Labor during WWII. The position required that he be well acquainted the physicists working on nuclear fission. The novel’s nonscientist narrator, Lewis Eliot, allows Snow to observe and comment on the attitude of these scientists, who know perfectly well that their work is contributing to a weapon of mass destruction. Eliot notes that most of these men had no ethical qualms about their work. Their belief that the Allies had to beat the Germans to “the bomb” was sufficient to justify their work.

Snow implies that all of these physicists knew that their “bomb” would eventually be used. Moreover, he distinguishes among the variety of views held by individual scientists about the nature of scientific pursuits. These range from a selfish lack of interest in how their physics is used, to naïve optimism about its ultimate use in improving the world, to strong reservations that lead them to protest the use of their work in building a nuclear weapon. Finally, Snow uses his characters to show the difference between physicists and engineers, the former being more likely to be interested in the social consequences of their work.

In the penultimate chapter of From Faust to Strangelove entitled “The Scientist Rehabilitated,” Haynes reviews the limited number of novels and other works of fiction that present scientists in a favorable light. I have selected three that seem most representative.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Arrowsmith (1925), Sinclair Lewis contrasts two scientists: pathologist Max Gottlieb, who is passionately committed to pursuing basic research in a secure university professorship, and Martin Arrowsmith, a medical student, who aspires to follow in Gootlieb’s footsteps but finds that the realities of making a living limit the time and energy he can spend pursuing fundamental questions. Although Arrowsmith fails to contribute to basic science, he emerges as a heroic figure. The novel is also noteworthy for its realistic laboratory scenes inspired by Lewis’s work with the biologist, Paul de Kruif. (My review of Arrowsmith appears on my blog.)

Mitchell Wilson’s Meeting at a Far Meridian is one of the few novels from this period that take us inside the head of one physicist. Wilson gives readers a first-person account of why and how physicists think about the nature of matter and energy, and ultimately, the structure of the universe. My appreciation of Mitchell Wilson’s novels appeared earlier in

Finally, Haynes briefly mentions Shevek, the theoretical physicist in Ursula LeGuin’s science-fiction novel, The Dispossessed (1974), as an example of a scientist who wrestles with his loyalties and the moral implications of his work. Eventually he takes considerable personal and professional risks to see that his revolutionary communication device is used to promote intergalactic peace instead of becoming a tool of military conflict. (I also reviewed The Dispossessed on my blog.)

What is most striking about Haynes’s coverage of the fiction appearing between the late nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century is the range of the writers’ perception of science and scientists, from noble to malevolent. I understand that Haynes is working on a revised edition of her book, which will extend the coverage to include the recent trend toward fiction that treats scientists in a realistic way and shows them working in realistic settings. Until her update is published, Haynes’s original work deserves a much wider readership than it has so far received.