How and Why Science for Humane
Survival began: a personal note

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This is one of the "In-house" lectures by George Salzman, prepared initially in Fall 1996 for Science for Humane Survival, radical science courses developed at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMB) and at Oglala Lakota College (OLC), Kyle, South Dakota

      The idea of teaching science with an avowedly social purpose started during the Vietnam War. But there were earlier influences at work that helped to prepare the ground for these courses. Both Freda Friedman Salzman and I grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, throughout which both her parents and mine held their faith in The American Dream. Shortly after the end of World War II I returned to Brooklyn College, where we met, married, and continued our undergraduate studies. On graduating, we both went to do graduate work in physics at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, which we did from Fall '49 until Summer '53.

      Those four almost-unblemished years spent studying physics left us with a firm belief that the society of scientists -- in particular, of physicists -- was admirable in every respect. We became snobs, committed to remaining in this elite company. A few disturbing things happened during that period which showed that committed scientists might not be so aloof from politics.

      It was the time that Joseph McCarthy, junior senator from Wisconsin, was capitalizing on the anti-communist fears then widely promoted. Freda's and my most warmly regarded professor at Brooklyn College, who "took us under her wing," was Melba Phillips. She was called before the McCarran Committee of the New York legislature, a state version of the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee and queried about her politics. She let the Committee counsel know that her lineage went back to the Mayflower, and she wasn't about to take part in the witch hunt. Her unwillingness to cooperate led to her dismissal from Brooklyn College.

      Although we did not at the time know Edward U. Condon personally, we knew he was an outstanding theorist, the senior physicist at the Corning Corporation in upstate New York. McCarthy claimed that Condon was the weakest link in American security. Condon lost his position at Corning.

      And of course there was J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, during the war, had led the team at Los Alamos that developed the atomic bomb. After Edward Teller, a senior physicist at Los Alamos who advocated development of the H-Bomb, which Oppenheimer opposed, testified that he would not be comfortable entrusting the secuity of the U.S. to Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer's clearance was withdrawn and of course he lost his role as senior government advisor and his access to Los Alamos. Subsequently he became Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In each of these instances a scientist's career was, unjustly it seemed, interfered with because of politics. However, they had been, and continued to be well regarded by the scientific community, and that seemed admirable.

      But there was at least one instance when I was uncertain about the propriety of such behavior by the scientific community. At the University of Illinois the Physics Department had a colloquium series that included many visits by prominent physicists from the United States and other countries. On one occasion Werner Heisenberg was the distinguished guest.

      Here was undoubtedly one of the great creative physicists of the century, who played a central role in the invention of quantum mechanics. What troubled me was the fact that he had headed the effort of the Third Reich to develop the atomic bomb. There was no doubt in my mind that if his team had won the race instead of Oppenheimer's the result would have been catastrophic. Yet this did not seem to cloud the welcome accorded him.

      There seemed to be legitimate room to question what scientists ought and ought not do. More than a few scientists were deeply concerned about the impact of atomic bombs on humanity. Some, such as Leo Szilard at the University of Chicago, declined to take part in the work at Los Alamos. Eugene Rabinowich, distinguished biologist at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, served as editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication devoted to trying to avoid nuclear catastrophe.

      A profoundly troubling event for me took place at another Physics Department Colloquium. The speaker was a mathematician at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. In fact he was my thesis supervisor, Abraham H. Taub. In introducing Taub, the colloquium chairman cited as one of his accomplishments his calculation of the optimum height above Hiroshima at which the bomb should be detonated to achieve the greatest possible destruction. If too low, an unnecessarily large amount of the energy in the shock wave would be concentrated in a relatively small circle beneath the blast instead of causing more destruction outside the circle. And if too high, the shock wave energy would become too spatially dissipated by the time it reached ground level to achieve as much damage as possible.

      Whatever doubts I had didn't stop me from continuing in physics. Freda and I came to the University of Massachusetts in 1965, when the Boston campus began. At that time I, and I believe Freda also, still believed in The American Dream. But the Vietnam War was in ascendancy and it was in the next few years that we gradually began to become politicized. Another factor driving us away from our earlier modest liberalism was our struggle with the hierarchy within the University. (An account is in the course topical handout, Discrimination at U. Mass: Woman Scientist Fights Back.)

      The organization, Science for the People, originally called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA), was becoming active in the Boston area by the early 70's, and we were drawn to the critiques developed by the various study groups and published in the magazine Science for the People. The major theme of criticism was that mainstream science and technology was often used against the interests of ordinary people, frequently with the active collaboration or even initiative of prominent scientists.

      In December 1972 the Berkeley chapter of SESPA published a report, "Science Against the People: The Story of Jason." Jason was a division of the Institute for Defense Analysis, a high-level War Department (called the Department of Defense) think tank. It was this group of top-flight scientists, primarily university-based physicists, whose summer 1966 study led to Robert McNamara's (he was Secretary of War at that time) implementation of the electronic battlefield in Vietnam.

      A much lengthier report, titled "The War Physicists", was published in July 1976. This is a collection of documents about European protests against the physicists working for Jason. It was edited by theoretical physicist Bruno Vitale of the Istituto di Fisica Teorica in Naples.

      I also knew that half the physics PhD's were employed in war work full time, not just in summer studies or as part-time consultants. Science, quite evidently, was not an innocent quest for knowledge, that humankind might better understand the universe. It was, in my view, being misused in the interests of very powerful groups for the oppression of millions of the world's people, and many very bright scientists were complicit in this misuse.

      In the Spring of 1972 Freda's and my struggle to remain at the University of Massachusetts at Boston finally succeeded in gaining her reappointment. It was a great relief to be able to turn my energy from fighting against the dismal university administrative hierarchy in order to do something positive. So, in September 1972 I began to offer Science for Humane Survival, originally called just Science for Survival. Why the name change? A year later, on September 11, 1973, the long-time efforts of the CIA, and of ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) to destroy the democratically elected regime of Salvador Allende in Chile succeeded. The military coup that day marked the beginning of a brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled as Presidente for sixteen and a half years, until March 1990, and who even now (September 1996) remains head of the armed forces. [Although he retired from his top military post, he is now, in May 1998, a so-called Senator-for-life in the Chilean government.]

      Shortly thereafter I realized it might be possible for an ecologically stable society to exist in which many, even most people were forced to live in horrible conditions by a small dominant group with overwhelming power and control of practically all the wealth. Conceivably the ruling minority could use the "best" scientific methods of surveillance, control, torture, and terror, while keeping the overall average consumption of natural resources and levels of pollution low enough to insure non-depletion of soil, forest resources, uncontaminated water and air, and so forth.

      Science could, I was by then well aware, be misused. By adding the word humane to the titles, I could make the intent of the courses unambiguous. The one-year offering, consisting of the two courses Science for Humane Survival I and II, has been given, though not continuously, at the University of Massachusetts at Boston since 1972, and at Oglala Lakota College since 1994.

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Last update of this page: January 25, 2004