The Ethics of Atoms

Monday’s broadcast of the Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled one of the most important debates in the history of physics. Historians use the Manhattan Project to debate the ethics of science and technology in society. Much of the arguments boil down to the question of what kind of role science plays in society and whether its used as a force for good or for ill. Some saw the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb as proof that science was inherently a destructive force in the world, while others saw the promise for cleaner and cheaper energy. The debate continues to this day, and draws in nearly every field of science.

Today scientists working on the latest atomic advancements, nanotechnology, are facing just as serious of a debate. There is a tremendous amount of potential in these cell sized machines, but what kind of potential depends greatly on one’s attitude towards science. It’s an important debate to have. Just as atomic energy proved to be the most powerful technology of the latter half of the twentieth century, nanotechnology is promising to be the most powerful development of the early twenty-first century.

But to what ends? On the one hand nanotech will lead to faster computers, stronger materials, better solar panels and even the ability to repair damaged nerves and tissues. However the long term affects of nanotechnology on human health and the environment is still unknown. Or more disconcerting; at what point does the synthetic reproduction of life’s processes start to become the creation of synthetic life?

Congress has already called for an investigation into the potential health and environmental impacts of nanotech. At the same time, Canada’s parliament is deliberating whether companies should be required to register their nanotech research with the government. This is all part of the continuing introspection as to the role of science in society.

The comparison here to the Manhattan Project is appropriate because all advances in science come both with potential benefits and detriments. Some see technology as a tool, beholden completely to the hands of the people wielding it. Some prefer to focus on the potential harms of science, while I prefer to take a more positive view. The advancement of science, often shockingly fast paced, represents the search for the betterment of humankind. There is no question that the world is better off today than a century ago because of the advancement of technology. Certainly there are some problems that stem from these advancements, but at the same time, science is the best tool to address and correct these.

What about you? What do you think about the promise and pitfalls of technology in the twenty-first century?

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