Weapons and Hope. (Editor's Journal)

Article excerpt

As Freeman Dyson observes in his book Weapons and Hope, scientists and engineers have a complex relationship with military weapons. Advances in science have over the years made possible ever more powerful weapons, and scientists and engineers have been intimately involved in applying new scientific developments to the design of more advanced weapons. Acutely aware of the harm can be done by new weapons, scientists and engineers have also been among the leaders of efforts to curb development of new weapons, particularly nuclear weapons.

Dyson has applied his impressive knowledge of history and literature as well as his personal insights into humanity to the problem of nuclear proliferation. We need Dyson's wisdom and a good deal more to deal with the array of military technologies that now confront us. In some ways, nuclear weapons were simple. They were big bombs possessed by big countries. Today's weapons can be microscopically small, and they are available to virtually all countries and even to underground terrorist groups.

Dyson wrote about some of the new threats associated with biotechnology and nanotechnology in a recent article in the New York Review of Books in which he recounted a debate between himself and Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems. Joy attracted attention for an article he published in Wired that argued that scientists should forego certain areas of research because they could lead to applications so dangerous that we cannot afford to risk their coming into existence.

Dyson disagreed with the suggestion that areas of knowledge should be avoided. Although he acknowledged the same dangers that alarmed Joy, he argued that knowledge is not the problem. Human beings can choose how to use knowledge, and he recounted the history of biologists assessing the potential dangers inherent in new genetic knowledge and taking responsible action to eschew some applications of the new biology without curbing further scientific progress. …