A scientific obsession

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A scientific obsession

Hasok Chang
The author is a chair professor of history and philosophy of science department at the University of Cambridge.

The second World War ended with the debut of nuclear bombs. The United States hastened atomic bomb development after German scientists discovered nuclear fission. Since Germany surrendered earlier than expected, the U.S. tested the bombs on Japan. Since then, many countries developed nuclear bombs. But they have never used them because of the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD), a kind of balance of terror. The fear of a doom for mankind has become a fixture of our time.

Still, the global powers continued with an arms race to develop hydrogen bombs. Since the United States successfully tested the thermonuclear weapon — or H-bomb — in 1952, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China followed with their own. Hydrogen bombs could be 1,000 times more devastating than the bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The H-bombs, however, have no strategic value since atomic weapons already could achieve the balance of terror. No country would think that atomic bombs will pose a lesser threat than H-bombs in modern warfare.

The hydrogen bomb development program faced strong opposition in the United States from the start for strategic, pragmatic and moral reasons due to the inherent danger. The development also faced unrivaled technological challenges. The fusion of atoms can emit extraordinary power, but to cause a fusion reaction, unimaginable amounts of temperature and pressure are needed.

The thought of launching such a monstrous program at such a huge expense should have been considered a waste of national resource. The project nevertheless gained momentum after the ingenious idea of using the atomic bomb technology to develop a hydrogen bomb — in other words, employing an atomic explosion to release the extraordinary heat and pressure needed to trigger nuclear fusion for hydrogen. Scientists were thrilled with the concept that could remove technological hurdles in developing the H bomb. Even those who had protested on moral grounds could hardly continue opposing the program after the handy elimination of technological obstacles.
The history of the H-bomb underscores humanity’s innate obsession with inventions as long as they are technologically viable. The preoccupation did not simply stop with the arms race. Innovations that became commonplace have all been developed through such reckless pursuits regardless of their potentially adverse effects.

Mobile phones turned out to be an exquisite invention. They helped save many lives and end the hassle of missing engagements. Still, internet access through smartphones could be a major mistake for humanity. The internet also has been hugely advantageous to people’s life, but it has come to command people around the clock. It could be appropriate for internet access to be limited to necessity through PCs. Internet, game, and human connection at the fingertip can ruin patience, expectations, and imagination as well as the quality of life by getting used to fast results.

The race for awe-inspiring innovations without any regard for side effects went on, feeding on consumer demand for more novel inventions. People were happy before the arrival of smartphones. But now, they cannot imagine life without them. I managed to live without a smartphone. But I had to get one to download the app for self-quarantine when I visited Korea last year during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, I cannot do without a smartphone. Still, I cannot say my life has become more satisfying.

Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, space development also are being blindly pursued for the potential of unlimited applications. Recently, American surgeons successfully implanted a heart from a genetically modified pig in a mid-aged man. Is adding a few more years to a lifetime worth it just because the technology has become possible? Men have become obsessed with challenging and breaking the impossible. When asked about the use of climbing Mount Everest, British mountaineer and explorer George Mallory famously said, “Because it’s there.” Daredevil attempts to test and push human limitations can be an admiral side of man. But we must restrain ourselves from a reckless pursuit of new technologies that could bring about huge ramifications in the longer run. Such restraints could be truly liberalizing for humans.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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