Scientist and Citizen
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 29 Jan 1948, p. 209-221


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Watson-Watt, Sir Robert, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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Perceptions of scientists by citizens, and citizens by scientists. The role and importance of the politician. The distrust between citizen and scientist, and the need to remove it. Measures to cure this distrust. The need to persuade the scientist to explain himself to his fellow citizens. Remarks on the relationship of the scientist to the rest of the world. Three effective incentives to human action. An examination of how far the scientist is moved by these incentives (creed, greed, and dread). The scientist's greed for knowing things, which is also his creed. The importance to the scientist of measuring and classifying. Passions and beliefs of the scientist. The scientist also to some degree as artist or poet. A look at the suspicion which the ordinary citizen feels about the scientist, based on two extremes. The "ivory tower" state of mind of some scientists and the worry this causes the ordinary citizen. Another fear of the ordinary citizen of scientists who have left the ivory tower and demand to be brought into the forum and into the plant. The speaker's belief that the path for the scientist in the community is the middle path, and what that means. The need for the scientist to recognize his own queerness in youth and queer education. What science has done for the world. Some comments on the release of energy from the atomic nucleus as the very highest triumph that the human intellect has yet achieved. The issue of responsibility of the scientist for atomic destruction. Choices about use of scientific discoveries that of the politician and of the ordinary citizen. The duty of the scientist to explain to the ordinary citizen, where the continuing acceleration in the pace of science is likely to lead us in the availability of knowledge. Payment for the application and for the mis-application of scientific products. The long-term prescription of education and re-education. Bringing into the scientist's education a larger proportion of the other humanities, outside the natural sciences. Making the best and not the worst of the almost unlimited potentialities of science.
Date of Original:
29 Jan 1948
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English
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Full Text
SCIENTIST AND CITIZEN
AN ADDRESS BY SIR ROBERT WATSON-WATT, C.B., D.Sc.,LL.D., F.R.S.
Chairman: The President, Tracy E. Lloyd
Thursday, January 29, 1948

REVEREND SIR, HONOURED GUESTS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN:

The presence of our Distinguished Guest of Honour at today's luncheon culminates a series of endeavours on the part of various Speakers Committees of The Empire Club. We have wished for several years to pay honour to SIR ROBERT WATSONWATT but he was always unavailable on his short visits to Canada. But last year many of you will remember he graced our head table when your Guest was Mr. J. Arthur Rank and, at that time he promised your chairman that, if at all possible, he would accept our invitation and address a meeting of The Empire Club on his next visit to Canada. We are happy indeed that this has been possible.

I have found it difficult to prepare a suitable introduction for Our Guest of Honour as there are so many pages about him and so many honours conferred that I would be unable to mention most of these honours without encroaching too much on Our Speaker's time.

However, just to touch the highlights of his remarkable career--let me say--Our Guest of Honour was born in Brechin, Angus, and went from the high school to University College, Dundee, which is a College of the University of St. Andrews and he holds the degree of B.Sc. St. Andrews (with special distinction in electrical engineering) and B.Sc. London with Honorary Degrees of LL.D., St. Andrews and D.Sc., Toronto, and since that time has held positions of responsibility for the application to aeronautics of physics, meteorology and radio engineering.

In 1933-1936 he was Superintendent of the Radio Department of the National Physical Laboratory and the Bawdsey Research Station of the Air Ministry and Director of Communications Development, Air Ministry, 19381940 when he, with a research team of clever young men working under his supervision for four years in the utmost secrecy, perfected Radio Locationknown to us as Radar. It is interesting to note that Mr. Leonard W. Brockington referred recently to Sir Robert Watson-Watt as the one individual who had done more than anyone else to win the recent war for the Allies.

Two days after Pearl Harbour on December 9. 1941, Sir Robert flew to The United States in consultation with the Army and Air Force Chiefs of the U.S.A. on problems connected with Radio Location. That was his first visit to America but since then he has crossed the ocean eighteen times by air and seven times by sea.

Sir Robert is the author of many publications-chiefly on Atmospherics and published among many other articles "Applications of the Cathode Ray Oscillograph in Radio Research" showing the use of the Cathode Ray Tube, now generally used in Television Receivers and Radio Location.

Recognition of Sir Robert's services was made by The Royal Society which conferred a Fellowship in 1941 citing him as "Distinguished for his Contribution to Radio Engineering, particularly in relation to Aerial and Marine Navigation". In The King's New Years Honours of that year, he received the C.B. and the following year was Knighted. Sir Robert received from The President of The United States the Medal for Merit-the highest decoration which the U.S.A. can confer on a civilian.

I know this is entirely inadequate but time will not permit me to read the many other Honours which he has received.

We sincerely welcome to The Empire Club today

SIR ROBERT WATSON-WATT, C.B., D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S., who will mow address us on the subject:

"SCIENTIST AND CITIZEN"

Mr. President, there never was a time at which the citizen was more scared of the scientist and his works; there never was a time at which the scientist was more scared by the prospect of what his fellow citizens, through their chosen representatives and leaders--the politicians--might do with the product of his work. When I refer to the "politicians" I feel that I have to record surprise on at least one thing which I read in the "Globe and Mail" this morning. I don't refer to the front page news of What Visitors from England think of Toronto.

Speaking as a Toronto man myself, I might, in the words of Mark Twain say, "it is greatly exaggerated." But the thing that alarmed me in the Globe & Mail was the report that someone had said that 95% of your Senators were non-political. Now that seems to be a singularly important revelation of a dangerous state of mind. There is a tendency to say nasty things, and cynical things, about politicians, but it seems to me absolutely vital that we should recognize that our civilization depends on our politicians-that every country has the politicians it deserves, and that in choosing our politicians and investing them with power over our destiny to a degree which it is difficult to exaggerate, we have a responsibility which is in fact one of the responsibilities that I would like to discuss in the course of these remarks. And I trust that your Upper House will in fact be 100 per cent political in the best sense, because otherwise our future outlook is not a very happy one.

Well this mutual distrust between the scientist, who, after all, is an ordinary citizen plus a little something which the others haven't got--whether for better or worse is not for me to say-but anyway the scientist is a queer sort of ordinary citizen; and the distrust between that brand of citizen and his fellow citizens is something that has got to be removed: is something that has got to be cured. I fear it can only be cured effectively by long-term measures, and amongst these measures, and indeed before any practical measures can be taken, one of the things we have got to do is to persuade the scientist to explain himself to his fellow citizens. And, having once been a scientist, now fallen from grace, I have thought that in this Club, whose tradition is the tradition of fostering understanding between groups of people who have a great community of interest but who require to explain themselves one to the other at intervals in order to maintain sympathy and cooperation, you would tolerate a few remarks from myself on the relationship of the scientist to the rest of the world.

I have said that the scientist is a queer kind of citizen. I can't of course say that the average citizen is also queer, because the average citizen is the standard against which we refer the departures from average which constitute queerness.

In a cynical moment I have declared that the three most effective incentives to human action may be (too rudely, too briefly) classified as creed, greed and dread. These are, I hope, good varieties of each of these incentives, as well as the bad features of the two latter, but in examining the scientist it is perhaps worth while to examine how far he is moved by these three incentives.

I think that, rather peculiarly and rather exceptionally, he is very little moved by dread. The fear motive is not one which is prominent in the composition of the typical scientist. Perhaps it would be a good thing if, once in a while, he got a little bit scared about what he is doing, about others, about himself, but he is in fact essentially a person who has been taught he must be fearless in his dealing with facts.

It would be foolish to pretend he is unmoved by the thing that I rudely call "greed". He has economic motives which can be important to him, although in some ways he is rather amongst the spoilt children of modern civilization, in that he enjoys a certain measure of endowed privilege in being put into--I hope, Professor, you will not disagree with me when I say-"in being put into rather comfortable surroundings" with some isolation from the pressures of the modern world and in being encouraged to do just the things he wants to do, to make his own toys, and to play with them in the fashion that seems to him best.

But though that measure of economic detachment is only a partial measure, his real greed is an entirely different kind of greed. It is a greed for knowing things, it is a greed for facts and relation amongst facts as his primary requirement for satisfaction, and this rather good kind of greed is not merely his greed but his creed. He believes passionately in facts, in measured facts. He believes there are no bad facts, that all facts are good facts, though they may be facts about bad things, and his intellectual satisfaction can come only from the acquisition of accurately known facts, from their organization into a body of knowledge, in which the inter-relationship of the measured facts is the dominant consideration. He develops a mental discipline and a habit which is dependent on these primary necessities, to measure everything he has selected as of interest to himself, to base a classification of facts on the measurements which he and his colleagues have made and to do comparisons amongst the measured things--this after he has done some sort of arrangement of the measured facts into groups.

Well that is quite a distinguishing group of queernesses. It does not come quite naturally to the non-scientific mind to put quantitative measurement in the foreground of his requirements in life. Certainly the devotion of a career to this apparently rather desiccated pursuit of measurable knowledge is something which makes the scientist a little bit of a puzzle to the people with whom otherwise he shares the adventures and difficulties of everyday life.

Amongst other things, this passion for quantitative knowledge means that the scientist does not believe in fairies. He does not need to, because he finds fairylike powers in the hypotheses, in the theories, and in the demonstrations of the validity of these theories, which are esthetically as satisfying to him as the romanticism of other (and no less meritorious) groups of citizens. If he does not believe in the ordinary kind of fairies, that does not mean that he is a completely desiccated person. The pursuit of science is in itself an artistic and esthetic pursuit. The satisfaction that is derived by the individual scientist from his work is not merely a coldly national satisfaction. It is not by chance that the adjective "elegant" is a prominent one in the vocabulary of the mathematician, the physicist and the biologist: there is a great deal of emotional satisfaction in the elegant demonstration, in the elegant ordering of facts into theories, and in the still more satisfactory, still more emotionally exciting discovery that the theory is not quite right and has to be worked over again, very much as any other work of art--a painting, a sculpture has to be worked over in the interests of esthetic perfection. So there is no scientist who is not to some extent worthy of being described as artist or poet.

The trouble between the scientist and the ordinary world is that the artist. (including the scientist), having very properly been allowed by an enlightened community this degree of freedom of choice to satisfy his own particular mental make-up, is liable to take it as a discharge of his whole responsibilities as a citizen, to follow his academic, his abstract, his entirely intellectual and esthetic pursuits. A great deal of the suspicion which the ordinary citizen feels about the scientist is based on the two extremes, that one group of scientists believe themselves, honestly and conscientiously believe themselves, to be doing the best for the world at large, by remaining in what some of us rudely call their "ivory towers", as nearly as possible isolated from the noises of the world around, ignorant of, independent of, or superiorly detached from the political troubles that cause storms and floods and avalanches to take place around the foundations of the ivory tower, disturbances which indeed threaten very seriously to undermine the very ivory tower of academic security which has been rightly accorded to the scientist and the artist.

That is one of the things that worries the ordinary citizen, the "ivory tower" state of mind of some very powerfully originative and contributive scientists. Some people who have contributed some of the highest achievements of the human intellect, believe genuinely in their right to stay isolated from the general life current of their day. And no one can say they are not right.

On the other hand, there are scientific workers who share a feeling that is very general now in the scientific profession, a feeling that the scientist has not been justified in closing his mind, partially or almost completely, to his "non-scientific" duties as an "ordinary" citizen, a feeling which, while denying the right of their colleagues each to choose for himself the degree in which he hopes for the ivory tower, yet demands for each scientist the converse right to decide for himself whether he individually can satisfy his own conscience by taking the long view-and the long view in the world of science may be a two-century view-and making his fundamental contribution to science with no thought at all whether that will be applied to human life otherwise than in knowing it will be valuably applied to making humanity proud of itself. But there are those who are prepared to sacrifice their place amongst the great figures of the long view, and to exchange it for the right to come down into the market place and take some part in the applications of science to the amelioration of the immediate state of life of their fellow citizens and of themselves as citizens at large.

The other fear of the ordinary citizen, looking at the extremer examples of those who, waiving their right to the ivory tower, go further and demand to be brought into the forum and into the plant, has been based on the lack of a sufficiently general education in life from the make-up of some of these well-intentioned colleagues of my own who have rushed into the market place and the plant, believing, they can at once teach their normal occupants how to run their lives.

It has been borne in on me during the last three weeks as I have moved around this great continent, that I am more and more talking the language of the classical Liberal, as I do now, when I say that the path for the scientist in the community is the middle path, that on the one hand the scientist must examine his social conscience very carefully, very rigidly, before he decides that he is of that supreme metal which justifies him in an almost complete withdrawal from the ordinary cares and duties of daily citizenship.

On the other hand, the highly sensitive, highly conscientious, socially-minded scientist has to recognize that his own queerness in youth has led him to be given a queer education. This is an education which does not in fact omit the humanities entirely, for there are few humanities that could surpass in discipline, in beauty, in emotional and esthetic satisfaction, those humanities which are called mathematics, and the natural sciences. But because of the short time there is in which to learn, there has been (particularly in the last fifty years) a tendency to teach the scientist only those particular humanities which are appropriate to himself, and that in a somewhat unhumanitarian fashion. So the queerness of the scientist has been accentuated by a well-intentioned compression of his education, designed to allow him to express himself at the earliest possible moment in independent and original action in science, but not well-fitted to enable himself to express himself, clearly and convincingly in a broadly "nonscientific" world.

What science has done for the world as it is at the moment I did not stop to catalogue. It has done a very little harm. It has done an infinitely greater amount of good. The harm has been done by an unbalance to which I shall refer in the last sentences of this too brief summary of my subject, which I commend to you as being a desperately important subject for the future of our civilization. It would be tedious to enumerate the things, from anesthetics to nylons, from steam to nuclear energy, what you will, including the ordinary equipment, the ordinary furnishings of this place where we are meeting, which we owe to applied science. All these things are direct and obvious products of the more or less intelligent application of the products of that pure science which has made such great progress in the last century or century and a half.

I have already referred in general terms to high peaks in the achievements of the human mind. Perhaps I might be more particular in saying that I believe that the release of energy from the atomic nucleus is in fact the very highest triumph that the human intellect has vet achieved. It is based on a most impressive combination of that scientific thought, detachment and objectivity, and that poetic, artistic imagination, which guide the particular pursuits of the fundamental physicist. If nuclear energy to date has found its application in destruction, that is something for which the scientist can not ask to be wholly excused from an adverse judgment; but he has a right to say that he has made available to us, to the citizens, to the politicians, a knowledge of the powers of nature which can be applied maleficently, beneficently, through temporarily destructive methods, or beneficently through wholly, constructive methods, at choice. And the choice is not that of the scientist, it is the choice of the politician and of the ordinary citizen.

The duty of the scientist is, however, to come thus far out of his academic detachment as to explain, in the language of the ordinary world, what he is trying to do, why he can't help doing it that way, and to explain where the continuing acceleration in the pace of science is likely to lead us in the availability of knowledge. It is not his job to decide what the applications of that knowledge may or must be. What he has got to do is to say, "These are the kind of things we can provide for you: it is for you to decide how you will apply them. We will tell you whether they will be easy to apply in one way, how difficult it may be in some cases to do the job economically." He may well say that there is in fact virtually nothing that is impossible, but a great deal that is so expensive as to be practically impossible.

What we can do, then,--and the scientist has no reason to be modest about this--what science is prepared to promise you is that the scientist and the man who applies scientific results will give you practically anything you want so badly that you are prepared to pay for it. But when I say."pay for it", I don't mean pay in dollars or two-valued francs or in any other currency of the economic world. The kind of payment that is exacted for the application and for the mis-application of scientific products is a much more difficult, much less easily measured and accounted kind of payment than the strictly financial payment. Beneficent applications are frequently bought at the price of a wholesale re-orientation of human lives; the price in human lives of maleficent application is only too familiar to us.

The scientists have discovered a very great deal about the make-up of ordinary materials, about those molecules which are the individual bases of all the ready-made materials found on the shelves of Nature's storehouse. They are now in the state where they think it no longer necessary to draw ready-mades; they have gone on to the custom building of molecules. They are prepared to give you molecules tailor-made to the particular requirements which you as engineers, manufacturers, may choose to demand. The demand is almost more difficult to formulate than the answer. We get nothing for nothing in this world, and if you ask the chemist to do you a particular molecule for a particular set of conditions it is likely it will not satisfy a set of conditions that you have forgotten about in your specification; but if you are wise in your specification, he can give you a material, designed ad hoc, that will meet your special requirements better than the "ready-made" material of the past.

The wisdom of your demands, the wisdom of the application of those things that he does hand to you are dependent on a closer degree of understanding than we have yet achieved between the citizen and his chosen leader the politician, on the one hand, and the scientist and the technician on the other. There is no short-term prescription for during the unbalance and the mistakes and the misunderstandings to' which I have referred. The scientist, as I have said, is somebody who insists on the measuring, on the quantitative specifications, he "lisps in in numbers for the numbers come", not merely because he has been taught that numbers are important, but because of some kink in his brain which tells him that to him numerical specification is a vital thing for intellectual and emotional satisfaction.

Well the long-term prescription, which is the only one, is a very platitudinary prescription. It is the prescription for during all our ills, if only we leave ourselves enough time; the prescription is of course Education and Reeducation. It is a slow but inevitable process. We have to modify the education alike of the ordinary citizen and of the scientist. The ordinary citizen has got to learn--and he will find a great deal of fun, a great deal of satisfaction in learning-more about the incentives of the scientist and the methods of thought of the scientist, and as he learns them he will make allowances for the queerness of the scientist, allowances which will go far towards insuring that scientific products are effective as a great addition to the riches of life.

But, on the other side, the scientist--perhaps more urgently, certainly with more practical urgency, because there are fewer of him and because the scientist has certain good qualities that snake him an easier subject for re-education-more urgent is the bringing into the scientist's education of a larger proportion of the other humanities, those outside the natural sciences. Not (as I was horrified to hear a British Cabinet Minister say) "that the classics must remain the basis of our education, because they teach us how men have always acted and how they will always act." God helping us, I trust that is not what we are going to learn, either from our classics or Mir history books. If man is always to act as he has always clone, if we are to despair of the rapid perfectibility of the human mind and the human soul, we may indeed consider that there is something to be said for the early application of these more terrifying products of the scientific mind than the atomic bomb, implements of destruction about which, for some reason, we have not been encouraged to talk, implements of destruction in which, instead of talking in tons as we do in relation to atomic bombs, we need only talk in hundredweights, or fractions of a hundredweight, in assessing the quantities which could completely wipe the human race from the earth.

If we are going to make the best and not the worst of the almost unlimited potentialities of science, then we must give the scientist a greater opportunity than he has had of benefitting from the full range of the humanities. We must give the trainee for politics, the student of history, the opportunity of seeing that the history of science is a more constructive history than most of the other histories he has studied. We must convince them both that the beneficent possibilities of a really enlightened co-operation between the politician and the scientific worker would, within this same period of five, ten or twenty years, of which we talk nervously in the military sphere, within that period the whole plane of the status of life could be lifted by an amount greater than has been achieved within the last century.

It is for each and all of us citizens to choose--and I honestly believe we can, by gatherings such as this, by those mergers of thought which can only be achieved by coming and looking at each other face to face, not by communicating remotely across three thousand miles of sea but by actually coming and meeting to talk together, achieve the hope for a far happier world than we are envisaging at this moment.

(Continued applause)

PROFESSOR JOHN SATURDAY tendered the thanks of the audience to the speaker, as follows:

Mr. President, Sir Robert, Members of the Empire Club

As a mere student of physics and a teacher at our own university, I am not worthy to clean Sir Robert's shoes. He is a scientist par excellence. But today we have listened to a most interesting address on the relations which must exist between the physicists and scientists generally and the ordinary citizen in order that this world may proceed along a reasonable path, and Sir Robert has given us a lot to think about. In the early days of the war England was saved by the work of Sir Robert. We owe him a great deal of gratitude for that.

Therefore, on your behalf, I wish to express to Sir Robert a very hearty vote of thanks for the most interesting address he has given us today.

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Scientist and Citizen


Perceptions of scientists by citizens, and citizens by scientists. The role and importance of the politician. The distrust between citizen and scientist, and the need to remove it. Measures to cure this distrust. The need to persuade the scientist to explain himself to his fellow citizens. Remarks on the relationship of the scientist to the rest of the world. Three effective incentives to human action. An examination of how far the scientist is moved by these incentives (creed, greed, and dread). The scientist's greed for knowing things, which is also his creed. The importance to the scientist of measuring and classifying. Passions and beliefs of the scientist. The scientist also to some degree as artist or poet. A look at the suspicion which the ordinary citizen feels about the scientist, based on two extremes. The "ivory tower" state of mind of some scientists and the worry this causes the ordinary citizen. Another fear of the ordinary citizen of scientists who have left the ivory tower and demand to be brought into the forum and into the plant. The speaker's belief that the path for the scientist in the community is the middle path, and what that means. The need for the scientist to recognize his own queerness in youth and queer education. What science has done for the world. Some comments on the release of energy from the atomic nucleus as the very highest triumph that the human intellect has yet achieved. The issue of responsibility of the scientist for atomic destruction. Choices about use of scientific discoveries that of the politician and of the ordinary citizen. The duty of the scientist to explain to the ordinary citizen, where the continuing acceleration in the pace of science is likely to lead us in the availability of knowledge. Payment for the application and for the mis-application of scientific products. The long-term prescription of education and re-education. Bringing into the scientist's education a larger proportion of the other humanities, outside the natural sciences. Making the best and not the worst of the almost unlimited potentialities of science.