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The Moral Choice

One of the winners of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Dr. Paul Greengard, was a physics and mathematics major as an undergraduate. When asked by a radio interviewer why he switched into the biological sciences, he said that as he was entering graduate school, in the late 1940's, the only funding for physics came from the Atomic Energy Commission, which was responsible for the atomic bombs that had recently been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dr.Greengard chose not to associate himself with the AEC, and went into biology instead, a career move that obviously worked out pretty well in his case.

No one will question Dr. Greengard's right to make this choice, or to couch his reasoning in moral terms. But his action evokes the stereotype of physics as the progenitor of weapons of mass destruction, and the contrasting image of biology as the science of healing and preservation of life. As physicists, we may have some disagreement with at least the first part of this dichotomy. Indeed, if we look back on the half-century that followed the resolution of Dr. Greengard's moral dilemma, we find remarkable progress in both physics and biology, and in both cases the consequences have been largely beneficial for humankind. The mass availability of personal computers, the internet, and the World Wide Web (based partly on advances that were recognized in the 2000 Nobel Prizes in Physics) have transformed our culture and energized our economy. These changes are no less profound than those wrought by discoveries in biology, especially genetics, that have grabbed so many of the recent headlines.

It has been said, by President Clinton among others, that just as the twentieth century has belonged to the physical sciences, the twenty-first will belong to biology. This is a problematic statement on many levels, but there is one sense, ironically, in which it may turn out to be true. In the twentieth century, as Dr. Greengard's decision attests, physics became fused in the popular mind with its potential for obliterating the human race. In the twenty-first, the capacity to manipulate the human genome that, on the one hand, is expected to yield such rich rewards in the battle against disease and death, may also, on the other, end up threatening the very existence of our species. The issues that have already surfaced, having to do with such things as surrogate motherhood, human cloning, and genetic engineering in the food supply, are surely just the first flickerings of an ethical firestorm that will sweep over our society in the years ahead.

One can imagine, in the not too distant future, that a young counterpart of Dr. Greengard's, contemplating the relative moral standing of the various sciences, will make a choice rather different from his as the scales weighing biology's potential for good or evil begin to tip ominously in the wrong direction.

-Alan Chodos

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette