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Awakening scientists' conscience

Print edition : Aug 01, 2003 T+T-

Interview with Daniel J. Amit, Israeli physicist.

Daniel J. Amit, an eminent Israeli physicist, was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1938. He has been a full Professor of Physics at the Racah Institute of Physics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, since 1978 and Professor of Physics at the University of Rome, la Sapienza, since 1991.

He is a theoretical physicist of high standing, with well-known contributions to condensed matter physics, statistical mechanics and field theory. Of late, he has turned his interests to neurobiology and has made seminal contributions to neural network theory. The textbooks authored by him are considered to be the basic texts in the field.

He has been outspoken about the Palestine issue and has spent two weeks in a military prison in 1982 for refusing to serve in the Israeli Army. He was one of the 10 Israeli academics who signed a petition in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in 2002 as a response to the political and military events in West Asia.

On March 21, 2003, he refused a request to review a paper for the American Physical Society (APS), stating: "I will not at this point correspond with any American institution. Some of us have lived through 1939." Subsequent e-mail exchanges between Professor Amit and the Editor-in-Chief of APS dealt with issues ranging from the Second Gulf War to the merits of scientific research. During the course of the communication, Professor Amit said: "Science cannot stay neutral, especially after it has been so cynically used in the hands of the inspectors to disarm a country and prepare it for decimation by laser-guided cluster bombs. No, science of the American variety has no recourse. I, personally, cannot see myself anymore sharing a common human community with American science."

This e-mail exchange got circulated widely and sparked intense debate within the scientific community throughout the world. In an e-mail interview to Ritu Sharma, Professor Amit spoke of his views regarding the role and future of science. Excerpts:

"Some of us have lived through 1939." Are you comparing today's United States of America with Nazi Germany?

Not exactly. In 1939, the extent of internal repression, racism and propensity to genocide of the German state and society had not become apparent. What transpired was an extreme, highly technological militarism, a total lack of respect for international order and rights of people, an extreme type of national conformism and self-righteousness. All of these allowed the launching of indiscriminate, unprovoked aggressions on clearly unprepared countries like Poland or Czechoslovakia, with essentially no internal opposition.

In some senses the position of the United States today is worse than that of Germany in 1939: First, because at least a perceived danger, in the case of Germany, could have been supported by the fact of geographical proximity, which is totally absent in the case of the U.S. aggressions; second, internal opposition in Germany entailed mortal risks, while in the U.S. the situation is portrayed as a symbol of liberalism and freedom.

Despite mass protests and opposition from the majority of their citizens, the governments of the so-called `free world' supported the war waged by the U.S against Iraq. Even those who initially opposed the U.S attack sided with it once the war started. Where have the mass protests failed to move the governments, what could individual or symbolic protests possibly hope to achieve?

I wish I had a clear answer and an accompanying programme for combating evil on the scale we are witnessing. Tentatively, I would answer that individual, symbolic acts are undertaken for their own sake, in order to maintain personal sanity. In fact, I have been criticised by a very well-known physicist of CERN [European Organisation for Nuclear Research], that my act serves merely to clear up my personal conscience. I found this to be a strange kind of criticism. As if clearing one's conscience were a shameful act.

On second thought, of course, and with the hindsight of the response I had, when one gives a clear personal example one awakes many, very many consciences that feel deeply wounded by the trends outlined by recent international U.S. behaviour, by the sense of impotence of the values one has acquired, and by the feeling of one's dependency on that aggressive society.

It may not be a very effective process, but it is a very democratic one and hits at the very essence of the `opium' of the myth of what the U.S. is and is purported to be.

In what way can the doctrine of non-violent resistance to war be made more effective? Particularly, what role can the scientific community play?

Non-violent resistance to war is the central approach, but it must be accompanied by a clear vision of perspectives, commitments and `sacrifices'. It is not sufficient, in my view, to express allegiance to some doctrine and continue to worship cellular phones, films of technological, dehumanised violence and plastic eroticism and `club mediterrane'. It is not sufficient to call for opposition to the war and expect a constant rise in material consumption.

These wars are part and parcel of the defence of the type of material `privileges' that a part of the global society has monopolised (by violence, always). A serious commitment to non-violent opposition to war must be accompanied by a willingness to re-examine all `holy cows', including scientific and cultural activity, standards of living and social networking.

Why did you circulate your e-mail exchanges with the Editor of APS? Was it intended to start a debate in the scientific community? What kind of response did you get from the scientific community around the world and in the U.S., in particular? Do you think a protest from the American scientific community would have discouraged the U.S. from waging wars and using such deadly weapons?

In the first place it was an emotional act. It evoked an unexpectedly wide response, even from Americans. It has, beyond my calculations, generated much discussion at scientific meetings, within institutes and in electronic mailing lists. I received about 400 letters of response and have not yet managed to obtain good statistics. But, the most articulate ones are from India. The most hostile (few) ones from Eastern Europe (part of the wonderful heritage of the Soviet Union). The most emotional, supportive ones from Native Americans.

In a dream, I would rather build on the awaking consciences and consciousness of non-American scientists (and non-scientists). Even though there were a fair number of supportive responses from American scientists, I believe that as a community, the interests they have at stake are too high to penetrate the effective internal socialisation. On the other hand, non-scientists would do good to take note of the fact that the power that the American community exercises on them is mostly economic. But this economic power is paid mostly, and has been so for a long time, by us non-Americans. They [American community] have invented an ingenious system in which we work and they spend. And dupe us by filling our coffers with green paper as reserve value.

The price we pay for this economic subservience is a total lack of freedom in intellectual choices (as scientists) and a total impotence before America's political choices. If they were asked to pay up, we would be more free and they much more restrained.

What do you mean by "science of the American variety" when you say that you cannot see yourself sharing a common human community with American science anymore and that science of the American variety has no recourse? Are your opinions about American science and culture based on first-hand experiences?

It should be quite evident that in the last 20-30 years there has been a process in American science (infecting most scientific activity everywhere) that has subverted basic historical values of the scientific enterprise. The social relevance of science, which was a progressive concept in the 1960s and 1970s, has been co-opted to mean the domination of scientific priorities by mega-companies, which use science either to promote insane spurious consumption, or to serve as a cover for pure financial speculation. This has led to the addiction of science to media exposure, not as a means of sharing science and its wonderful experience in a democratic process, but rather as a way of directly affecting funding agencies and manipulating public opinion. The process has also introduced such perversities as the `Impact Factor' as a way of evaluating scientific journals, scientists and scientific projects. There is an excellent article analysing this aspect, by noted mathematician Figa'-Talamanca.

This is not to imply that there are no brilliant, honest scientists in the U.S. But the operation is massive and must be judged by its major trends.

The Second World War saw the treatment of scientists' brains as commodities of national interest. This resulted in the migration of many scientists to the U.S. who wanted to evade working for the narrow nationalistic agenda of their respective governments. Do you see the migration of scientists from the U.S to other countries happening in the near future when the U.S. is engaging its scientists in developing the most deadly weapons of mass destruction?

There is a beginning of such a process, and not only because of the opposition to research in the service of weapons, but perhaps even more because of the sense of total alienation that is increasingly imposed in the American context. There are major regions of the world that can command the means to benefit from this situation, such as Europe, India, China. But they must avoid copying what is the worst about American science, and that is the role and responsibility of local scientists. That is why I find the response from India so heartening.

Why does the scientific community around the world not refuse to become the tool of the defence organisations who misuse their research for the destruction of life? Are they only concerned with their research and not its consequences, or is it that the scientists do not have a choice but to work for the various defence projects in order to be able to survive in the profession? Do you think that a social boycott of scientists who are involved in defence-related projects by the scientific community can act as an effective deterrent?

It is very difficult to distinguish who is and who is not working in weapons research. The process is very indirect and devious. There is an entire profession engaged in manipulating science to do what it is expected to do.

Perhaps more than a boycott (and I am a strong supporter of boycotts, including of my own country, Israel), what could be useful is a front of more vulnerable scientists, who declare publicly their support for colleagues who decide to rebel and criticise. Perhaps even a court of appeal, to judge whether the treatment of `rebel' scientists can be traced to political repression. I am in fact in the process of discussing such a perspective with Indian colleagues.

Over the centuries, science has played a major role in improving living standards. Has the focus of scientific research not shifted from exploring the truth and furthering the interests of mankind to devising tools for its destruction? Are the scientists not losing their way and their identity?

Yes, for centuries science has been a wonderful experience and expression of the most precious in human nature. It has also contributed significantly to improving people's conditions of life.

But it has changed in the last 50-60 years in a very profound way. It has become a tool for the U.S. (and other technologically advanced nations) to dominate a shrinking future. It has also become a domain for increasing control.

The loss of way has been so profound that it has been even picked up publicly in the 1995 address of Professor Michael Atiyah, upon leaving his position of President of the Royal Society.

You have described the American invasion of Iraq as the culmination of 10-15 years of mounting barbarism of the American culture, crowned by the achievements of science and technology. Is there a ray of hope that can save the world from the growing U.S. dominance, given that America remains the centre of science and technology?

I am not an incurable optimist. I am not at all convinced that given the global situation there is enough time for corrective action. What is needed urgently is a collective mass awakening of consciousness among scientists, and everyone else, to realise where we are and where we are going. That is not easy to generate.

A major source of consolation, I find, is in reading the wonderful insights of Arundhati Roy. But I am less optimistic than she is.