Benefits of Humane Use of Science : Physicist Sees 'a Fighting Chance' With Technology : 'There are no magic bullets and there is no impenetrable shield.' : --Marvin L. Goldberger

July 16, 1987|LEE DEMBART | Times Staff Writer

Marvin L. Goldberger sits atop the scientific community as the outgoing president of Caltech and soon-to-be director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., which has been home to such luminaries as Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

At 64, a physicist by training (he was chairman of Princeton University's physics department before becoming president of Caltech), Goldberger remains deeply and eloquently committed to the benefits of science, but he is equally troubled by its dangers.

The world, he says, no longer has the option of abandoning science, even if it could, because there are more people on the planet than can be supported without all of the advantages that science and technology can provide.

"We've got too many people and too few resources. Without science, we're not going to make it," Goldberger said the other day in a long, reflective interview in his office at Caltech. "If all the scientists in the world went out and chased butterflies, we would never survive. It's only the humane use of science and technology that gives us a fighting chance."

While he is an enthusiastic supporter of Science as Good, Goldberger is a chagrined opponent of Science as Evil. For more than 30 years he has campaigned for arms control in every forum he could find. "The almost mind-blowing irrationality of the world's spending a trillion dollars a year on arms leaves you speechless," he said. "Little countries buying airplanes and submarines! It leaves you speechless."

The Real Dilemma

The next night, Goldberger took his message to several hundred people at a meeting of Beyond War at a church in Pasadena. "We're not dealing here with a physics problem which we can abandon if it gets too tough," he said. "This is the problem. There's not a technical solution to this dilemma. The laws of physics are unresponsive to exhortation. We can't uninvent these weapons."

But there has been a subtle change in Goldberger's thinking about the social problems of science in general and about the problem of nuclear weapons in particular. A tone of despair has crept into his thinking, a tone that was not there a few years ago.

"I'd like to go out and take to the streets," he told the Beyond War audience. "But if I got out in the street I don't know what I'd do."

In the interview, Goldberger reflected on his long efforts on behalf of arms control and added with a sigh, "Needless to say, I would like to have accomplished more."

"The problem of international security is not a scientific problem," he said. "There are no magic bullets and there is no impenetrable shield. This is a human problem. It requires wisdom. All the arms control is just buying time until wisdom has a chance to prevail."

Though that may sound like a hopeless expectation, Goldberger nonetheless proclaims himself an "optimist."

Failure in Education

But his note of despair extends beyond nuclear weapons. At one point, he spoke about the continuing failure of American education to teach many students anything about science, a point that has been made by every blue-ribbon commission that has looked at the subject in the last several years. What can be done about it?

"I don't know what it would take to recharge the educational system," Goldberger said. "I don't have any good solutions. I really don't. Like most hard problems, if you try to solve the whole problem, you throw up your hands in despair. You just have to attack it a bit at a time and hope you do something."

Nor is the danger of science just the threat of nuclear catastrophe. "We're pouring an immense amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," Goldberger said. "We are going to cause a significant climatic change, the consequences of which we don't understand, and it could be very serious. We seem to be in the process of destroying the ozone layer. We're cutting down the rain forests. It's going to influence our climate and cause soil erosion.

"What we require now of science is that it indeed pay very close attention to the fact that we have it within our grasp to exercise forces that are comparable to the forces of nature, and we are in the process of rather mindlessly doing things that could profoundly affect the planet.

The Tougher Choices

"We have to devote a great deal more attention to the underlying economic and sociological problems that the world faces. It's very easy to concentrate your attention on negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union in Geneva because that's a well-defined problem. But dealing with the maldistribution of resources or the destruction of the oceans--these questions are much harder. They don't involve just physicists and engineers. They involve everybody."

Not that these ideas are new or unique to Marvin Goldberger. But as a scientist he is committed to the idea that reason is the most effective way to solve problems, and, like most scientists, he enjoys the intellectual pleasure that unraveling nature's secrets provides.

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