Victor F. Weisskopf Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Scientist's Odyssey: Conversation with Victor F.
Weisskopf, 1988 Sanford S. Elberg Lecturer; 4/7/88 by Harry Kreisler

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Militarization of Science

What are the consequences in your view of the militarization of science?

Well that's of course a very difficult and tragic problem. The whole world development, the confrontation between the superpowers, have all these effects on us and not only on the United States but on other countries as well; namely, the fear of being overrun and the fear of a nuclear war. The only way which has so far been seen and applied to prevent it is to get more and better weapons, in particular nuclear weapons, and of course that is the arms race. The arms race is an impossible thing because it is not a stable situation, for with every new invention there is a new spiral and it is the wrong idea that we can maintain superiority because the other side, the Soviet Union and now China, are following us, even sometimes being ahead of us. And this then has eaten up a lot of scientists. They need scientists and they pay them well, it's easy to get a highly paid position, and that is not good for the whole spirit of science.

Then it affects the problems that people can afford to look at. Does it take away from this description you gave us earlier of the inquiring mind? It puts it along a certain track.

Sure, it puts it in a certain direction, I do not think that it can kill the fundamental scientific urge of basic science, which is very strong -- there will always be people who will do it -- but it takes money away, it takes manpower away and all this. At present I do believe that almost fifty percent of the students go into military research, or are at least connected somehow with military applications. These people are very good, and if they went into basic science I think it would be better for the country also, not only from a philosophical point of view but from a material point of view, because as we all know we have lost our commercial preponderance, and to some extent it is because there are not enough who worry about the peaceful applications. Personally, I believe this is a much more important form than the military form, because at present any kind of war between the superpowers is unthinkable. Both sides would know that this would be the end, it would be suicide, therefore the important thing for this country should be to keep, or to reestablish its preponderance in commercial production in the way of life, and that is getting lost.

Is this a problem that confronts your students when they get their degrees and they come to you [for career advice]?

Sure, they come to me and say, "Look here I have an offer from Livermore or some other military laboratory, very high pay, sometimes up to $60,000 a year, and I have a wife and a child. I couldn't find any other job; what shall I do?" In which case I say, "Well this is a matter of conscience, but I can understand...." I would never say "you should not take the job," because I do not think that this problem can be solved by telling the young scientists not to work for the military, that cannot be done, because if "A" doesn't work, then there is "B" who will work. What you have to do is to change the direction of our policy.

What sorts of changes are we talking about? You're suggesting that it's not just cutting back the number of weapons, but changing the perceptions between the two adversaries?

Its also cutting back, but I do not think cutting back alone will help, indeed, I would rather say cutting back will never really happen except from some small edges like the present IMF [Intermediate Nuclear Forces] treaty which is not of great significance -- although it is of great significance because it is the first time that something is cut -- but it is a very minimal cut. We cannot get this cut in dangerous weapons if we stay as we are now in a confrontational fighting attitude with the other superpower. What we have to try on both sides, not only on our side, is to get from confrontation to cooperation. We have many common problems, not only the nuclear war problem, which is a common problem because both will be annihilated, but there are other common problems -- environmental ones: the rising of the CO2 levels, the warming of the atmosphere, the thinning of the ozone layer, the dying of the forests; problems in the Third World; the proliferation of nuclear arms which is neither in their nor in our interests. So there are many things where we have parallel interests and if we are able to reduce this fear which forces us to confront the other in an inimical way, "What's good for them is bad for us, and what's bad for us is good for them" and so on -- we have to change that a bit because it isn't true, there are many things that are good for us and for them. We have now fortunately some indications that even in the Soviet Union, these ideas are coming up through Gorbachev and his people, so there is a chance perhaps. I'm not sure really if it will work, but I think it's our only chance.

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