No Comment, Quotation — February 12, 2011, 11:44 am

Planck on Science’s Commitment to Truth

max-planck-und-albert-einstein

Sollte aber Ihr ehrliches, durch mehrfache Proben bewährtes Streben Ihnen mit Entschiedenheit besondere, von den bisherigen abweichende Wege weisen, dann—folgen Sie Ihrer eigenen Überzeugung mehr als jeder anderen. Denn diese ist und bleibt Ihr höchstes, köstlichstes Gut, so gewiß als die Heranbildung zur wissenschaftlichen Selbständigkeit das schönste Ziel des akademischen Unterrichts bildet, und so gewiß eine in redlicher Arbeit erworbene eigene wissenschaftliche Überzeugung einen festen Ankergrund angibt, um auch der sittlichen Weltanschauung allen den möglichen Wechselfällen des Lebens gegenüber den nötigen Halt zu gewähren.

Die edelste unter den sittlichen Blüten der Wissenschaft und zugleich auch ihre eigentümlichste ist ohne Zweifel die Wahrhaftigkeit, die durch das Bewußtsein der persönlichen Verantwortung hindurch zur inneren Freiheit führt und deren Wertschätzung in unserem gegenwärtigen öffentlichen wie privaten Leben noch viel höher bemessen werden sollte.

But if you see a different way, one that differs from the path most trodden but has been decisively tested through honest and diligently proven methods, then–follow your own convictions and not those more commonly shared. This is and remains your highest, most valuable possession, for the development of scientific independence is the most beautiful goal of academic training, and a scientific conviction gained through honest work provides a firm anchoring from which you can maintain an essential independent perspective even with respect to the moral foundations of society and all other changes you may face in life.

The noblest of man’s moral qualities and also its most characteristic is without doubt truthfulness: that fidelity to truth, through an awareness of personal responsibility, leads to inner freedom. It deserves to be held in far higher regard in our current public and private life.

Max Planck, “Neue Bahnen der physikalischen Erkenntnis,” speech delivered on Oct. 15, 1913, reproduced in Physikalische Abhandlungen und Vorträge, vol. 3, p. 75 (1958)(Fritz Stern/S.H. transl.)

Reading through Saul Bellow’s entertaining novel-memoir of Allan Bloom, Ravelstein, I was struck by this passage: “Ravelstein… held that examples of great personalities among scientists were scarce. Great philosophers, painters, statesmen, lawyers, yes. But great-souled men or women in science were extremely rare. ‘It’s their sciences that are great, not their persons.'” (p. 107) The observation is both extremely telling and dead wrong. Bloom, like his mentor, Leo Strauss, and a number of other figures associated with neoconservatism, has a tough time with scientists, with scientific method and with science. They can’t reject it, of course, and they can’t deny the importance of science to society and human development. But they often feel uncomfortable with it, particularly when it picks at the margins of their cherished political ideas, and they bristle over the notion of taking direction from scientists. Bloom/Ravelstein suggests in this passage that they might accept the science itself as important, but not the scientists. The voice of scientists should be pushed to the sidelines–they are not the “great souls” that speak to us across the ages.

Really? Of course it’s true that scientists as a group aren’t the hero-worshipping kind and most would smirk at the label “great soul.” But what of Pythagoras, whose now lost writings exercised such a heavy influence on Bloom’s hero Plato? What about Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Sakharov? Were they not all “great souls”? Did they not have much to say to humanity over the ages? Are their voices still not powerful?

In America today, nutty conspiracy theories appear in our broadcast media with some regularity and now it’s no longer just individual scientists but science itself which seems to have become the target of sustained political attack. To some extent, these phenomena are common to times when societies are under pressure—when unemployment is high and politics is fractious. Science has always been taken as a threat to those who hold simple ideas with religious fervor and take comfort from the belief that they explain everything–and to the politicians who attempt to manipulate them. A prominent Fox television host insisted this week, with growing vehemence, that tides are proof positive of the existence of God. Modern science offers perfectly sensible explanations for the presence of tides; but the sensitivity is an ancient one, figuring in the questioning of Galileo by the Inquisition in 1633. As recently as 1990 the current pope was struggling to justify what his predecessors had done on this score. Still, there is no logical reason why the scientific explanation for tides should be taken as disproving the existence of God–no more than the fact that the we live in a heliocentric planetary system proves that God is Dead. (It does, however, decisively disprove the Ptolemaic model adopted by Aristotle and the early church fathers.) Much of the controversy between science and faith is nonsense; and much of it is driven by religious figures for whom the love of dogma has come to supplant the dogma of love.

But conspiracy theories and anti-scientific quackery in America today are nothing compared with what raged in Central Europe in the years between the two world wars. That overlapped with some of the great scientific discoveries of the modern era, and a disproportionate share of that work was done in the universities and laboratories of Central Europe. As we learn from Fritz Stern in Einstein’s German World, the great men of science of this era—Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Paul Ehrlich and Fritz Haber in the first echelon—were by and large outsiders to the world of politics. For the most part they were proud of the accomplishments of the Wilhelmine era, but their pride focused more on their universities and research institutes and less on the Kaiser. In the face of a storm of political craziness, xenophobia and hysteria, they had remarkably similar advice to dispense to their students and to society in general: keep your own counsel and don’t get caught up in the tumult of mobs and the delusion of conspiracy theorists.

Einstein was typical, furnishing this advice to an unemployed musician from Munich in 1933: “Read no newspapers, try to find a few friends who think as you do, read the wonderful writers of earlier times, Kant, Goethe, Lessing, and the classics of other lands, and enjoy the natural beauties of Munich’s surroundings. Make believe all the time that you are living, so to speak, on Mars among alien creatures and blot out any deeper interest in the actions of those creatures. Make friends with a few animals. Then you will become a cheerful man once more and nothing will be able to trouble you.” Regrettably, of course, his musician would not have gotten far with such practices in the world that was then opening up around him. Einstein himself did the right thing: taking measure of the grave threat that the rise of fascism presented to the world, he became increasingly active and increasingly vocal in opposing it. Other scientists of the era kept quiet, and their historical reputations suffered for it.

But there is no finer statement of the scientist’s calling and of the essential commitment to truth that lies at the heart of great scientific work than can be found in this speech that Max Planck delivered to an incoming class of students at the University of Berlin in the fall of 1913. Trust less what you are told and more what you observe, test and confirm for yourself, he says. If our society is to prosper in peace and happiness, then the precepts of science must occupy their proper place, and none of them is more powerful than this rigorous commitment to truth, whether it conforms to the prejudices of the masses or not. Scientists bring technological innovation that can make our lives easier and more meaningful; but when they warn us of threats on the horizon, we ignore them at our own great peril.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Factor by which single Americans who use emoji are more likely than other single Americans to be sexually active:

1.85

Brontosaurus was restored as a genus, and cannibalism was reported in tyrannosaurine dinosaurs.

Moore said he did not “generally” date teenage girls, and it was reported that in the 1970s Moore had been banned from his local mall and YMCA for bothering teenage girls.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today