How Physics Got Fat (And Why We Need to Sing For Our Supper)

Theoretical Physicist, Author, and Science Educator
Scientists need to engage with the public and make statements about the great political issues of the day - because it impacts not just our science budget, but actually on our way of life.
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TRANSCRIPT

Michio Kaku:  Some people believe that perhaps there is a war on science, that perhaps politicians are meddling in the affairs of science and doesn’t that mean that scientists should take more responsibility to speak out and I think the answer is yes.  In my field, physics we have actually been rather complacent for the last 50 years.  Now remember back in the 1920s and 30s, especially during the 40s physicists were very definitely politically active.  That’s why we built the atomic bomb. We wanted to stop fascism and Nazism, but during the Cold War some people think we got fat because every time we wanted something the Pentagon would simply give it to us.  If we needed a new particle accelerator we would go to the United States Congress and say one word, just one word: “Russia.” And then Congress would say two words:  “How much?”  Well those days are gone.  We all know that the Russians aren’t creating new atom smashers anymore and therefore, we can’t depend on Congress to fund our budgets.  We have to, in some sense, sing for our supper.  We have to, in some sense, engage with the public and that’s why I think it’s actually important for scientists to make a statement - to make a statement about the great political issues of the day - because it impacts not just on our science budget, but actually on our way of life. 

Now, there have been many instances in the past where science has collided with politics. When Einstein for example, was at University of Berlin he had qualms about the fact that one of his next-door neighbors was Heinz Haber, famous German chemist who worked out the chemistry that made possible fertilizer, but he also worked on poison gas, chlorine based poison gas and also created poisons like a Zyklon gas used by the Nazis to gas Jews.  The irony is that Heinz Haber was a converted Jew and his work was used to gas his own relatives.

Well that’s why scientists have to make an effort to engage the public in the controversial issues for example, like evolution.  In biology evolution is the organizing principle in the same way that in physics relativity and the quantum theory are the organizing principles for all of physics and think of the breakthroughs that we’ve made as a consequence.  We can see the evolution of viruses, the evolution of germs.  That has opened up a whole branch of medicine by which we can then begin to conquer viruses and diseases.  And when we go into outer space and one day perhaps encounter other life forms perhaps they too will obey the laws of evolution and we’ll be able to understand how life throughout the universe also evolves.  So on many levels, at the level of medicine, healthcare, at the level of basic research it’s so important that science not be corrupted in the process of reaching public policy.