Science in war: a reading list on the ethics and history

15 Mar 2022 | News

How should universities and scientists handle the war in Ukraine? Here, Science|Business offers some ‘staff picks’ of good books for background reading on the issues raised

International Space Station over the planet earth. Photo: NASA

As the war in Ukraine continues, science and academia have been pulled into the conflict – like it or not – in unexpected ways.

Across the west, researchers have been struggling to find the right response. To send an anti-war message to Russian colleagues, many universities and science organisations have suspended formal collaborations with Russia, and some have simply ended them. Some governments are halting science collaborations that could be useful to Russia’s military. But across the major democratic countries, most individual, person-to-person ties with Russian colleagues are continuing – on the theory that it’s the Russian state, rather than individual Russian scientists, to blame for Ukraine.

All this is perplexing; but there is a long history of science in war, and the ethics of it. Here, Science|Business gathers together some background reading to help think through the obligations and conflicts of scientists in wartime. It’s not a comprehensive list, but rather a few book titles that helped our staff ponder the issue. Think of it as our online version of the pile of “Staff Picks” books that you see in many independent book shops these days.

Science in World War II

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” That’s a line from the Bhagavad-Gita that the American leader of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, recalled on witnessing the successful test of the first atomic bomb in 1945.

The Second World War still stands as the most shocking demonstration of the power of science in war – and so there is no lack of books that explore its history and ethics. One is American Prometheus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the scientific leader of the US Manhattan Project (and who, after the war opposed building a hydrogen bomb and was drummed out of government as an alleged security risk.) On the German side, there’s Serving the Reich, about the complex mix of motives that led Werner Heisenberg, Peter Debye and other physicists to lead the German nuclear effort.

Other books on what Winston Churchill called the “wizard war” include Science at War by JG Crowther on Britain’s development of radar and other war technologies, and Scientists Against Time by HA Feiveson, a comprehensive overview of major war-time scientific accomplishments around the world. And then, if you’re tired of reading, there’s the 2005 John Adams opera, Dr. Atomic, about the Manhattan Project, and the 1998 Michael Frayn play, Copenhagen, on Heisenberg’s enigmatic 1941 meeting with Danish physicist Niels Bohr.

The space race

The US-Soviet race to the moon was a scientific proxy war, with more benign consequences than the real Cold War raging at the time. Russia’s threats today to end cooperation on the International Space Station are, in this context, particularly sad. NASA has over 200 free-to-read history books online, ranging from specific mission histories to analysis of the impact of space technologies on wider society. They include Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945- 1974, by Asif Azam Siddiqi, a space historian at Fordham University, and The Difficult Road to Mars: A Brief History of Mars Exploration in the Soviet Union, by V.G. Perminov, one of the leading Soviet designers of Mars and Venus spacecraft.

Other books on Cold War science include Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research, recounting ethical battles over the H-bomb, the Vietnam War, Star Wars and more.

Science diplomacy

There is also a wide range of academic books on the role of science in diplomacy - indeed, many foreign ministries around the world now have units or experts figuring out how to wield this form of “soft power”. For instance, the EU’s Horizon Horizon 2020 programme devoted about 10% of its budget to R&D collaboration with countries that aren’t members of the bloc, including many with more geopolitical than scientific significance. This book is a good 2018 overview of the topic, written by a French economics professor who was formerly a science counsellor in the French embassy in Moscow: Science and Diplomacy: A New Dimension of International Relations. Another overview text: Science and Diplomacy: New Day or False Dawn? And, not surprisingly, there are academic journals devoted to the topic, such as the Science & Diplomacy by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Academic freedom

There is, of course, a vast literature on the importance, and perils, of allowing scientists to follow their own curiosity – regardless of practical or political consequence. This principle has been invoked repeatedly by those opposed to sweeping “science sanctions” against Russia.

Ghent University rector Rik Van de Walle cited, in a Science|Business article explaining his view, one of the key documents in the field: the “Magna Charta Universitatum”, a 1988 declaration by Europe’s oldest universities drafted at the start of what’s now called the Bologna Process of harmonising educational standards across Europe. It calls a university “an autonomous institution at the heart of society” whose “research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.”

The most famous conflict over this principle was also one of the earliest: Galileo’s heresy trial for asserting the heliocentric model of the solar system. There are countless books on Galileo, but On Trial for Reason focuses on the trial itself, while the famous Bertolt Brecht play, Galileo, focuses on the ethical issues.

On a very different note, The Invention of Nature recounts German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s several-year-long and ultimately successful journey across a Europe torn by the Napoleonic Wars and a hotly contested Atlantic Ocean to reach South America for his epic discoveries often cited as the foundation of environmentalism.

Finally, there’s the searing books of Italian chemist Primo Levi, imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II. His memoir of the incarceration is If This is a Man. But his most famous book is The Periodic Table, a series of chapters, each named after a chemical element, based loosely on his imprisonment experiences. The UK’s Royal Institution in 1975 named it the best science book ever.

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