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Hiroshima and the Federation of American Scientists


The importance of support for pure science
Hans Bethe Scientist
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The Office of Naval Research was a wonderful supporter of research here at Cornell and several other places, it financed the research at our nuclear laboratory, and only much later was this taken over by the... the National Science Foundation. It took much longer for Congress and the government, as a whole, to see the importance of pure science. And unfortunately, now we are in a time when the respect for pure science has diminished again, and there is far less willingness on the part of the government to support pure science. Right after the war, it was not only the government and the Navy but it was also the great industrial laboratories; the laboratories of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the research lab of General Electric, and then the research lab of IBM, International Business Machines, were deeply in pure research, supporting it inside the labs, supporting it also in universities. And all this great recognition of pure science by government and industrial laboratories is now decaying, especially among the industrial laboratories. Bell Labs and IBM were really marvelous in supporting pure science. And now, day by day, they are reducing their support of pure science, even in their own laboratories, and long ago they stopped supporting pure science at universities. There still is the National Science Foundation, and it does support pure science, but it also is being urged to put more emphasis on applied science, on useful things instead of recognizing that pure science means the strength of the country; and pure science, while originally totally... totally remote from applications gives rise to the most important applications. There is nuclear power, which is very much along the lines I've talked about, but there's also the laser, which originated from a paper by Einstein about the emission and absorption of light, in which he said then, that light can stimulate other light. It was a purely scientific paper, he had nothing in mind about applications, and look at it now, lasers are everywhere.

The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Office of Naval Research, Cornell University, National Science Foundation, General Electric, IBM, Bell Labs, Albert Einstein

Duration: 4 minutes

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008