Roald Hoffmann (2006) - Honesty to the Singular Object: Some Reflections on the Potential of Ethics Arising out of Science

Roald Hoffmann (2006)

Honesty to the Singular Object: Some Reflections on the Potential of Ethics Arising out of Science

Roald Hoffmann (2006)

Honesty to the Singular Object: Some Reflections on the Potential of Ethics Arising out of Science

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Roald Hoffmann is a chemist and a poet and a playwright. At the age of 44, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1981 with Kenichi Fukui “for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions". In 1987, he published his first book in poetry, “The Metamict State”. In 2001, he wrote the play “Oxygen”, together with Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth-control pill and pioneer of the “science-in-fiction” genre. On occasion of the centenary of the Nobel Prize, the play imagines, the Nobel Foundation decides to inaugurate a “retro-Nobel” for great discoveries that preceded the establishment of the Nobel Prizes. The Chemistry Committee decides to reward the discovery of Oxygen that launched the chemical revolution. But who should be honored? Lavoisier? Scheele? Priestley? “With wit, scholarship, and stage craftsmanship”, Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 1989, praised the play, “Oxygen shows us how much scientists have learned about the world and how little they have changed.”[1]Science, however, has changed the world a lot. It has improved the life span and comfort of many people. Yet people are not happier than they formerly were. They do not praise the achievements of science. They question them. “Smart, normal, thinking and feeling people are concerned about where science is going.” Obviously, “science must change in the 21st century so that every action of science is accompanied by ethical and environmental impact assessments”. But can ethics grow out of science? Can it be that - as Hoffmann quotes Jacob Bronowski - “the practice of science compels the practitioner to form for himself a fundamental set of universal values”?[2] It should be so, says Hoffmann: “I believe that in any action by a human being, the instrument of that action (a gun, a molecule synthesized, yes, even a mathematical equation or poem) must be accompanied by a moral judgment. The judgment is: ‘will the use of that instrument by me (or by others) hurt people, or not’?”Scientists and poets share honesty to the singular object. They both seek a precision of language to describe what they see and feel. Both strive for a true differential display of their perceptions of the world. This inherent ethical bent of their profession does not necessarily make them better human beings, but it should make them especially receptive for their responsibility: “Ethical thinking can be awakened, it needs to be reawakened, by consideration of whether a molecule can harm” or “whether a poem hurts a lover.”Roald Hoffmann concludes his talk with a deep, thoughtful and poetic reading of those verses from Genesis, which describe Eve’s decision to take the apple from the tree of knowledge and eat it. Without Eve’s curiosity, ethics could not have come into existence. “Eve did what had to be done, not to end but to begin a story. Our story. In which curious human beings have the choice between good and evil.”Roald Hoffmann is painfully aware of the existential consequences of this choice. Three weeks after his only talk he has hitherto given in Lindau, Hoffmann returned for the first time to Zolochiv in Ukraine, 62 years after he had fled from that town as a boy. There he had been born into a Jewish family in 1937 and there he survived with his mother, hidden in the attic of a schoolhouse, while his father and three of his four grandparents were killed. There he took the initiative to build a Holocaust memorial for the murdered Jews from his hometown, which was dedicated three years later. “Can one forgive what happened, the pain, the killing? Forgiveness comes from the soul. It is individual. I can only speak for myself. I can forgive. But only if I remember, and, importantly, if I see that the people in whose midst the killing took place, remember.“[3]Joachim Pietzsch[1] Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann. Oxygen. A play in two acts. Weinheim 2001[2] Jacob Bronowski. Science and human values. New York 1965, p. xiii[3] Roald Hoffmann. Remembering, Returning, Forgiving. International Herald Tribune, August 25, 2006

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