Brecht and the responsibility of the scientist

Hiroshima-Nagasaki 60th Anniversary. August 6-9, 2005

A "short talk" given by Women and Life on Earth e.V. founding member Constanze Frank at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe before the showing of "Fat Man and Little Boy", a film about the Manhattan Project.

The film we are about to see deals - among other things - with the role and the responsibility of scientists, in particular those who worked on the Manhattan Project and developed the nuclear bomb in Los Alamos.

This question of responsibility is not new and has been examined in many works of literature. The Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote a whole play about the exploitation of science for military and commercial purposes that he called "The Physicists". 

In 1938 the German dramatist Bertold Brecht addressed similar issues in his play about Galileo, the Italian astronomer. Galileo did his research in Italy during the late 16th and early 17th century. We all know about Galileo and his findings, but why was his situation relevant to Brecht in 1938 and what is the connection to "Fat Man and Little Boy"? Surprisingly, the connection is Hiroshima.

Brecht wrote all his plays with the intention of changing people's thinking and political actions. He developed specific dramatic devices to shake up the audience, to take them out of the familiar and of what they expected. He deliberately chose 16th century Italy rather than 20th century Germany so that people would focus on the issues he raised rather than on their current political reality.

So here we have Brecht, who fled to Denmark in 1938 after his books had been burned by the Nazis, and then we have Galileo, who was threatened by the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church, which was the government, with torture if he did not recant his findings that said the earth is not the center of the universe.

Galileo publicly recanted his thesis rather than undergo torture, Brecht left Germany rather than face a concentration camp. Both men chose to continue their work.

And both were widely condemned for their decision. In the play Galileo's assistant Andrea vehemently expresses disappointment in his master's weakness:

 "He who does not know the truth, is just an idiot. But he who does know it and still calls it a lie, he is a criminal". 

The rationale about Galileo and about Brecht himself was that the only thing that matters is that  the scientist , in this case Galileo, manages to finish his research and  that Brecht - in the parrallel life - was able to continue writing and become an important political voice speaking out against Hitler and capitalism. etc..

All that changed with the bombing of Hiroshima. Brecht instantly understood that what is sometimes called "pure" science or science that is separated from real life, and then blended with ideology and economic interests can have horrendous consequences. Brecht: "Scientists often claim for themselves a kind of non-responsibility, like that of a machine and as a result the city of Hiroshima all of a sudden has become short-lived."

From the moment the bomb was dropped Brecht is no longer able to see Galileo (and himself) as the hero that got away, because he tricks the authorities, gets his work out and wins in the end. Now he sees Galileo's caving in to the Inquisition  as "the original sin of modern science" and nuclear bombs "a technical as well as a social phenomenon, the classical end product of scientific achievement and social failure."

Brecht immediately proceeds to re-write the play in the light of Hiroshima while working on the English version New York with Charles Laughton, who played Galileo.

I am not familiar with the exact details of the changes that were made, but at the end of the play Andrea, who was so disgusted with Galileo now says:

"You have won"

Galileo answers:

No,  "they have won."

Then he continues:

"When scientists - intimidated by selfish dictators become content to pile up knowledge for the sake of knowledge, science becomes crippled and your new devices only create greater suffering."

"Over time you may discover everything that there is to discover and still - your progress  will mean stepping away further from humanity.

The chasm between you and it can become be so great, that your cheers over some new achievement may come back to you as a universal scream of horror."

"As a scientist I had a unique opportunity: in my lifetime astronomy reached every market town. During such special times the steadfastness of one man would have created a lot of emotional upheaval. Had I resisted, science might have deveoped something similar to the Hippocratic Oath like that of the medical profession: a solemn promise to use their knowledge only for the benefit of humankind."

"As things are now the best one can hope for is a gender of inventive gnomes who can be hired to do anything."

"I have betrayed my profession."