Saturday, May 20, 2006

Voice of the dolphins

On board an overseas flight from the US to Europe, packed full and delayed by a change of equipment at departure, I am looking for something to read so as to avoid having to watch a King Kong remake. I pick a booklet I bought at a second hand bookstore down in Florida a couple of weeks ago. "Voice of the dolphins" by Leo Szilard was published as science fiction in 1961. It contains some very interesting reflections of an atomic scientist (in fact one of the early participants in the Manhattan project, later turned one of the main advocates for disarmament) on the future of the cold war and the arms race. The short pieces collected in the volume contain what one reads today as amusing predictions on the political developments of the following decades: some quite off the mark as one might expect (no fall of the Soviet Union, new militaristic rise in Germany and Japan), some more to the point (revolutions and wars in Iran and Iraq, the creation of something akin to the EU, the rapid economic growth of China). Apart from being political fiction, the book is mostly a lucid portrait of the frustrations and fears of an atomic scientist caught in the political and ethical aftermaths of one of the greatest scientific enterprises of the 20th century, the making of the atomic bomb. The absurdity of the deterrence, strike and counterstrike policies and various strategies of warfare in the atomic age are fully portrayed in this book, with a fine sense of humor. In the main story that gives the title to the book, the main narrative trick consists of envisioning a gradual sensible and rational progress out of the empasse of the cold war brought about by a group of dolphins endowed with superior intellect and much better sense than their human counterparts. In another story a man is awakened from hybernation about a hundred years in the future and finding himself at odds with the rapid pace of technological and scientific progress proposes the creation of a society for the retardation of science. I believe the following passage in the description of the functioning of this society will sound quite familiar to all readers engaged in scientific research:

"...would you intend to do anything about the advancement of science? - I asked.
No ... I believe scientific progress is too fast as it is.
... but then why not do something about the retardation of scientific progress?
That I would very much like to do ... but how do I go about it?
Well ... I think that shouldn't be very difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it
would be quite easy. You could set up a foundation ... Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants ... Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees ... This is just about all you have to do."

I found a lot of interesting information on Leo Szilard on the web site
Leo Szilard