Sunday, December 14, 2008

Klaatu barada nikto

Remember "the day the Earth stood still"? Yes, the 1951 black and white science fiction movie, a somewhat poetic call to disarmament at a time when the Cold War was in full swing and worries about an impending nuclear holocaust that would obliterate mankind were widespread. It was the time when the US were in the depths of the McCarthyist anti-Communist witch-hunt and the Soviet Union struggled with the final throws of the late Stalinism regime. On both sides fear and suspicion reigned, both prepared for as much an ideological and cultural war as for a real military and nuclear confrontation, both obsessed with eliminating imaginary internal enemies and pernicious external influences.

Well, as if often happens "the day the Earth stood still" just got a Hollywood remake, with up-to-date special effects and more palatable character roles for the world of today. So far so good, save for the fact that the original anti-militaristic and pacifist message of the 1951 movie got transformed into generic watered down environmentalism. Nothing wrong with the environmentalist stance, especially after the past eight years of politically driven denial of scientific evidence and the disastrous consequence such decisions had on the climate conditions. However, do we really want to archive the lesson of the Cold War as over and done with? Not quite. If anything, the instability is much greater now than in Cold War times and the threat of nuclear war is far from being over. Something better could have been made of this remake, if a remake was at all called for.

It is not my intention to comment about the movie though, but about the curious fact that 20th Century Fox arranged a free preview a day ahead of the official release of the movie for the whole Caltech community, as well as a debate on campus a few days earlier. How comes? Well, publicity of course, but perhaps one can ponder the fact that science and scientists play such a fundamental role in "the day the Earth stood still". It is to scientists that the alien Klaatu wishes to deliver his final message in the original version of the movie and in both the old and the new one, it is the crucial conversation with the Nobel laureate physicists that convinces him that human beings are worthy of survival.

Hidden beneath the naive appearance of the movie's core message lies some more serious consideration on the relation between science and society, and science and the politics of the Cold War.

The balance of science and politics around 1951 was a complicated and intricate tangle of interdependence, on both sides of the then recently established Iron Curtain. I have just recently been reading the remarkable new book by Ethan Pollock, "Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars", based on a wealth of newly available material from the Russian archives. The book details the fascinating history, in the late forties and early fifties, of the scientific community in the Soviet Union and the "science debates" that came to shape the complicated interdependence of scientific research, ideology, and the perceived needs of Cold War propaganda. The book follows closely six different famous cases, each centered around a different topic of scholarly debate: philosophy, biology, physics, linguistics, physiology, and economics. In all such cases the book details Stalin's direct or indirect interventions, personally editing papers of biologists and physiologists to be presented at important meetings that would set the course of research, deciding the fate of theoretical physics conferences, personally contributing scholarly essays on linguistics and economics. The biology debate ended up in the infamous Lysenko affair and the rejection of modern genetic theory in favor of discredited theories vaguely based on Lamarckism, but more closely connected to a misreading of the meaning of experiments on hybridization conducted earlier in the century by the Russian botanist Michurin, whom Lysenko praised as the guiding figure to be followed in opposition to the authority of Western geneticists. As is well known, the victory of Lysenko's school in the biology debate of the late '40s set back the clock of biology research in the Soviet Union for a long time afterwards. Surprisingly, the linguistics debate took an apparently very different course, rejecting the Marrist school and averting in that way a debacle for the field that would have been comparable to Lysenko's rejection of well established scientific paradigms. While Stalin approved, at first privately and then openly, of Lysenko's approach to biology, he personally intervened to avoid the same fate for linguistics. This is a first apparent mystery that is analyzed and convincingly resolved in the Pollock's monograph. Similar as the two situations may appear, there are crucial differences that played a major role in determining the two very different outcomes. In the case of linguistics, key specialists in the field had direct access to Stalin through personal connections in the Party elite, while no serious biologist appears to have had that kind of access to point out the serious scientific mistakes of the Lysenko approach. Also Lysenko promised to deliver in a few years what genetics of the time could not yet do, something like "genetically modified crops" that would end the very real risk of famine in the postwar Soviet Union. That he had not a single shred of scientific evidence to base this promise on is something that only the real experts understood and they did not find the way to convince the political power of this fact. Finally, under Stalin the Soviet Union had shifted away from Communist internationalism and more and more into a sort of nationalistic ideology loosely dressed in Socialist clothes: Lysenko's appeal to Michurin as proclaimed national hero of biology fitted well with this ideological setting, while the Marrist internationalism did not make it an equally convincing model for linguistics. That both were equally wrong scientifically did not seem to be the decisive factor in determining the outcome of these debates. The case of physics was remarkable in its absence: while philosophical discussions on the foundations of quantum mechanics and relativity and their compatibility or incompatibility with dialectic materialism were abundant at the time, the fact that modern physics was crucial to the development of nuclear weapons and the Soviet nuclear program had just then developed its first successful atomic tests, any further discussion was shelved by Stalin as irrelevant. The debate on physiology ended up in a quagmire of contrasting interpretations of the Pavlov heritage, while the field of economics was stalled for several years by the impossible request of producing the ultimate reference textbook on Socialist economy, a subject on which there was no real consensus and very little observable data, except for the history of the Soviet Union and of the early days of Communist China, and the nascent Socialist states of Easter Europe, full of contrasting experiences and different realities. What makes the whole history of these scientific debates extremely interesting is the overall crucial and central role that science was supposed to play in the heart of the Communist state, which was at once the blessing and the curse of Soviet science, at once honored as of highest importance to the nation, and at the same time unable to escape the excessive attention paid to its inner developments by the political government and its consequent heavy handed interference.

It is one of the references I've read that helps the most in illustrating the inner workings of the early stages of the Cold War and the mutual influence of science on the political scene (the atomic project) and of the political demands upon the development of science.