The Responsibility of the Scientist: A Cloud of Uncertainty

October 16, 2014

RIPRoryJust a few short weeks ago, I graduated from medical school and took the Hippocratic Oath. Though it doesn’t actually contain the phrase, “First do no harm,” the modern version of the Oath that I took does include several passages about the physician’s responsibilities to her patients and to society as a whole. In light of Rory’s death, these words have been playing over and over again in my mind, as I find myself questioning the positions I’ve historically held on pushing the boundaries of science.

I want to believe in the positive power of discovery, in the idea that science improves the quality of our lives. I have so far lived my life with absolute faith in the idea that knowledge leads to progress, and progress makes the world better off. But it’s hard to maintain these convictions when my aggressive approach to research and experimentation has resulted in the death of my best friend.

Louis Lasagna’s 1964 version of the Hippocratic Oath, which is the version we used at graduation, states:

Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I never thought that my work would lead to the loss of life. I wanted to MAKE life and conquer its mysteries, but the life I created is a monstrous perversion of humanity. Although I was not the literal cause of Rory’s death, I must take responsibility for creating the Creature that I believe took her life (authorities, are you listening to me??? Rory was an accomplished hiker – she did not just fall!!). So now I find myself questioning not just my approach to medicine, but my entire career choice. I used to be completely confident in my abilities as a scientist, but right now, I am not sure I should continue on this path.

Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, seemed to favor the idea that a scientist is not responsible for how his (or her) work is eventually used. Sven Tagil, writes on NobelPrize.org:

Evidently, Alfred Nobel did not consider his involvement in the war materials industry and in the work for world peace as incompatible elements. Rather he gave expression to the prevalent 19th century understanding which maintained, that the scientist was not responsible for how his findings were used. Each scholarly discovery is neutral in itself, but can be used both for good and bad objectives.

Huge nuclear explosionInitially, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the Manhattan Project, seemed to agree with Nobel’s point of view. While at Los Alamos, he tried to quell the moral misgivings of some of the scientists working with him on the development of the atomic bomb. And after the uranium bomb destroyed Hiroshima, he said that his only regret was “not making the bomb in time to use against the Germans.” But later his feelings took a turn. As Algis Valiunas writes in “The Agony of Atomic Genius” in The New Atlantis:

 

In an address to the American Philosophical Society [Oppenheimer said]: “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world … a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing … we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.” This public admission of personal despair at the moral collapse of the modern world’s leading intellectual enterprise could not be more nakedly penitent. The heartbreak of everlasting loss is unmistakable here: with the creation of the atomic bomb, the world will never again be what it once was. Modern science had permanently altered the nature of moral and political life.

Einstein, too, had misgivings about his part in the development of the atomic bomb. In an article in New Republic, Carl Sagan describes how in 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt,

…Proposing the development of an atomic bomb to outstrip a likely German effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Although Einstein had not been working in nuclear physics and later played no role in the Manhattan Project, he wrote the initial letter that led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project…. But when later it transpired that the Nazis had been unable to develop nuclear weapons, Einstein expressed remorse: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb.”

Had I known that my experiments would have led to Rory’s death, I would have abandoned them. Or at least I’d like to think so. But since I cannot go backwards in time and rectify my mistakes, I must try to now put all my knowledge and training towards finding the Creature, figuring out why he is still alive, and preventing this from ever happening again. Thanks again to all of you who have sent in your #CreatureSightings. Your help is greatly appreciated.

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Hi, I’m Victoria Frankenstein, almost-doctor and host of the web series “Frankenstein MD.” You can go ahead and start referring to me now as “Dr. Frankenstein,” just so you’re used to it when it actually happens. Which will be any day now.

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