Who owns science? or, should all ideas be shared?

The question of whether a scientist should share all of his discoveries was considered by a mathematician after the devastation the atomic bombs caused in Japan during WWII was observed. The topic of whether science advances are always progress or not is a theme in a book I picked up yesterday. “The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic” is a biography of the famous fiction author Kurt Vonnegut and his brother Bernard Vonnegut who was a scientist more famous during their earlier years than Kurt.

Bernard worked on plane de-icing strategies for use during WWII while Kurt was an enlisted man who became a Prisoner of War of the Nazi’s. The family feared he was dead for several months before he eventually was released at the end of the war and arrived home unexpectedly. Bernard’s career continued to involve ice in the form of cloud seeding for the purpose of creating snow where moisture was desired or potentially to be able to modify storm patterns to reduce their danger. His work involved dry ice and then silver iodide for dispersing in clouds. Super-cooled moisture within the cloud would form snow when the particles of dry ice or silver iodide were present. Ultimately it was found that health hazards were caused by silver iodide in the environment and the work was discontinued. It led to both brothers questioning the advisability of science experiments or technology being used when potential risks weren’t well understood.

Kurt wondered what might happen if a scientist refused to share information with the military. The leading mathematician of the day had done it after seeing the atomic bomb’s tragic results on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Professor Norbert Wiener of MIT wrote an essay that was published in November 1948, ‘A Rebellious Scientist After Two Years,’ that included the statement:

degradation of the position of the scientist as an independent worker and thinker to that of a morally irresponsible stooge in a science-factory has proceeded even more rapidly and devastatingly than I had expected. In view of this, I still see no reason to turn over to any person, whether he be an army officer or the kept scientist of a great corporation, any results which I obtain if I think they are not going to be used for the best interests of science and of humanity.” – page 114-115, The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, by Ginger Strand (Great, Strauss and Giroux, 2015, New York)

The ‘House of Magic‘ referred to in the title was the nickname of the lab where Bernard Vonnegut worked professionally.

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