The tree of knowledge

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In March 1954, Bikini Atoll was the focus of world attention once more as the USA exploded a massive hydrogen bomb, at least six hundred times more powerful than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima. As humanity sought to comprehend the accelerating horror of the arms race, it was still more disturbing to realise that the power of the explosion had ‘completely surprised’ the bomb’s designers. 1 More than ever, scientists seemed to be experimenting with the future of civilisation itself.

The blast inspired AD Hope to reconsider the fate of Prometheus, the titan who had defied Zeus to bestow the gift of knowledge upon humankind. Shackled still to his rocky prison, Hope’s Prometheus ‘saw one vast flash to northward blast the plain’. When Hermes appeared shortly after to strike off his chains, Prometheus wondered if Zeus had at last forgiven his transgression. But this was not freedom, Zeus had ordered a new punishment. Mankind had discovered the means of its own destruction, and Prometheus was doomed to scatter the ashes, ‘judging that theft of fire from which they died’. 2

There was no shortage of literary allusions to warn of the dangers of knowledge. 3 A few days after the attack on Hiroshima, the Sydney Morning Herald nervously exclaimed that scientists had ‘called into being a Frankenstein monster, which, if unfettered, has the power to destroy its creators’. 4 Armstrong’s cartoon in the Argus retold the story of ‘Atom and Eve’, with science as the temptress offering an apple-sized earth to the hungry, hulking figure of ‘atomic power’. 5 The all-conquering march of science was accompanied by a persistent, nagging fear that knowledge came at a price. The very uncertainty which invested science with its capacity for innovation, also threatened unexpected consequences. What mysterious forces might the quest for knowledge unleash upon an unsuspecting world? The seeker of truth was also at risk, for curiosity could lead to obsession, independence to indifference. The noble journey of discovery could take a darkened turn, leading the scientist away from human values and concerns. 6 As with Faust and Frankenstein, hubris unchecked blazed a path to damnation.

The early decades of the twentieth century brought rapid advance in our understanding of the structure of the atom. It was a clear example of science’s increasingly triumphant conquest of nature. And yet for all these gains, ‘Sirius’ noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘the mystery of it all appears deeper than ever’. 7 The atom had shown ‘extraordinary tenacity in holding its secrets’ and ‘might remain an insoluble mystery for generations to come’. 8 It was only through a ‘willingness to incur grave dangers’ that physicists had ‘raised the veil’ from some of its ‘internal mysteries’. 9 In this container that seemed ‘infinitely little’ were locked ‘forces of simply astounding magnitude’. 10

Scientists were forging ahead into worlds unknown, leaving behind the certainties of everyday life to embrace the arcane wonders at the very heart of nature. The ‘splitting of the atom’ in 1932 was hailed as the fulfilment of the ‘alchemists’ dream of transmuting matter’. 11 Physics was ‘the new alchemy’, its secrets available only to the initiated. ‘Science has passed beyond the realm of the ordinary man into a world of electrons, quanta, potentials and Hamiltonian functions in which two and two do not necessarily make four’, observed the Argus, ‘the layman can but look on and wonder’. 12

Long before the bomb, the atom was a realm of power and mystery, luring explorers beyond the limits of conventional reality. Spencer Weart examines such continuities to argue that images attached to atomic energy drew from ‘old, autonomous features of our society, our culture, and our psychology’. 13 The technology served as a ‘receptacle’ for ‘universal anxieties and hopes’. 14 Similarly, the physicists’ fondness for lifting veils and probing hidden recesses might reflect some of the aggressively masculine traits that have long characterised science’s attempt to win domination over a ‘nature’ imagined as female. 15 The quest for new knowledge recycles the ambitions and anxieties of the past, but their meanings are reconstituted within specific historical circumstances. This uneasy fascination with the mysteries of the atom may have drawn on ‘hidden’ fears and desires, however, it was also part of an ongoing discussion about the need for control and the problems of specialisation.

George Knibbs, the first Commonwealth Statistician and director of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry, held a typically progressive faith in the possibilities of perception beyond the material realm. 16 In 1909, he suggested to Littleton Groom that ‘besides the mere sense-contents interpreted by the intellect’ one should pay heed to the ‘subtler perceptions’ of the ‘subliminal self’. 17 Such perceptions would open new avenues of progress as conventional modes of thought proved inadequate to cope with the rapidly increasing complexity of modern science. What was needed, Knibbs argued in 1927, was to lift ‘to a higher plane’ the very conception of existence itself. But could humankind keep up with conceptual demands of science? Already, he admitted, man’s ‘intellectual advance may have outstripped his ethical progress’. ‘It may well be’, the elderly scientist observed, ‘that all higher knowledge may have to be communicated to the high priests of science under a system of stern discipline, as in ancient Egypt and elsewhere’. The progress of science would bring grave new challenges, but, Knibbs concluded ‘man has no escape from the consequences of eating from the tree of knowledge’. 18

While an educated gentleman of the nineteenth century might have been able to keep abreast of developments across a number of scientific fields, his twentieth century counterpart was more likely to be swamped by the sheer pace and volume of research. The Sydney Morning Herald wondered whether the amount of knowledge drawn from ‘the bottomless well of science’ would soon exceed an individual’s capacity to learn. ‘Though the time available to an individual for the acquisition of knowledge is strictly limited’, it noted, ‘the demands upon it are ever growing’. It pitied the poor medical student whose studies had recently been extended to six years, adding that ‘if scientific discovery is to go on at its present rate the course may soon have to be made seven or eight or ten years’. 19

But it was not merely the amount of new knowledge that tested humankind’s intellectual capacities, it was its content. The inner world of the atom was mysterious enough, without the theory of relativity to disturb familiar concepts of time and space. The hapless amateur, who sought to make sense of Einstein’s revolutionary ideas, was deterred by a chorus of learned scientists willingly professing their own befuddlement. 20 ‘It is doubtful if anybody in Australia thoroughly understands the theory in all its aspects’, admitted the mathematician CE Weatherburn in the Melbourne University Magazine. Furthermore, he added, if Einstein was correct then ‘only a small percentage of physicists and mathematicians can ever hope to understand the laws of nature’. 21 George Knibbs himself was quoted as finding Einstein’s conception ‘quite unintelligible’. 22 What hope was there for the layman?

The accelerating rush of knowledge and ideas was transforming science itself. ‘The whole tendency of modern science is to the most rigid specialisation’, observed the Sydney Morning Herald in 1911. The individual scientist was working to gain expertise over an ever-diminishing corner of their discipline. There was danger here, the newspaper warned, for ‘the conquests of science’ had been ‘so complete…so irresistible’ that the ‘man of science’, labouring in his increasingly narrow rut, was ‘apt to settle for mere craftsmanship’. If science remained locked within its disciplinary boundaries it would quickly become ‘sterile of ideas’. Already, the newspaper argued, the tendency to ‘despise generalisers’ was a sign of science’s ‘descent from a religion to a creed’. 23

DK Picken, Master of Ormond College, was also worried by science’s growing tendency towards isolation. Writing in the Australian Quarterly, he noted that once science was removed from ‘the main stream of cultured criticism, into the close preserves of the expert’, it developed ‘a cult something like that of “oral tradition”—passing, not exactly from mouth to mouth, but from mind to mind, by mutual conventions of the initiate (and the elect)’. The outsider was increasingly unwelcome within this secluded preserve, which would inevitably become ‘a prison for the thought’ of its devoted attendees. 24 For the sake of both science and culture, the abstract realms of modern science had to be open to the scrutiny of critical minds. ‘Science should certainly not be the possession of a few’, asserted the Age, ‘that is harmful to the many who are ignorant, and not beneficial to the few who are set apart’. 25

Even as scientists pondered means of setting the scientific spirit a-moving amongst a seemingly indifferent public, the process of research itself was steadily widening the gulf between them. The unyielding flood of increasingly abstract and specialised knowledge made it more difficult than ever for the public to participate in the assessment of scientific progress. And so it continued. ‘Our generation is slightly overwhelmed by science’, noted the Sydney Morning Herald in 1951, ‘it challenges the attention of every citizen almost from the cradle to the grave’. This proliferation had caused ‘confusion in the minds of millions of people’, confusion which scientists seemed unable to redress. ‘Overspecialisation—…the anxious pursuit of more and more knowledge about less and less’ had rendered the scientist unable to envisage his own work in relation to the problems of society’. Consequently, ‘a great gulf’ threatened ‘to divide the scientist and the ordinary citizen’. 26 Education, the newspaper concluded, was necessary on both sides.

The release of atomic energy reinforced both the revolutionary potential of science and its growing separation from human values and experience. Like radio listeners tuned in to the blast from Bikini, the public were but spectators in an experiment to determine the fate of civilisation. 27 With scientists claiming dominion over the mysterious ‘atomic secret’, Knibbs’s vision of a strictly-controlled priesthood seemed closer than ever. Knowledge gave scientists authority, but did it win them trust? The gulf that separated science from its public could be measured either in superiority or suspicion. An 1894 poem entitled ‘The modern spirit’ captured this ambivalence:

For gain we soar in science high
With flight that naught can fetter;
Just as the condor seeks the sky—
To view the carrion better. 28

Notes:

  1. Herald, 18 March 1954, p. 2.
  2. AD Hope, ‘Prometheus unbound (Bikini, March 1, 1954)’, Voice, vol. 3, no. 7, April 1954, p. 21.
  3. See, for example, Roger Shattuck, Forbidden knowledge: from Prometheus to pornography, Harcourt Brace & Company, San Diego, 1996.
  4. SMH, 9 August 1945, p. 2. See also, Age, 29 May 1946, p. 2.
  5. Argus, 8 August 1945, p. 3. For more on images of the bomb in Australian newspapers, see Rodney B James, ‘Representation of the Bomb in Australian art and culture, 1945-1959’, MA, Monash University, 1990. The use of such allusions is extensively explored in Spencer Weart, Nuclear fear: a history of images, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988.
  6. For various literary manifestations of the ‘inhuman’, ‘impersonal or ‘amoral’ scientist see Roslynn D Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: representations of the scientist in Western literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.
  7. SMH, 19 October 1932, p. 9.
  8. Argus, 27 March 1934, p. 6; Argus, 11 September 1925, p. 11.
  9. Argus, 3 June 1924, p. 15; Argus 4 September 1920, p. 9.
  10. Argus 17 January 1914, p. 18.
  11. Argus, 2 May 1932, p. 7; Argus 7 May 1932, p. 22.
  12. Argus 7 May 1932, p. 22.
  13. Weart, Nuclear fear, p. 421.
  14. Weart, Nuclear fear, p. 424.
  15. Brian Easlea, Fathering the unthinkable: masculinity, scientists and the nuclear arms race, Pluto Press, London, 1983.
  16. Susan Bambrick, ‘Knibbs, Sir George Handley (1858-1929)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian dictionary of biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, pp. 620-1.
  17. Letter from GH Knibbs to LE Groom, 5 February 1909, Groom papers, NLA: MS 236, series 1. See also George H Knibbs, ‘Science and its service to man’, Report of the 16th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Wellington, 1923, pp. 1-46.
  18. GH Knibbs, ‘Science and man’, letter to the editor, Argus, 9 September 1927, p. 17.
  19. SMH, 11 August 1934, p. 14.
  20. Stanley Goldberg, Understanding relativity, Birkhauser, Boston, 1984, p. 235-6.
  21. CE Weatherburn, ‘On general relativity and gravitation’, Melbourne University Magazine, vol. 14, October 1920, pp. 128-9.
  22. Argus 21 January 1926, p. 7. See also EFJ Love’s comments, Argus, 14 September 1921, p. 3.
  23. SMH, 9 January 1911, p. 8.
  24. DK Picken, ‘Science and culture’, Australian Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 19, September 1933, p. 77.
  25. Age, 8 January 1916, p.
  26. SMH, 28 July 1951, p. 2. See also: SMH, 16 August 1952, p. 2; SMH 14 January 1956, p. 2.
  27. For the way tests were portrayed and the encouragement of a ‘spectator democracy’ see Scott Kirsch, ‘Watching the bombs go off: photography, nuclear landscapes, and spectator democracy’, Antipode, vol. 29, no. 3, 1997, pp. 227-55.
  28. PL, ‘The modern spirit’, Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 741, 28 April 1894, p. 15. Emphasis in original.

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