Science and Morals

As some may have been aware, I have recently found myself a new job at the Glasgow Science Centre, and amongst the many exhibits on offer there is one that has particularly caught my eye. It is called ‘Science in the Dock’ and goes through several examples of when science and morality clash.

The thing about science is that to make new discoveries and new advances you have to smash through current barriers that block your path. Some discoveries can be scientifically brilliant, but can lead you down a path that is just morally wrong. On BBC news there was a recent story which showcased the collision between science and morals. In Germany they are testing something called ‘talking train windows’ in which companies can silently advertise to passengers if they place their head against the window. This is caused by bone conduction technology in which vibrations from a device travel through the window and transmit to the ear through the skull. A scientifically brilliant idea you may agree, but has come in for a lot of protest from people who think it’s a violation of basic human rights.

So the ‘Science in the Dock’ exhibit has three main examples – the first heart transplant operation, sending a dog to space, and Dolly the sheep. Since the latter is closer to home for me I will focus on that. For those who don’t know, Dolly was the first mammal to be fully cloned from an adult somatic cell. She was born at the Roslin institute near Edinburgh in July 1996, lived for six years, had six lambs, before being put down in February 2003 due to progressive lung disease and severe arthritis. What many people don’t realise though is that the cloning of Dolly was not a 100% success rate, as she was actually the only surviving lamb from a group of 276 attempts, which is a terrible rate. The fact that Dolly also died 6 years earlier than her species average led to speculation that cloning resulted in more health problems than most other sheep. The so called ‘success’ of dolly also led people to wonder if human cells could be cloned in a similar way, which leads back to the original question – how far can science go before it becomes immoral?

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Another example of science and morals happened in the 40’s. The Second World War was in its 6th year and keen to find a swift resolution of the war in the Far East, the USA dropped two atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now scientifically the atom bomb was an incredible piece of ingenuity, in which creating all that power from one bomb is scientifically impressive. However, the resulting destruction and death toll, along with the radiation fallout which affected many in the surrounding area, including prisoners of war and US soldiers, makes the atom bomb morally horrific. But it’s not as is you need me to tell you that already!

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I’ll finish with a quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb, when he realised the consequences of his brilliant science and who paraphrased the Hindu Bhagavada Gita when he said:

“Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

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