Churchill’s Lucifer of perverted science and Leonardo’s grotesque error

In Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech he said

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Madhusree Mukerjee has shown recently how Churchill was responsible for the Bengal famine of 1943. She describes here how this was largely the consequence of heeding advice from a “trusted old friend”, physicist Frederick Alexander Lindemann and his assistant Donald MacDougall.

Consider the following perverted science that Lindemann advocated in lectures in the early 1930s. According to Madhusree Mukerjee

He had detailed a science-based solution to a challenge that occupied many an intellect of the time: preserving for eternity the hegemony of the superior classes. Any attempt “to force upon Nature an equality she has never admitted” was bound to lead to bloody strife, the scientist asserted in a draft of this talk. Instead of subscribing to what he called “the fetish of equality,” he recommended that human differences be accepted and indeed enhanced by means of science. It was no longer necessary, he wrote, to wait for “the haphazard process of natural selection to ensure that the slow and heavy mind gravitates to the lowest form of activity.” New technologies such as surgery, mind control, and drug and hormone manipulations would one day allow humans to be fine-tuned for specific tasks. Society could create “gladiators or philosophers, athletes or artists, satyrs or monks” at will—indeed, it could manufacture “men with a passion and perhaps even aptitude for any desired vocation.” At the lower end of the race and class spectrum, one could remove from “helots” (the Greek word for slaves) the ability to suffer or to feel ambition.

“Somebody must perform dull, dreary tasks, tend machines, count units in repetition work; is it not incumbent on us, if we have the means, to produce individuals without a distaste for such work, types that are as happy in their monotonous occupation as a cow chewing the cud?” Lindemann asked. Science could yield a race of humans blessed with “the mental make-up of the worker bee.” This subclass would do all the unpleasant work and not once think of revolution or of voting rights: “Placid content rules in the bee-hive or ant-heap.” The outcome would be a perfectly peaceable and stable society, “led by supermen and served by helots.”

It’s possible though to be classist, yet still stay on the side of humanity. For example, consider Henry Petty-FitzMaurice during the European “Great War” of 1914-1918. According to Adam Hochschild

Lord Lansdowne was a great landowner and former viceroy of India, minister for war, and foreign secretary. His doubts about battling to an unconditional victory began after the Somme. Very much a man of his class, he was particularly appalled by the number of British officers slain. “We are slowly but surely killing off the best of the male population of these islands . . . ” he wrote. “Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss.”

When the shocked London Times refused to publish it, an open letter from him appeared in the Daily Telegraph on November 29, 1917, laying out some proposals for a negotiated peace. “We are not going to lose this War,” Lansdowne wrote, “but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it. . . . Just as this war has been more dreadful than any war in history, so, we may be sure, would the next war be even more dreadful than this.” Nearly three decades before Hiroshima, he prophetically sensed something about the future: “The prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction is not likely to stop short.”

Disgust at the perversion of science in the service of psychopathy isn’t a 20th-century invention.

Consider the case of Leonardo’s “grotesque error”. According to Steven Levingston

Da Vinci […] had already painted “The Last Supper,” but it was his thinking on science and technology […] that landed him in Borgia’s service as his chief military engineer. Da Vinci contributed his considerable gifts to strengthening the duke’s fortresses (curved walls reduced the impact of cannonballs), drawing maps (with the use of his invention, the hodometer, to measure precise distances) and building ad hoc bridges for the duke’s army to cross rivers.

Ultimately, however, da Vinci became disgusted by Borgia. By the time he escaped the duke’s employ, da Vinci had undergone “a profound psychological change . . . as a result of his terrifying experiences.” He still worked on his own projects — paintings, designs for buildings, canal improvements — but could finish little. He considered publishing his understanding of science and technology but was unable to see the effort through. After his exposure to Borgia, Strathern writes, da Vinci realized that development of his military engineering skills — once a source of pride and ambition — was a “grotesque error.” While he continued to fill his notebooks with diagrams, drawings and speculations, da Vinci also wrote, “I will not publish, nor divulge such things because of the evil nature of men.” In the end, he left a meager legacy: There are no sculptures, no complete buildings, from his architectural drawings and only a handful of paintings, some unfinished.

Someday soon the “quants” of Wall Street may also be inducted to the Perverted Science Hall of Infamy. According to Robert Harris in “Frankenstein finance: How supercomputers preying on human fear are taking over the world’s stock markets”

The Desertron — or the superconducting super-collider, to give it its proper scientific title — was supposed to be America’s answer to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, a gigantic experiment to investigate the most fundamental laws of our universe. With a circumference of 54 miles, it would have been three times as large and powerful.

Unfortunately it would also have been nearly three times as expensive. In October 1993, in order to save projected future costs of $10 billion, the U.S. Congress voted to abandon the whole scheme — writing-off the work already done at a cost of $2 billion.

For a whole generation of American academic physicists, that decision wiped out their planned careers.

One physicist with a PhD I spoke to when I was researching my new novel, now in his 40s, told me he cried when he heard the news. What was he supposed to do now? He had to earn a living somewhere. His solution, like that of a majority of his colleagues, was to go and work on Wall Street

and

Quants analyse the market with intense mathematical and statistical precision to predict share price movements and the level of investment risk; they sit at screens and rarely talk in anything louder than a whisper.

The trading is mostly done by computer, for which the quants write the programmes. Now, 73 % of shares in New York are traded by computer, either by so-called ‘high-frequency strategies’, which may hold the shares for only a few milliseconds, or by algorithms devised by quants. Algorithms are sophisticated programmes designed to predict the behaviour of the markets.

There is something slightly creepy about it. In the words of Emanuel Derman, himself a leading quant: ‘When physicists pursue the laws of the universe, it seems selfless. But watching quants pursue sacred laws for the profane production of profit, I sometimes find myself thinking disturbingly of worshippers at a black mass.’

Advertisements

Tell me (anonymous OK)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s