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27 January 2011

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Jim Grozier

Apologies for not being Tom Lean … but here is my pennyworth.

Although there are only two questions, I think a third is implied. To the first question – “is this distinction between the scientific work of physicists and engineers valid?” I think it is fairly easy to say “yes” – Snow’s summary of what engineers and scientists actually do is fairly accurate. Then surely the next question is whether his implication that there is a difference in political outlook between the two groups is also valid; and if the answer to both of these is “yes”, a third question suggests itself: is this distinction in ways of thinking politically connected with the different types of work these two groups do, or is it due to some other cause, such as the social backgrounds from which people have come, or the training they have received?

Having spent 26 years working as an engineer before switching to the world of physics (about 10 years ago), I ought to be able to answer the second question, although I can only claim knowledge of one workplace in the former capacity and two in the latter. I would say that he is right, but only just. I remember being quite shocked at how conservative engineers were when I started my first main job, having previously worked in the health service and in a school. However I have to say that many physicists don’t seem to “do” politics at all, and since there is a big overlap between physics and the “defence” industry, with an awful lot of them seemingly quite happy to work there, it seems there is little evidence that physicists have much interest in the ethical implications of their work, which one might expect them to have if they were politically aware.The existence of organisations like Pugwash and Scientists for Global Responsity shows that there are scientists who are concerned about such things, but if you did a survey I’m not sure you’d find many who had even heard of these organisations, let alone belonged to them.

Perhaps the contrast seen by Snow was partly a product of the extraordinary circumstances in which those scientists found themselves. The quote does not make it clear that these “New Men” were working on the atomic bomb during World War II. Maybe the scientists were more aware than the engineers of the destructive power of the device they were working on, and of the fact that they could influence whether or not it actually got built?

Jim Grozier.

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