Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Not so white coats

People go into scientific research for different reasons. Some people in response to an intellectual obsession. Some because they want to Make a DifferenceTM. Contrary to what old horror films would have you believe, few people go into it for nefarious purposes. So I did feel some degree of pity when I learnt about the unfortunate Thomas Midgely Jr., an American scientist who not only developed CFCs, but also put the lead in petrol!

It's quite something to make one discovery that has damaging consequences, but two is a little excessive. (For the uninitiated, CFCs are the refrigerants that have damaged the ozone layer, and leaded petrol contributed to air pollution). Mind you, whilst Alfred Nobel's regret that his invention of dynamite earnt him the moniker 'The merchant of death' prompted him to create the famous peace prize, Midgley didn't seem to do much to extricate himself from promotion of leaded petrol, even though he himself experienced the negative health effects. Ironically, it was one of his other creations that resulted in his death; having contracted polio, he created a pulley system to aid him in getting in and out of bed, which unfortunately resulted in his strangulation a few years later.

It can be difficult to predict the future implications of scientific endeavour which appears to be morally and technically sound at the time. I feel that scientists do, however, have a responsibility to try to act if it turns out that unexpected harm is a consequence of their work; to tame the monster they have created, as it were. Midgley didn't seem to try, and this is one of the reasons that, for all the technical validity of his major works, his is not the sort of career one should look to when wanting to find examples of good scientific practice.

No comments:

© Advancing Gingerly 2007-2009