John Polanyi is university professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and won the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This article is based on a talk to the Conference on the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), given in Ottawa on Nov. 30.
With 20 million killed in the First World War and 60 million in the Second World War, mankind showed it could mass-produce death. Then, A-bombs increased the power of weaponry a thousandfold. H-bombs a millionfold. The world took note and in a bold move reduced the number of nuclear weapons to a few thousand.
That is the good news. The bad news is that this residue can destroy civilizations.
How did this new world come into being?
It owes its existence to the power of modern science. But that is also good news; it testifies to the ability of the international community to co-operate while competing fiercely.
For science is highly competitive, while being supremely co-operative. Rarely today does a scientific paper have a single author. And when it does, the list of references makes clear its indebtedness to others.
Isaac Newton’s claim to be standing on the shoulders of giants was genuine. Science shows the ability of competitors to share. Applied to the world at large, that would be transformative.
But how do we combine competition with collaboration? This happens in societies linked by trust. Only occasionally can scientists stop to verify others’ findings. For the most part, they believe their colleagues.
The success of science shows that the trust is well-placed. The widespread desire for freedom to speak the truth also applies to science. We make the penalty for falsehood severe; it is life-long banishment from science.
The trust that exists between colleagues carries an important message: we are all valid observers. Testament to this came from the acceptance of Albert Einstein, a stateless patent clerk, as having the right to challenge science’s highest authorities. This affirmed the most fundamental of human rights: the right to be heard.
Tyrannies hold to a different ethic. For them the truth takes second place to utility. Accordingly, they prove inhospitable to science.
A century ago, German science reigned supreme. But within a decade the Nazis destroyed it. Characteristically, the science they put in its place – racial purity – was spurious. Communism’s false science was that of unending class struggle. Societies that elevate doctrine over truth soon lose sight of the truth.
That is why there is fear today of China. The fear extends to the possibility that it might blunder into war with Taiwan. President Joe Biden stated that U.S. support for Taiwan is “rock solid.” So, too, we are told, is President Xi Jinping’s claim to Taiwan.
Where will the world shelter if these nuclear powers come to blows?
The contending parties are bound by the UN Charter, making aggression a crime. In 1945, following two world wars and the Nuremberg trials, the world demanded an end to “might as the arbiter of right.”
For might is bereft of reason. Reason gave us science; laws of nature and some laws of man. From this came courts where laws are argued. There is a profound difference between that and drawing a gun.
To set aside the gun will, however, require an act of will, opposing the continual call for armaments. The rationale for arming is that others do it. This defies logic, since it is a race to no destination except war.
A turning away from war is evidenced by the decline in interstate violence over the past three-quarters of a century. Objectively, the peace movement is winning.
The aim must be to revitalize the peace movement by issuing a challenge to “ban the bomb” – not merely figuratively, but legally. The legislation exists. It is the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force this year, backed by 122 states (but not yet by any nuclear-weapon states, or Canada).
Such laws have been proposed before, and laughed at. “Not so fast,” their proponents were told. But soon they found that “little by little” meant never. They needed to make a break with history.
One such break ended the burning of heretics, another ended murders sanctioned as duels, a third ended torture en route to slavery.
And then, as now, humanity cried out again for change.
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