The greatest prize of all

December 21, 2001

What gets a Nobel laureate excited? Guest editor Harry Kroto says the buzz in his field comes from nanoscience but warns that mankind is in danger if we lose our most precious possession, the freedom to doubt.

The Nobel prize is so much better known than any other prize, arguably disproportionately so, that it tends to confer a bizarrely omniscient aura on winners. It may also be difficult for recipients not to believe in their own omniscience. However, as Dirty Harry pointed out, they need to know their "limitations". The laureates I asked to contribute to this compendium know theirs. They highlight their views of what excites and concerns themb as I do here, subject of course to my own limitations.

First, the things that excite me. In my own field of science, where chemistry, physics and biology have coalesced, there is the huge potential of the fascinating "new" multidisciplinary field of nanoscience and nano-technology ( www.nano.sussex.ac.uk ). N&N involves the creation of complex molecules with hundreds to thousands of atoms and overall nanoscale dimensions (10 -9 m) that promise a paradigm shift in medical and electronic/civil-engineering applications.

Life, long ago, invented numerous talented molecules that buzz around inside us. Indeed, we are all full of nanoscale molecular machines: haemoglobin undergoes amazing contortions to grab oxygen as we breathe so we can function, and exquisite electric bio-motors make the molecules that power our muscles.

The new breed of nano-chemist is creating molecules that "do things": molecular switches, insulated nanowires and nanoropes that promise pocket supercomputers and construction materials of unheard-of strength. To realise these exciting goals is, however, a massive challenge.

Then there is the educational potential of the internet. The first revolution in education occurred when printing was invented. Until then, the only book available was the Bible, and a bunch of monks laboriously made copies. Printing enabled individuals to write books and read them, scholarship was democratised and general education born. The fruits of intellectual creativity could, for the first time, be stored, codified and disseminated.

The birth of the internet is the second educational revolution. It enables anyone to make and broadcast programmes, and it means we are wresting control from the media, which has had it for far too long. Some might seek to discourage people from setting up websites, saying no one will access them - but I am sure someone once told some little-known Russian writer that no one would read his book about those brothers.

Just as bad books are flushed away, leaving and consolidating a stored inventory of our culture, so outstanding websites will survive. Just as monks could make a infinitesimal contribution to the inventory of written culture, so organisations driven by advertising and mass-entertainment dynamics can barely scratch the surface of the creative potential of audiovisual media.

I and my colleagues have created the Vega Science Trust ( www.vega.org.uk ), which enables individual scientists and engineers to communicate directly on matters that excite and concern them with whomever they wish. Science's real problems must be confronted and solved to advance understanding. The concept of programmes by scientists who understand the issues and advances changing our world appears to be new in broadcasting. This direct communication is one way of dealing with the problem of science's image. Scientists and engineers have freed so many from the slavery of working merely to survive, but we are treated with suspicion.

Although science and technology seem destined to become even more important in this century than the past, many people are still oblivious to the degree of our dependency on them. For these people, the overriding "image" of the sciences is of mysteriously hard disciplines, responsible more for ecological threats than for humanitarian benefits.

There is no gratitude when science and technology go right, which they do most of the time. After all, the light invariably goes on, the car usually starts, aspirin works, drinkable water almost always comes out of the tap and the loo flushes. When things go wrong, however, copious complaints ensue.

One supremely humanitarian chemistry contribution is the Haber Process that produces the fertilisers without which half the world would starve. In my view, a fair assessment of science and technology would give it nine out of ten.

The public is, however, right to be anxious about new technologies because some are so powerful that care must be taken to ensure that they are beneficial and do not do irreparable damage. Let us be clear about who is to blame when things go wrong. It is the public's needs and wants that drive science and technology applications. The public, government, "guardian" organisations as well as scientists and engineers must all collaborate to avoid mistakes. Wise technological strategies will be much more likely if there is better general understanding of science and technology.

Lastly, an issue that could threaten all the progress made so far. Humanity's most precious possession, the freedom to doubt, has been hard won from the tyrannically religious and xenophobic philosophies that have, until now, governed the lives of most of the human race. Even today, bizarre alliances are forming to wrest this priceless treasure from our frail grasp. There is a distinct threat to the democratic way of life that some of us enjoy by those who seek to hijack it and return us to a pre-medieval intellectual epoch.

Countless millions, heartbreakingly many of them children, live under the insidiously evil threat of eternal damnation if they so much as dare to doubt. Strangely, few seem to be aware that personal freedom and the freedom to doubt go hand in hand.

Sir John Cornforth (Nobel laureate in chemistry, 1975) has written eloquently on the way the scientific methods that have made our lives so much more bearable than the lives of our forefathers have doubt as the fundamental criterion of action. It is also worth noting that those who indiscriminately murdered so many innocent people in New York were steeped in an ideology that employs fear of doubt with relentless zeal as its primary weapon of controlling mind and action. The subliminal divisiveness of those primal and paltry herd instincts, patriotism and theistic conviction, which so many who should know better deem virtues, is now more evident than ever. Unless we embrace a truly ubiquitous humanitarian ethic, some sort of global "patriotism", our survival is not merely unlikely, but essentially impossible.

Sir Harry Kroto won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996. He is the guest editor of this supplement.

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