Unit 2.8 The moral responsibility of scientists

Unit 2.8 The moral responsibility of scientists 

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UNIT 2: SCIENCE AND SOCIETY
The moral responsibility of scientists
The atomic bomb
With war against Nazi Germany seeming inevitable by the end of the 1930s, intelligence sources
believed that German scientists were working on an atomic bomb. Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and
Fritz Strassmann's discovery of nuclear fission led to the real possibility that the Germans -- with
their vast industrial base and chemical engineering industry, heavywater plant and increasingly
highgrade uranium compound -- would be first to develop a nuclear bomb.
One of the scientists involved, an Austrian Jew called Lise Meitner, fled to Sweden, where she
continued her work on fission with Otto Frisch. This was reported by the Danish physicist Niels
Bohr, leading to the possibility that it could be used to construct the ultimate weapon of destruction
-- the atomic bomb.
Scientists have the training, skills and knowledge which are essential to all
weapons research, but the implications of their talents and discoveries may not
always be immediately apparent.
Scientists also have the responsibility to consider that their work might be used
for nonpeaceful means -- by politicians in their quest for national security,
terrorists fighting for their particular cause or criminals seeking financial gain.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the eminent scientist, Albert Einstein,
was prompted to write to the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to inform him of efforts
being made by German scientists to purify uranium235, which could be used as the basis of an
atomic bomb. In 1941, the British opened up their atomic research facilities to the Americans who
were to set up the Manhattan Project -- a research programme that led to the development of an
atomic bomb for use bv the Americans.
The major problem was producing sufficient amounts of enriched uranium (the only natural element
whose atoms can be split relatively easily) to sustain a chain reaction, as uranium235 was difficult
to extract and to separate from uranium238, which was chemically identical.
Under the physicist Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the scientific team, research prior to
the explosion of the world's first atomic bomb is said to have cost over $2 billion. Many were
apprehensive about the potential effects of the bomb test -- that it might fail, or about its potential
impact on the upper atmosphere and the possibility of radioactive fallout. Testing of what was
codenamed the 'Gadget' took place in the mountains of New Mexico in the summer of 1945. The

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Several of the
observers, watching inside a shelter, were blown flat by the blast.
On witnessing the explosion, its creators are said to have had mixed reactions. Oppenheinier,
though delighted by its success, talked of the danger of the destroyer of worlds' and admitted
tbat 'we knew the world would not be the same again'. Ken Bainb ridge, the test director, told
Oppenheirner that 'now we're all sons of bitches'.…read more

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Oppenheimer, so instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, became
increasingly concerned and suggested that the United Nations should be central to further
nuclear development.
The threat of nuclear war was upper most in the minds of many, particularly as the USA
('defenders of the free Western world') and the Soviet Union ('leaders of the Eastern
communist bloc') faced each other in what became "known as the Cold War, which ran from
the end of the 1940s to the end of the 1980s.…read more

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The science of germs and how diseases are transmitted was not understood until
the later nineteenth century following the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.
Modern biological warfare probably dates from the First World War when, though
illegal under the Hague Convention on the rules of warfare, poison gas used by
the Germans on their Eastern and Western Fronts was responsible for an
estimated 100,000 deaths.
Biological weapons are based on naturally occurring organisms that cause
disease.…read more

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By 1970 the USA had terminated its offensive bioweapons programme and the only
permitted research was for defensive purposes. By 1972 there was a United Nations
Convention on bacteriological and toxin weapons, which was then ratified by member nations.…read more

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Bioterrorism hit the USA in 1984 when a cult known as the Rashneeshee contaminated some
salad bars in Oregon, causing a widespread outbreak of salmonella poisoning. Another cult, an
extreme Buddhist sect known as Aum Shinri Kyo, were responsible for an attack on the Tokyo
underground in 1995 using the deadly nerve gas sarin. Fifteen stations were affected, 12 people
were killed and over 5,000 injured.…read more

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