I.I. Rabi

Rabi: Scientist as Citizen, Part I

VTR Date: April 12, 1987

Guest: Rabi, I.I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: I. I. Rabi
Title: “Rabi, Scientist and Citizen”
Part I
VTR: 4/18/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Just as I know so little about the so-called “dismal science,” economics, that my eyes literally cloud over when I discuss it, so to, must I admit, not proudly to be sure, but honestly enough, that I know little, if anything about what traditionally passes for science, itself. And when I realize all over again that my guest today is a world-renowned Nobel Laureate in physics, well I do wonder at my temerity.

Yet I’ve always revered the men of science I have known first-hand and rather much have thought that I understood them and their pursuit. Largely perhaps because to me science, generally, is to be equated with knowledge and reason. Scientific endeavor to be identified with the quest for the ‘good society,’ the ‘good life,’” the truly good life of the mind. Quite simply, right reason and rationality seemed always to me to be the cornerstone of science and the hallmark of the few scientists I have known. My friends and teachers, Theodosius Dobzbansky, Lawrence Gould, Warren Weaver, Ernest Nagel, Nathan Kline. Of course, others might challenge as simple-minded my notion that these great mean actually fit the scientific mold. Dobzbansky, a zoologist; Gould, geologist; Weaver, mathematician; Nagel, logician; Kline, psychiatrist. Perhaps science is made up only of sterner, harder stuff, of chemistry and physics, more befitting today’s OPEN MIND guest, one of America’s greatest men of science, I.I. Rabi, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, dean of his profession. Yet Professor Rabi is the subject of a new Basic Books study by John Rigden entitled, Rabi: Scientist and Citizen. And perhaps it is as citizen that I can best draw him out today, asking first if the life-long connection between scientist and citizen is often enough as complete as it has been with him. Dr. Rabi, thanks for joining me. I just wonder, indeed, whether that connection which comes out so clearly in this Rigden book on Rabi: Scientist and Citizen, between those two existences is as much present in the life of other scientists as in yours?

Rabi: Well, some of those things are rather accidental. My connection as Rabi as Citizen is because of the War and my experience in the war, feeling that I had to bring that knowledge and experience and reputation to bear on helping to solve some of the problems caused by the war. But science is much more basic than that. It’s much closer to, well, something you might call religion. It’s something, which is for all humanity. It’s a point of view and a direction, which we’ve never had before.

Heffner: Why do you say, never had before?

Rabi: Never before did mankind consciously explore nature, find out what is really going on, make this an object, a quest of knowledge for itself. Not from the written word, but from nature itself and devising means of asking profound questions. And as a result, changing all the fundamental ideas as basic as cause and effect. As basic as the number of dimensions that there are. The whole basic assumptions, which have existed have all changed now, except that the general public and even the scientists haven’t realized what a different world it is that they’ve made. Not only in the practical way, but even more in a general philosophical way, they’ve provided something, which didn’t exist before except in religion, as a goal for humanity. So it’s not something nice, born helpless, it’s something which changes us profoundly. And as soon as that gets into the general consciousness, we’ll have an entirely different world, entirely different modes, entirely different questions.


Heffner: Different how? Different, good; different bad?

Rabi: I don’t think it can be defined in those terms. Good and bad has to be determined in the sense of the goals of humanity, heretofore. It’s not just to live the ‘good life,’ whatever… normal ‘good life,’ it’s for a better understanding of what we are, where we’re going, the great powers that we have.

Heffner: To no end? To no specific end in your own estimation?

Rabi: That’s the great thing, discovering the end as you go on. It’s not a given end, you don’t inherit the answers from the Greeks or anybody else.

Heffner: But you know there was something in those interviews you did with Jeremy Bernstein a dozen years ago. And you were talking about the war, you were talking about your involvement with war and it’s so interesting to me to hear you say here that as a citizen, the impetus was the war. It was your work on radar, which was so enormously important, it was your participation in Alamogordo and the development of the atomic bomb. What would have happened if there had been no war? What would have happened to Rabi, the citizen?

Rabi: Rabi, citizen, would have done what he could do best. Finding out more about the nature of the world, possibly his own nature.

Heffner: And Rabi won the Nobel Prize for that.

Rabi: That’s right.

Heffner: But to no end other than the search for truth?

Rabi: It’s not the search for truth, I don’t know what truth is. Truth is changing all the time, with the systems in which go ahead and discover things. Yesterday’s truth is an approximation to today’s truth. We are really born naked and nobody told us what to do. We’ve made ourselves gradually, with enormous difficulty. It’s only recently we’ve begun to really look into ourselves, inside, what we’re made of, how our minds work. And the outside world, the world of fundamental laws of nature and how wonderful they are and how they transcend these simple rules of guidance for keeping society going.

Heffner: And yet, going back to this Bernstein piece, you said something there that made me, makes me wonder about what you’re just saying now. You said then that Alamogordo, the bomb, suddenly transformed physics from a private academic discipline to one with enormous political and moral implications.

He writes this and then he writes, “the few physicists who were there, like Rabi, understood, that that almost immediately after the explosion.” And this wonderful quotation, “at first I was thrilled,” Rabi told me, “it was a vision. Then a few minutes afterwards, I had gooseflesh all over me when I realized what this meant for the future of humanity. Not a thing in itself, but for the future of humanity. Up until then, humanity was, after all, a limited factor in the evolution and process of nature. The vast oceans, lakes and rivers, the atmosphere were not very much affected by the existence of mankind. The new powers represented a threat, not only to mankind but to all forms of life, the seas and the air. Once could foresee that nothing was immune from the tremendous power of these new forces.” And these were the forces that you helped create.

Rabi: That’s right. And it also defines a responsibility.

Heffner: But you weren’t just discovering, you were creating. Impacting, to use that much abuse word, upon all of past history.

Rabi: Once we discover something, we try to put it to use. And then there’s a real question, and that’s where Rabi, the Citizen, comes in. How to use it so as not to destroy ourselves? And also to destroy the whole progress of science, this liberating philosophy…. This liberating… I can’t find the word exactly… it’s a driving force which I think if you wanted to become mystical about it, is the reason mankind is here.

Heffner: Why is it Rabi, the scientist’s business?

Rabi: Who else? They’re not fitted for it mostly, they don’t have the education, they don’t have the background, they don’t have the feeling. There’s so much miseducation in some of our brightest minds. All you have to look is at the scene today. How ridiculous.


Heffner: You want, then the scientist to play a much more active role because he is that much better educated?

Rabi: No, I want our master, the politicians to be better educated, and realize the responsibilities. Because they have the power, they have the word.

Heffner: You had the power.

Rabi: No, no. That’s a great mistake. The scientists have no power. Truman, who decided to drop the bomb, was not scientist. But he had the power. Truman, who decided to go ahead with the thermonuclear, didn’t know what he was doing, but he had the power.

Heffner: Would you have exercised that power differently?

Rabi: I don’t know, I can’t tell you, because I wasn’t in a position. I don’t know what he knew, it’s quite different. All I know is what we did, and that he had the power.

Heffner: Do you feel that the scientist, well… we taped this on a day, we record this program on a day when the newspapers are filled with stories about genetic manipulation and the patenting of new forms of animal life. Do we just sit back and say, “these scientists who are doing this, simply are discovering truths and that they have no power, they have not even let the genie out.”

Rabi: I think that’s the sad thing. That you say, “these scientists,” instead of saying “we.”

Heffner: Why do you say that? The “we” and “they”?

Rabi: An uneducated public, they say, “the scientists are doing it,” instead of saying “we,” it’s our responsibility. The scientists say humans, they’re carrying out something which is a very high mission.

Heffner: Do you think that it’s possible to, for the scientific community to make discoveries, the manipulation of man’s capacity, the manipulation of genetic content, the strength, the power found in the nucleus of the atom, that those discoveries can be made and set aside by a public that says, “we don’t choose to use them”?

Rabi: Certainly. They have the power to do it. They could destroy the whole works. We could have Dark Ages immediately, very easy to go down. All you have to do is look at some of the other countries that have started, we could bring that about very quickly. There has to be a respect for the human spirit on the one hand and certain material desires for what this can bring.

Heffner: Would you, Rabi, the scientist, or Rabi, the citizen, limit any of these newer developments?

Rabi: I would rather consider myself as Rabi, a human being, the result of a long evolution, not only biological but cultural. And therefore have these responsibilities. I have certain advantages conferred upon me and have these responsibilities. And I don’t regard myself as a scientist alone. As a matter of fact I have ceased being a scientist a long time ago in the sense of contributing new knowledge. I’m now only a humanist, so to speak, and an observer. And a communicator, possibly, if I can.

Heffner: It’s interesting that you say that because my observation in terms of this notion of two cultures, has been that the scientists I’ve known have been humanists, have been cultured, have been enormously more knowledgeable than the general run of society in many, many, many different fields and think of themselves that way.

Rabi: The list you gave were all very great men, not just scientists, they were great men.

Heffner: But there are those who say, “Scientists, that’s ridiculous.”

Rabi: Well, scientists are human and they run a whole range. Some are gifted but stupid. You must realize it takes every sort of person and every nationality has contributed to science, in its own way.


Heffner: But not an eminent scientist. Not a successful scientist.

Rabi: Oh yes.

Heffner: Would you say that?

Rabi: Oh yes, surely. Of course they have to be literate in the first place. But otherwise if you take the whole range of the people who have had the proper education, the Europeans, the Americans, the Soviet Union, every one of those nations has contributed greatly, specifically.

Heffner: All right. But let me get back to this question of responsibility. If I understand correctly, there are many times at this table when there are representatives of the press, distinguished editors and publishers, and reporters, etc. And most frequently when they’re here, they say, “nobody’s in here but us chickens. We don’t have the kind of power that you say we have, Mr. Heffner. And therefore, in a sense, let’s not talk so quickly about our responsibilities. We’re just citizens, we’re just human beings.” Was there no responsibility on the part of those of you who stood on the sands at Alamogordo?

Rabi: Of course there was.

Heffner: And how was that responsibility met?

Rabi: It was deeply felt. It was met in the best way we could. To try to communicate with the people in control who had made the decisions. We were not in control to make the decisions. I made a speech about that at Los Alamos, Mr. Moyers recorded it. We gave it, we gave it to people who were not prepared for it.

Heffner: Would you put a weapon, a magnum? Would you put a knife, would you put a bayonet in the hands of someone you felt was not prepared to understand it’s potential for death and misuse it?

Rabi: That’s not what happens. I didn’t put it there. It was there. They took it.

Heffner: They took it?

Rabi: Wait a minute. They paid for it. They took it. They possessed it. They owned it . We worked for them. We had no way of going ahead and doing science and learning more without public support. But the public support comes from the politicians. And the public in general, newspapers, you do, and so on. Not that we gave it to them. They took it. .

Heffner: They bought it.

Rabi: No. They didn’t know what they were buying. There it was and they took it, whatever it was.

Heffner: If you had it to do over again, would you do the same thing?

Rabi: Certainly.

Heffner: No compunctions about the role that…

Rabi: I have no compunctions…I regret what they did. That they didn’t utilize it as the greatest instrument for peace which I thought it would be.

Heffner: Now in this new potential for the manipulation of genetic content? I suppose those who investigate, those who are scientists, can once again say, “we are, we are discovering the nature of…

Rabi: I want to make a distinction between science and the ideas and the powers it confers upon people. And its application which is public, practical. And has to have the support of the commonality. These are two different things. So this genetic thing is something else again. And…

Heffner: You mean it’s the use that’s being made of it.

Rabi: Well, it’s in the realm of practicality. And I think it’s a matter of public concern. Just as it would have been a matter of public concern if privately I’d been playing around and made an atomic bomb. Privately, on my own. It could be done, in those simple means that would have been a great matter of public concern. Certainly the basic ideas which made it possible are wonderful, beautiful, ennobling, profound in every way. Making the bomb… all the other things we do, where we use the power and knowledge that science confers upon us, are in the public domain and the public responsibility. And mostly the public isn’t educated to use it. As you said, we destroy our environment with all sorts of things. And we can’t go ahead without feeling this responsibility. Without feeling some sort of goals for humanity to fashion our ends, our goals, our morals.


Heffner: Dr. Rabi, I remember reading the Bernstein piece a dozen years ago when it first came out in the New Yorker, and by only going back to it did I really understand the strength and the full importance of what you were saying, which leads me to question what you’re saying now. You said, “this was different. We haven’t had an impact upon the rest of the universe…”

Rabi: That’s right.

Heffner: “…now, suddenly we had created something that was way beyond ourselves, capable of changing everything.” Doesn’t that mean that there is some point at which, the scientist, want to say, “wait a minute, it’s not just a matter of what the public does, what we as a society do with it. I’ve been around long enough, I’m enough of a student of history (as you are), to make my bets as to what will be done with it. I don’t want this power released. The kind of power you described here.

Rabi: About whom is this discussion… is it about an individual or about society or is it about the National Science Foundation, is it about the Department of Defense, which supplies the money, and so on?

Heffner: Suppose I answer all the scientists who, after Alamogordo tried to do so much to bring reason and sensitivity and concern into what was done with what they had created. Had there been no sense before of what they were going to create?

Rabi: Yes there had, these discussions had been going on for centuries. The whole is now that we face a situation where we have these various powers which we have, controlled by people who don’t feel it and don’t know it and haven’t had the education to do it… to control it. And that goes through the whole range of our activity, from television as we’re on now and the newspapers, on to the politicians at the end. They have to be conscious of this. We never could dream of giving the powers we give to an individual with so little attention to his capacities, his background, his education… moral education.

Heffner: But the consequence of what you say seems to me, quite possibly to be, therefore let us not keep continuing to develop power upon power upon power upon these… giving them to these unprepared…

Rabi: I’m a teacher. And I think the solution is nothing stopping me but educating…

Heffner: …them. All the rest of us.

Rabi: Yes, sir. And that’s a proper role, and has been since immemorial times.

Heffner: Not famous last words?

Rabi: Not famous last words. And if it’s the famous last words life will go on, perhaps. They start again, a billion years from now.

Heffner: But you know, that’s the point that you made so beautifully here. That for the first time, we’ve developed the means, we have developed the means, if you will, to stop life. Isn’t the power so great now that you want to move a little in your scientific certainly that you are only unveiling and “they,” the rest of us, dispose of the power you…

Rabi: I remember when my little daughter went to school by herself and how I worried. She had to do it. She found ways, she had to cross the street, and so on. I don’t know what you can do otherwise.

Heffner: Yes, but you know I’m reminded…

Rabi: Because everything works that way. Cain and Abel, an excellent illustration.Heffner: Yes, but I’m reminded of the story that is told in the book about Rabi and in one or two of the other few things that you have let be written about you, that as a young boy you were a Socialist. You got over that in a hurry. And I gather you got over that in a hurry because you looked around you and you said, “they’re too damn dumb to trust them, with this power.”

Rabi: No, they were louts?

Heffner: Just louts?

Rabi: Yes.

Heffner: Ignoramuses.

Rabi: No, louts. In, in school, to be taught. (Laughter)

Heffner: Now, why do you… why do you say now that you’ll put the life of the rest of the universe, of all times, in the hands of louts?

Rabi: Well, It’s a chance you take. The Founding Fathers didn’t believe in democracy as we know it.

Heffner: I know.

Rabi: Okay. They did it anyway. They didn’t see how to work out… it worked out pretty well. I’m not very optimistic, but I’m not completely pessimistic. I have no other choice.


Heffner: You have no other choice?

No: No other choice. It would be an extraordinary arrogance to hold back knowledge because you didn’t think they were capable of using it. I was not elected President of the United States or a senator, not even as a dogcatcher. So in our system, I have to work with the people who are elected. I may regret that they may not think that my ideas are the acme of wisdom, but that’s how you live.

Heffner: We have one minute left to this program. Would you say the same about, the scientists of Hitler’s Germany?

Rabi: As I said earlier, there are various… some certainly, some not at all, some very disappointing.

Heffner: But they were hired. They were told what to do.

Rabi: Not exactly. No. You can’t take a real scientist and tell him what to do. It won’t work.

Heffner: But they continued to do what they…

Rabi: And they continued to do this, but its faulted participation. I don’t think a real scientist can be told what to do.

Heffner: And you feel, too, I gather, that a real scientist doesn’t tell those who have.. who rule the nation, what it is they should do. Separate them from what he has done.

Rabi: No. He like to be a partner in this, this is too new to have people just pick it up from tradition. It’s new. So he should be asked to be a partner. And Eisenhower realized this and we had the President’s Science Advisory Committee.

Heffner That’s something I would like to talk about. Our time is up and if you will, when we stop this program, I’ll get you to stay where you are and we’ll talk about that.

Rabi: Okay.

Heffner: Thank you, Dr. Rabi for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts please send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.