Eleanor Roosevelt on Science
By Maria Popova
“Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on,” modern science patron saint Richard Feynman wrote in contemplating the central responsibility of scientists. A generation earlier, Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) offered a counterpart in considering the scientific responsibility of the non-scientist in Tomorrow Is Now (public library) — her altogether magnificent farewell to the world, containing Roosevelt’s searing, timeless, and acutely timely case for our individual responsibility in social change.
Roosevelt is reflecting from the final frontier of a long and varied life, having lived through two major depressions and two world wars, and having seen science be both a formidable force of destruction and a life-giving, life-saving grace. She is also writing from the horizon of a new dawn of discovery for modern science, the fruits of which would come to touch every aspect of human life — a point in time shortly after the decoding of DNA’s molecular structure, the invention of the laser, and the first human in space. From this vantage point singularly significant both in her personal lifetime and in the lifetime of modern science, Roosevelt’s words resonate with especial poignancy.
In a sentiment which Marilynne Robinson would come to echo half a century later in her beautiful meditation on science and the humanities, Roosevelt counters the limiting yet deep-seated cultural misconception that the two are at odds with one another:
Orwell in his 1984 and Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World each provided us with an appalling picture of the future of mankind, a life dominated by scientific method in which the humanities and the human spirit had been destroyed. But this picture is obviously based on the astonishing idea that man will supinely let himself be governed by science, not that he will use science as an enlightened tool to make his world closer to a Utopia than man has ever dreamed, still retaining his human dignity as a person and his independence as an individual.
Our choice is not one, as these alarmed novelists appear to believe, of science or the humanities. What we must learn to do is to create unbreakable bonds between the sciences and the humanities.
With an eye to the cynicism that lurks behind all anti-scientific paranoia, Roosevelt suggests that every technology is first and foremost a technology of thought and intention:
Either science will control us or we will control it. That is the sum and substance of the matter. By becoming its master we can build the kind of world we want to have. Nothing can stop us but inaction, lack of imagination, lack of courage, and lack of trained knowledge.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Feynman’s famous monologue about how science enriches the mystery of life, she adds:
Science reaches out to increase our knowledge of the distant past as well as to help us transform our methods to fit the future. It solves old mysteries of history. (An analysis of a hair from Napoleon’s head indicates that he may have died of arsenic instead, as was supposed, of cancer.) It adds depth to our knowledge of the art of the past, and its age, as well as giving us clear evidence of the ways in which long-forgotten people lived and behaved.
Half a century ago, Roosevelt’s words speak to our present world with tremendous timeliness:
In the very near future, in some cases even today, we see that an enlightened and imaginative use of scientific knowledge, and a constant extension of that knowledge into the unknown, impinges upon almost every element of our lives. Its effect will be felt in our economy, in the food we eat, in our physical health and well-being.
But science, wonderful, inexhaustible as its possibilities are, is not enough in itself. Science is a tool by which men will build their future. The future will depend on man’s use of his tool. Ultimately, the basic factor again is the individual, his courage, his responsibility, and his imagination.
I am not afraid of 1984. I believe that, with proper education to enable us to master the secrets of science, with a strong sense of responsibility for our own actions, with a clear awareness that our future is linked with the welfare of the world as a whole, we may justly anticipate that the life of the next generation will be richer, more peaceful, more rewarding than any we have ever known.
Published May 17, 2016