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Policy

The Flip SIde Of A Breakthrough

April 15, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 15

Rudy Baum’s book review “Transforming Warfare” was a sobering reminder of how scientific breakthroughs can have powerfully negative effects, such as greatly increasing the length and devastation of World War I (C&EN, Jan. 7, page 27). The book’s citation of a 1920 article by Amos A. Fries advocating chemical warfare raises doubts about whether technology really improves our lives.

Baum’s review illuminated an enigmatic quote from Albert Einstein: “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal” (abridged translation, from a letter written from Berlin in 1917 to his friend Heinrich Zangger). Einstein’s insight, which has puzzled scientists (for example, Asaph Aharoni and Federica Brandizzi in the Plant Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-313X.2012.04987.x), is arguably his most profound contribution to civilization—and especially relevant today.

William K. Wilson
Houston

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