Torsten Wiesel: How Science Can Bridge Divides

  • July 05, 2016
  • by Torsten Wiesel

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Every day, it seems, the news is filled with stories about wars and insurrections, suicide bombers and mass shootings, global climate change, and the collapse of the world economy. Confronted with such chaos and destruction, dangerous ideologies, and suppression of civil liberties, how can we even think about transcending borders, promoting peace, and fostering positive alliances across races, cultures, and religions?

Of course, we must. Fortunately, by nature, I am an optimist. And by training, I am a medical doctor and a neuroscientist. I have seen firsthand how, in the world of science, cooperation between disciplines occurs as a natural part of the work we do. That is because the language of science, and the ultimate purpose of science—to learn all that we can about the world at large and about ourselves—crosses races, cultures, and religions. For this reason, the scientific establishment can serve as an instrument of peace.

Individual scientists have a history of campaigning for the cause of peace. Albert Einstein spoke often of “using man’s powers of reason in order to settle disputes between nations … and have peace in the world from now on.”

Of course, science on its own is not guaranteed to provide a cure for societal maladies. Indeed, scientists were instrumental in the development of our most destructive weapons—chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Even Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel made his fortune from the invention of dynamite.

But many of these same scientists became prominent, outspoken advocates for peace. Physicists Robert Oppenheimer in the United States and Andrei Sakharov in the then-Soviet Union, who participated in the formulation of atomic bombs, led the charge in opposing their use. And Nobel bequeathed the bulk of his estate to establish the prizes that bear his name—awards that recognize advances in science as well as services to promote international fraternity.

Primarily, scientists can do their part by simply doing their science—a practice that involves interacting with colleagues from around the globe. As physicist Freeman Dyson elegantly states in his book Imagined Worlds, “The international community of scientists may help to abolish war by setting an example to the world of practical cooperation across barriers of nationality, language, and culture.”

I have been involved in several programs that strive to fulfill Dyson’s dream of working across cultural and national barriers. For nearly a decade, I served as secretary general of the Human Frontier Science Program, an international organization that gives scientists from different countries and disciplines the opportunity to not only work together but also get to know each other and broaden their understanding and appreciation of life beyond their borders. In addition, the program supports the training of postdoctoral students outside their home country, again an effective means of facilitating a deeper understanding between nations.

Similarly, the New York Academy of Sciences, a 200-year-old organization with members in 140 different countries for which I served as chair of the board of governors for six years, strives to create a global community of scientists and to benefit humanity by advancing knowledge about science and related issues.

For a decade I had the honor of chairing the Committee on Human Rights, created by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to protect and assist scientists, doctors, and scholars defined as prisoners of conscience.

These venerable organizations contribute to building bridges between scientists, who work together across international boundaries and scientific disciplines, practicing the kind of mutual respect essential to peaceful relations. But bridges cannot be built without a solid foundation. Science by itself cannot succeed in the absence of public understanding—which brings us to the need for educational opportunities for all of the world’s citizens.

Having access to information—and a chance to learn—is a fundamental human right. Now, thanks to the global reach of the Internet, we are making great progress toward having worldwide, affordable education become a reality. More and more universities are offering virtual classes and other online programs. I recently joined the council of the University of the People, an online university that has enrolled students in more than 180 countries. Through this institution, students can obtain an accredited associate degree for about $2,000 and a Bachelor of Arts for about $4,000.

Such online opportunities represent a revolution in education worth recognizing. With the spread of knowledge and understanding to all corners of the globe, we can hope that science—and scientists—will be better able to transcend borders, unite humankind, and, as Einstein said, “make peace in the world from now on.”

The very possibility is truly a cause for optimism.