Since the first humans began experimenting with new designs for spears, scientific research has held the potential to change not only the way we live, but also how long we live. Human and animal labor has been replaced by the work of levers and machines. Distances have shrunk as new means of travel have been invented, and communication across these distances has become instantaneous. Modern drugs now cure many lethal diseases. In short, the quality of life and its span have improved for most, unfortunately not all, people on this planet.
Though we sometimes imagine it takes place in isolation from the rest of human activity, science continuously updates our understanding of who we are, the reality of the world we live in, and our place in that world. Science has given us the insight that in a universe not unlike a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, the doll that represents us is smaller than a dust mote—with even smaller ones nesting inside. Developments such as satellite television and the internet are changing both the speed at which we receive information from halfway across the planet and our access to the means of disseminating that information. This technology has had a direct impact on politics in both democratic and non-democratic countries around the world. In truth, few human activities influence our daily lives as much as those resulting from scientific research.
Of course, warfare has been a powerful motivator for scientific invention since ancient times. Archimedes, for instance, was the first to lay out the physical principles of the lever. He also applied those principles in the design of bigger and better catapults for the Greek army. The inventions of pulleys and torsion springs in the classical world allowed soldiers to fling heavier weights over walls and shoot projectiles farther with crossbows. Often, armies quickly adopt and improve technologies that were not specifically intended for waging war. A new method for casting iron led to the invention of the cannon; in the past century, airplane, submarine, and radar technologies were first put to use to fight wars. Yet where would we be today without levers or pulleys, metal casting or airplanes?
It’s true that science has enabled some to apply its potential for destruction to heinous goals. Wars have become increasingly technology-based and weapons more destructive, and thus scientific research has also excelled in developing better defense systems.
But can scientific research be used as a catalyst for peace?
Consider this: The results of scientific research are universal. The formula for the velocity of a falling object will always apply, whether that object is dropped from the Great Wall of China or the Empire State Building. The proof of a mathematical theorem is either valid or it’s not, and that validity exists independent of any cultural, religious, or national context. Our wireless communications systems are based on electromagnetism research conducted in just a few countries, yet they work the same way wherever we take them. And just one vaccine can protect all the world’s people from smallpox, even those on opposing sides of a conflict.
Technically, peace between two warring countries is achieved through lengthy negotiations and the signing of complicated agreements by the rival nations’ leaders. But true peace cannot be attained or sustained until the citizens of both sides get to know each other and develop a basic dialogue that leads to tolerance, and later to understanding and respect, for their ethnic and national differences.
Peace treaties, tied to a particular time and place, become history the moment they’re signed. Science, on the other hand, by the very universality of its language, is the ideal format for opening channels of communication between people, even before a conflict officially ends. In no sense does science belong to any “side,” and when two scientists meet, they do so as equals. They may disagree in their discussions, but their differing opinions will be dictated not by politics or nationalism, but rather by the different approaches they have used to solve a scientific problem. Because science is universal, it provides an integral basis for open discussion and, by extension, an ideal platform for communication.
Possibly the best example of the power of scientific collaboration is one that’s not well known by the public, though it has been documented extensively. After WWII, when hatred and distrust still ran high on both sides, the first contact between Germans and Israelis took place between scientists of the Weizmann Institute in Israel and the Max Planck Society in Germany. The meetings and scientific collaborations of the 1950s opened the door to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965. The year 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic visit of Professor Otto Hahn, former president of the Max Planck Society, to Israel.
What can be learned from the German-Israeli example? Why was it so successful, and why does that success continue today?
Almost certainly the initial basis of collaboration—mainly basic science involving fundamental questions in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics—created an open environment in which scientists could use another universal commodity, curiosity, to drive cooperation. Here we can see the value of creating the opportunity (through funding) and establishing a broad scientific framework in which a scientist is allowed to freely choose partners, as well as the mode of cooperation.
Such scientific cooperation, when it becomes firmly established, can spawn further collaborative projects between scientists in other countries where relations are tense. For instance, the scientific ties between Germany and Israel laid the groundwork for the SESAME project: a decommissioned German particle accelerator that is in the process of being upgraded and moved to a site in Jordan. A number of Israeli scientists are deeply involved in the project; when it’s finished it will be used by researchers
from Israel and other countries in the region ranging from Tunisia and Egypt to Pakistan.
But even before the first particle beam was deployed, SESAME provided a forum for scientists from the different countries to meet and discuss science. In November 2009, 50 years after the first German visit to Israel, Professor Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute attended a meeting of researchers in Petra, Jordan. She was surprised to find that those most eager to speak with her and be photographed with her were a group of young Iranian scientists. Not a word of politics passed between them, but if there is to be real peace, it might begin with something as simple as a discussion between a few scientists speaking a common language.
Ultimately, once scientific cooperation is established, along with a certain level of trust, additional messages can be passed through these channels and the issues moved to a higher level. Clearly, scientific collaboration cannot bring about peace on its own. But it can be a useful tool for bridging cultural gaps. By providing a common, universal language, it can open the door to all sorts of communication.
Daniel Zajfman is the president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.
Originally published January 21, 2011