Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Roentgen's Humanitarian Machine

Having the opportunity to do some travelling with my partner in Southern Germany recently, we happened upon the preserved laboratory of Whilhelm Roentgen in Wurzburg. Roentgen discoved what he called x-rays using a Crookes tube cathode to produce a stream of high energy electrons which generated characteristic frequency x-radiation via interactions with the tube anode.

Exhibiting admirable modesty, Roentgen attempted to resist the move to name the new radiation after him (an attempt which failed in at least Germany and Russia). On being awarded the first Nobel prize he declined to make a speech and donated the award money to his university. He was offered the noble appellation "von" from the Prince Regent of Bavaria but turned it down. He accepted honors from his university with a call to new students to focus on the essential joy of research.

"During the time when congratulations and honours were showered upon me [...] one thought has always remained lively and fresh, and that is the memory of the satisfaction which I felt when my work was finally developed and completed."

Noone could accuse Roentgen's attitude towards scientific research as being tainted by worldly values. He expressed astonishment at the amount of money available for research in the US (even then) and thought that essential physics could be carried out with simple apparatus and clever thinking. He refused to patent an x-ray machine and endorsed the idea of knowledge for its own sake. This was an attitude that others saw an opportunity in. For instance, Thomas Edison was quoted saying

"Professor Roentgen probably does not draw one dollar profit from his discovery. He belongs to those pure scientists who study for pleasure and love to delve into the secrets of nature. After they have discovered something wonderful someone else must come to look at it from a commercial point of view [...] One must see how to use it and how to profit from it financially"

This is either a pragmatic or cynical view depending on how you look at it. I certainly would take a hard line to such pronouncements. Not only should science be pursued for the benefit of all (not least because it is funded from the public purse), but one should prevent any individual or corporation from extracting profit from it to the disadvantage of the public generally.

This is particularly an easy case to make for applications related to medical health (as x-rays are). Profits are derived in proportion to the direct cost of medical machines. Without an enlightened public health policy this can only lead to restricted access based on the financial ability of patients. This is a societal disease which we are yet to eradicate.

Apart from his attitude to financial gain, Roentgen does not appear to have particularly left-wing though, expressing a horror of Bolshevism and cheering on the German war effort in WWI. To be fair, one had to have hard left politics to see the 'Great' War for what it was, an imperialist adventure in which workers were sent to kill each other.

One wonders what Roentgen thought of the use of poison gas in the trenches (introduced by the Germans but in the end used mostly by the British). Though Roentgen signed the pro-war proclamation of the 93 intellectuals (which Einstein refused to sign) he later expressed embarrassment and claimed he was persuaded to sign without reading it.

On his death, Roentgen ordered his scientific and personal correspondence destroyed. This act of self effacement underlined an earlier speech he gave sayng that scientists must expect their work to be surpassed and forgotten. Roentgen does us a disservice here in my opinion - there is much to be learned from the history of science and the thought processes (and mistakes) of scientists. It is not in the interest of science to obscure the background to significant work.

No comments:

Post a Comment