Dr. Rudolf Zahradnik
Czech Academy of Sciences
Not being a Jules Verne, I am not going to make any predictions concerning the 21st century. A casual chat on this subject might perhaps be possible by about the third millennium. I would not be ready to say anything at all, even after three glasses of wonderful Greek wine. Let me explain the reasons for my reluctance.
Let us take a leap back into a period a century ago – to 1895. In the realm of mathematics there were no fractals, no modern topology and no computers. Physicists in those days believed that physics would very soon be a completed, closed science. There was no real idea about the structure of matter, no quantum mechanics, no special or general theory of relativity. A majority of chemists did not believe in the existence of atoms. The Nobel prize winner, Wilhelm Ostwald, rejected the very idea of atoms even as late as 1918. There was no chromatography as a powerful analytical tool, nor was there IR or NMR spectroscopy. No X-ray analysis was available for direct elucidation nor was it possible to carry out procedures such as photochemical transformation with 0.5mg of substance in an inert matrix of neon at 4K.
Biology was not a particularly exciting science and there was absolutely no idea about the structure of nucleic acids or genetic engineering.
From a sociological point of view, there was no idea of world wars, no idea of brutal totalitarian dictatorships, no idea of killing millions of people with deep cold or hydrogen cyanide. No radio, TV, jumbo jets, PCs, fax or preparation for an information superhighway.
These facts make it obvious, I think, why it would be hopeless to try to make specific estimates concerning the 21st century. On the other hand, it is, indeed, our duty to try to define some important features of the situation towards the close of the 20th century which will, without doubt, have consequences in the early stage of the 21st century.
Science and the Humanities
This paragraph could also be entitled “The Brilliance and Sorrow of the Sciences”. The creation of a deductive science based on axioms such as those of thermodynamics, classical, statistical, and quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, permits not only an interpretation of an exceedingly broad spectrum of phenomena, but also makes it possible to predict the value of that which is not only novel but also has very practical applications. The possibilities are numerous and contribute significantly to the brilliance of the sciences.
However, there seems to exist another, negative side to science. Scientific discoveries that benefit humankind, unfortunately, can be turned into horrific weapons of war. Phosgene is a powerful synthetic agent in the chemical industry, but can also be used as a weapon of war. Gene engineering can either benefit humankind or lead to horrors. The same is true of all the achievements of science. Obviously, unless attempts are made to permanently strengthen the positive features of humankind., such as tolerance, and to suppress the negative ones, such as aggression, everything can very easily be misused.
Another serious difficulty with science is of a different nature. Some time ago some scientists believed that the possibilities of science were unlimited. Strictly speaking, considerations along these lines seem somewhat simpleminded. There is no doubt that the possibilities of science are amazing and, frequently, overwhelming. However, on the basis of experience, we must admit that the positive achievements of science have produced some undesirable “side-effects”.
My colleagues and I have spoken about the laws of conservation with regard to the delights and sorrows of mankind. We have to pay for all the technical progress: nothing, even in this respect, is free of charge. We can confidently say that science is mighty, but we definitely cannot say that it is almighty.
This understanding helps us formulate an exceedingly important task for a joint effort by the sciences and humanities, particularly, sociology, psychology and philosophy. Under a constant but moderate pressure from the sciences and humanities, humankind should gradually realise that a humble and tolerant attitude towards other human beings and towards the whole of nature is the only possibility and that there is no alternative to it that is more positive. The alternative, namely, arrogance and aggression, will surely lead to the end of our civilisation. Needless to say, the horror of the 20th century’s so-called “consumer society” leads to the same end.
Is the position and prestige of science strong enough? I am afraid that it is not always satisfactory. In order to support this opinion, let me mention the increasing role of various pseudosciences, in some parts of the world. These range from astrology via psychotronics to ufology. The representatives of these pseudo-sciences usually do not attack science; they are in the most part satisfied to assume a position of an alternative to science. However, this is not acceptable for the simple reason that pseudoscience never uses methods and procedures that represent the “conditio sine qua non” of science. The real danger of the pseudosciences is that they put the sign of equality between rationality and irrationality. The reason I feel uneasy is that where that difference is not obvious, society presents adventurers with opportunities for financial and political gain. In periods of economic decline, it could represent a danger to democracy. Clearly, this is not the only danger of the pseudosciences. The weakening of rationality in human beings always represents something negative and dangerous.
Ecology, also called bioecology, bioeconomics, or environmental biology, studies the relationships between organisms and their environment. Before making two comments, I wish to mention my feelings concerning ecologists.
What viewpoint should a professional ecologist have? I believe they should be convinced of the key role of the “science of ecology” in the healthy existence of humankind. They should be qualified experts, active professionals in a realm of science related to ecology, such as physics, chemistry, the biodisciplines, psychology, or sociology. Finally, they should have a sufficiently broad, as well as deep knowledge of general ecology. I mention this because I am sometimes disappointed by ecologists, some of whom lack professional expertise in any of the sciences. However, the subject is extremely broad, and I shall therefore limit myself to discussing chemistry during my presentation today.
First of all, one regrettable misunderstanding has to be eliminated. Many people hold chemistry responsible for a lot of existing environmental damage. This is a naive, and sometimes dangerous, belief; it is like someone blaming the science of mathematics for their inability to make ends meet.
There are three groups that are really at fault: the consumer society with its irresponsible and devastating requirements, the criminal behaviour of some manufacturers and the weaknesses of technologies used today. As a result, significant efforts along the following lines seem necessary:
- chemical plants should be converted so that contemporary technologies can be replaced by new “waste-free” technologies;
- production should be carried out in closed systems;
- wastes accompanying chemical production must be carefully treated before being passed back into the environment;
- producers need, in some sense, to be responsible for the environmentally acceptable final end-point of all industrial products.
For the first, and third items it is chemical catalysis that will play a most prominent role. Moreover, catalysis will also contribute significantly as far as reduction of energy consumption is concerned. Passing to a new, more powerful catalysis is frequently connected with diminishing energy consumption. Therefore, surface physics and chemistry, disciplines playing a distinguished role in the area of catalysis, deserve more prominent support. In order to make their research as cost effective as possible, theoretical tools and computer experiments should be applied to a greater extent.
Another very important feature of chemistry is environmental chemistry. It is defined as the study of the sources, reactions, transport effects and fates of chemicals in the water, soil, and air environment. There is an exceedingly urgent and important need for this science because new chemicals can exert an enormous influence on very different forms of life. In spite of significant progress in the area of biological activity relationships, we are still unable to make reliable enough predictions on biological activity. Finally, if we consider that in the 1930s about four million molecules were known, in contrast to the twelve million known today, we have to realise that the dangers can be significant. It is therefore, necessary to substantially increase environmental awareness among chemists: it is absolutely necessary to remain vigilant to the impacts of chemicals on the environment.
The longing for freedom has been a distinguished feature of human beings for centuries. It is democracy that fits best this longing: a democratically elected parliament and government. Clearly, even this way of organising society has quite a few weak points and negative features. However, there are perhaps only two that assume a special position in relation to the stability and future fate of democracy.
Conventional democracy has, in my opinion, two fundamental weaknesses. The first one is connected with a real or pretended inability to realise that there exist ideologies, groups of people, and forces whose aim is to kill democracy. Attempts to achieve a renaissance of nazism, fascism, and communism, though not very active, still represent a real risk. If democracy does not eliminate these forces, it will not survive.
The second weakness is of a completely different nature and has not been one for long. It is a consequence of the fact that some difficulties which were originally local, are now gradually becoming global. Parliamentarianism is always associated with elections and, due to this, the elected government changes every three or four years. As a consequence, only a minority of politicians focus on global needs and not just on their own re-election. Democracy has to overcome this inherent handicap by accepting world-wide environmental laws. This is a challenge for the United Nations.
Governments all over the world should adopt a very positive attitude towards the education of their entire population. Rationality, conditioned by education and not ignorance, represents a hope for the future development of humankind. Humanistic features and tolerance should represent inherent components of education, at all levels. As a need for education is always closely correlated with a need for science, science should always be the highest priority of all good governments.
In order to prevent environmental destruction and to avoid starvation in significant parts of the world, humanity has to stop wasting energy and raw materials and has to realise the importance of conserving resources at the expense of unnecessary luxuries. This possibility is definitely better than the destruction of this civilisation. It is encouraging that it is not expensive to make significant improvement to one’s spiritual.
- Manahan, S.E. (1991), Environmental Chemistry, Lewis Publ. Inc., Chelsea MI.
- Chem. Rev. (1995), A Thematic Issue on Environmental Chemistry, No 1, January-February.
Dr. Rudolf Zahradnik, President of the Czech Academy of Sciences, graduated from the Prague Institute of Chemical Technology and received his doctorate from the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. He is Professor of Physical Chemistry at Charles University in Prague and President of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He has been head of the Group of Applied Quantum Chemistry and of the Chemical Reactivity Theory Group of the J. Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Prague. He was also Director of the same Institute. Dr. Zahradnik has lectured and been visiting professor at twelve universities in Europe, the United States of America and Japan. He is a member of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences and of the European Academy of Arts, Science and Literature. He acts as a member of the editorial boards of six international journals. He has been awarded many honours including degrees from Universities in Dresden, Fribourg, and Pardubice. Dr. Zahradnik has authored or co-authored over 340 papers, a number of textbooks, and 9 books.