Why only obeying orders just won't do

27th November 1998 at 00:00
AS YET, the science taught in schools and colleges virtually ig-nores the ways in which the search for scientific knowledge is shaped less by sheer curiosity than by ideology or circumstance.

While everyone knows about Galileo and the Inquisition, few appreciate the doctrinal determinants of later scientific inquiry. The sometimes ugly evidence presented by the new six-part series, Science at War, should go some way to plugging this gap. The series began well with The Laboratory of War, focusing on the misguidedly patriotic Fritz Haber, a German-Jewish convert to Christianity. Haber's method of proving his devotion to the fatherland was to develop poison gas. Not even his wife's suicide - in despair at his work - failed to divert him from his purpose.

Ironic, then, that he should be buried beside her in 1934, a year after resigning his academic post in protest against Nazi anti-Jewish policies. Ironic, too, that Haber - "first and foremost a German," his daughter remembers - should have given over a fair proportion of his later years seeking to perfect another poison gas. Its name was Zyklon B, most infamously used against Jews in the extermination camps.

Many Nazis pleaded at post-war trials that they were only "obeying orders". So did some of the Japanese war veterans in the second programme, Enemy of Mankind.

Given their past, they didn't convince either. Many had worked at the notorious Unit 731, dedicated to research into biological warfare. Those involved did not scruple to use humans in any way thought necessary.

Witnesses told of draining the blood from still-living Chinese prisoners of war, of showering innocent citizens with plague-infected fleas, and of vivisection carried out on inmates.

These monsters were neither executed nor jailed by the Americans, immunity from prosecution having been secured via the covert transfer of scientific information.

No surprise there: principle invariably comes a poor second to raison d'etat, mention of which prompts a related question. Unit 731 has long been suspected of having also maltreated British and American prisoners of war. Why, then, did this go unremarked?

Nothing controversial about programme 3, Echoes of War, which covered the development of radar in meticulous fashion.

The final three programmes cover, respectively, the German V-bomb programme, the Russian H-bomb, and weapons of the future. But those first two programmes in particular make one understand how science moved by malevolence can so easily tip us into the void.

Science at War, December 3: Rocket Science; December 10: Russia's Nuclear Patriots; December 17: Full Spectrum Dominance. All BBC2, 9.25-10.15pm.

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