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Scientists drafted in the service of Mars

A hallmark of the modern era is the symbiotic relationship between science and the military

If you don't think military technology can shape society, what are you doing on the Internet? This nobody-owns-it, many-use-it medium began as a way to build reliability into military communications.

Or catch a TV weathercast. Rockets descended from World War II weapons launch the satellites. Weather radar carries the genes of its wartime ancestor.

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Give-and-take between military and civil technology is rooted in the intellectual soil of the 18th and 19th centuries. That's when the sciences were recognized as a socially beneficial pursuit. A US National Science & Technology Council report traces the beginnings of American governmental science support to the first national census in 1790. That sparked what the report calls a "historically unprecedented ... scientific reconnaissance of the nation's landscape." Within a few decades, basic scientific knowledge in Europe and America enabled steam engines, telegraphs, and other technologies that rapidly became necessities for both civilian and military life.

This is fundamentally different from merely adapting technology developed in one sphere for use in the other. Chinese gun powder could propel cannon balls or civilian distress rockets. But the liquid-fueled rocket engines that sent astronauts to the moon in 1969 could not have been developed without using the principles of thermodynamics discovered in the preceding century.

In 1797, American-born Benjamin Thompson, who had become Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire, resolved one of the mysteries of 18th-century science - the physical nature of heat. Many scientists thought heat was a fluid substance. In an experiment that Rumford's biographer, the late Sandborn Brown, says "became an immediate classic," the count carefully measured frictional heat produced while boring cannon. He concluded that, since the heat "appeared evidently to be inexhaustible," it "cannot possibly be a material substance" squeezed out of the gun metal.

Nineteenth-century scientists went on to develop the concept of energy. They measured how it moves through its various forms as electrical, mechanical, or thermal energy. They discovered it cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. This law of the conservation of energy underlies all our technology today.

Rumford's experiment foreshadowed our own era when military funding supports scientific research that has broad implications and civil research can have profound military significance. Einstein helped inaugurate that era with the insight that energy is equivalent to material mass after all. Other physicists demonstrated that truth in discovering nuclear fission. The US War Department then extended this knowledge to develop the most destructive weapon ever known.

World War II technological marvels made the point that the military needs science. The United States, in particular, emerged from that war with a symbiotic relationship between science and the military that became a hallmark of the 20th century.

This meant more than weapons development. Wartime research czar Vannevar Bush made a persuasive case for government support of basic science in his 1945 classic report "Science: The Endless Frontier." At the time, that meant largely military money. The Office of Naval Research and Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories in Bedford, Mass., were the main support of geophysics. The Defense Department and, later, the old Atomic Energy Commission (now Department of Energy) funded much of basic physics.

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However, the military wasn't eager to open up nuclear research. President Dwight Eisenhower broke that stranglehold in 1953 when he invited all nations to help "take this weapon out of the hands of soldiers" and make it "a great boon for the benefit of all mankind." Nuclear-capable countries opened the field to civilian development. They shared knowledge in a series of "Atoms for Peace" conferences. In spite of the safety concerns and waste-storage problems that haunt nuclear power, the hoped-for benefits have been substantial.

By the mid-1950s, the military had become a fickle patron. Critics questioned the relevance of basic science to the armed forces. Civilian agencies, such as the newly established National Science Foundation, picked up some of the tab. But in 1957, loss of military funding precipitated a crisis. The Department of Defense had a backlog of unpaid bills.

Officials at the Air Force laboratories in Bedford ignored what they called "administrative secrecy" to tell The Christian Science Monitor they were broke. They said that research teams they and other defense agencies supported were in danger of breaking up. This would have seriously damaged American science. Russia ended the money crisis by orbiting Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, Oct. 4, 1957. The resulting uproar over the "lag" in US science unleashed government funding.

Meanwhile, military technology helped salve US pride after a series of civilian launch failures. Wernher von Braun at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., told Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy: "When you get back to Washington ... tell them we've got the [missile launcher] hardware down here to put up a satellite anytime." He launched Explorer 1 on Jan. 31, 1958, the satellite that discovered Earth's radiation belts.

US science now has multiple civilian sponsors, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Yet last year, the National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine warned that the resources granted such agencies "cannot compensate for the declines in funding at DOD [Department of Defense] and other mission agencies" such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It will spark more congressional debate over how to keep the scientific enterprise healthy.

Meanwhile, benefits still flow between the military and civilian spheres. Once-secret data gathered by US and Russian submarines help scientists trace the thinning of Arctic sea ice. Earth-scanning spacecraft, descendants of early spy satellites, give civilian watchdog groups a sharper view. Images show details as small as a meter across. John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists showed one that revealed Pakistan's nuclear installation.

As for the future, William Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, says we should keep an eye on genomics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Genomics manipulates organic life at its basic level. Nanotechnology promises machines and information systems of molecular size. Sophisticated robots may rival humans in intelligent behavior. He warns that their expected benefits may also be used to develop weapons of unimagined destructive or coercive power.

The uneasy symbiosis between science and military technology is an enduring legacy of the second millennium. The challenge is for humanity to manage it wisely.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society