Algis Valiunas’s Latest New Atlantis Articles

The Most Dangerous Possible German” (Winter 2019)

Jonas Salk, the People’s Scientist” (Summer/Fall 2018)

Richard Feynman and the Pleasure Principle” (Spring 2018)

The Evangelist of Molecular Biology” (Summer/Fall 2017)


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The Most Dangerous Possible German 

Algis Valiunas

On the ambiguous legacy of Werner Heisenberg, quantum genius and would-be inventor of the Nazi A-bomb

What trace of his earthly passage can a man of genius hope will remain after his death? For a great scientist, it is almost certainly a discovery that advances human understanding a step further from ignorance and confusion. To uncover some eternal truth that has been carefully concealed from ordinary sight by Nature or whatever gods there be, and to enjoy the lasting esteem accorded the world-altering thinkers — these are the motive forces behind the most serious and accomplished scientific lives. To one who opens new mental continents for further exploration, and exploitation, the supreme accolades rightly belong. Honor of this order is not a paltry thing.

Yet John Milton called the craving for fame “that last infirmity of noble mind”; and while such infirmity might easily be forgiven poets, who are notorious for their moral weakness, we have become accustomed to thinking of scientists as free of such all-too-human frailties. Like Aristotle’s theoretical man in the Nicomachean Ethics, scientists are said to live for the unsurpassed pleasure of knowing the highest things in the universe, those that cannot be other than they are. This makes them god-like, so that they need nothing else — certainly not the glint of admiration or envy in other men’s eyes.

And yet perfection is not to be expected even from the most high-minded among us. The man who loves knowing alone is a creature of fantasy, a chimera, an impossibility. He is bound to have other, competing loves, which adulterate the loftiest vocation, however dedicated to it he might be. He will love his wife and children, his country, his reputation. One hesitates even to call these lesser loves, let alone infidelities; most people value them above the work they happen to do to earn their living, and indeed to consider your job more important than your family will rightly mark you to your fellows as a sorry excuse for a human being.

But of course there are jobs and then there are callings, as there is the democratic understanding of life’s responsibilities and there is the noble understanding of one’s appointed task. When one has a true vocation, to fall short of its demands is unacceptable, even though it is unavoidable. The honest man punishes himself for such failures. His own standards are the law he obeys, and his conscience is the most exacting judge of his integrity. But if one happens to be a theoretical man yet also a man of honor, who needs the good opinion others have of him, a complication enters the picture. Then the most painful failure offends against those standards of one’s own as well as against the public’s sense of right and wrong. In that case it is exceedingly hard to remain an honest man; the temptation to lie both to yourself and to the populace is overwhelming, and it is deadly.

The physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976) won himself a lasting name with a world-altering discovery so startling and influential that it has leaked into popular culture — albeit in a misconceived, bastardized form....

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Algis Valiunas is a New Atlantis contributing editor and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Algis Valiunas, "The Most Dangerous Possible German," The New Atlantis, Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 36-74.