Do Scientists Always Seek Self-Preservation In Their Experiments?

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One person raised an interesting argument: “I believe in the instinct of self-preservation and the likelihood that it wouldn’t let the scientists that work on the supercollider kill themselves let alone the rest of the world.”

I respectfully disagree, and very strongly disagree. A huge amount of human behavior tells us that this argument fails to provide us with any assurances. But before outlining my argument, I’d first cite this quotation concerning the first atomic bomb test at Alamagordo and Los Alamos, called Trinity:

“A betting pool was also started by scientists at Los Alamos on the possible yield of the Trinity test. Yields from 45,000 tons of TNT to zero were selected by the various bettors. The Nobel Prize-winning (1938) physicist Enrico Fermi was willing to bet anyone that the test would wipe out all life on Earth, with special odds on the mere destruction of the entire State of New Mexico!”

Believe me, Fermi was no crazy oddball or dummy.

These scientists did not know what the bomb would do, and yet they went ahead and did the test.

Human beings commonly gamble with their lives and the lives of others. Self-preservation does not override risk-taking. People do not routinely seek out risks for no good reason, but they will undertake risks that promise payoffs for a variety of reasons, some of them purely psychological. Some people indeed seek out risks The species survives and progresses partly with human beings doing dangerous things that may kill them or injure them. This happens all the time.

Think of the astronauts. Think of racers, mountain climbers, explorers, miners, dam builders, test pilots. Think of people who experiment taking drugs. Think of the nuclear tests. People face dangers all the time and go ahead anyway. When I was studying chemistry, one professor died experimenting with metal chelates and he was renown as an expert and careful. Danger is present in much of chemistry and biology experimentation. Even Ben Franklin with the proverbial kite and lightning took a big risk. Several subsequent experimenters were electrocuted!

Physicists are not different than other men who take risks. They select themselves into their occupation because of an interest in physical forces of nature of particular kinds. They do not self-select on the basis of being risk-averse and having a strong tendency to self-preservation. In fact, their curiosity and drive to know and understand mysterious forces may well lead them in the very opposite direction.

9:25 am on February 20, 2014