That's not my department
November 11, 2016 6:50 AM   Subscribe

As Silicon Valley rushes to normalize the new president, I'm interested in reading historical accounts of scientists and engineers collaborating with evil. What are some examples of scientists and engineers who supported, normalized, or ignored encroaching evil through their actions or work? Stories of heroic resistance are also welcome, but I'm mostly interested in cautionary tales.
posted by ecmendenhall to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
posted by johngoren at 6:57 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is full of examples across the scientific ethics spectrum.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:13 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Came to say Manhattan project and US space program are the textbook examples.
posted by fixedgear at 7:29 AM on November 11, 2016

Ooooo! I know this one but I can't quite place it. There are multiple stories about how scientists in WWII Germany dealt with this because there was a fine line between staying employed vs completing tasks or projects you were morally opposed to, the atomic bomb just being one example.

I seem to remember a specific story about a university or research center in Poland that exemplifies this, but I might be conflating things. Maybe someone will read this and know what I'm referring to?
posted by jbenben at 7:29 AM on November 11, 2016

The story of Fritz Haber is rather incredible. He won a Nobel prize for inventing a reaction crucial to modern agriculture. He invented chemical warfare. He worked for the Nazis. He was a Jew. Multiple members of his family committed suicide or died in concentration camps.
posted by bq at 7:32 AM on November 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I recommend reading the transcript from Operation Epsilon. As the linked pdf explains:
From July 3, 1945, to January 3, 1946, the Allies incarcerated ten German nuclear physicists at the English country estate of Farm Hall, their goal being to obtain information about the German nuclear research project by way of surreptitiously taped conversations. The following transcript includes the scientists’ reactions to reports that America had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The scientists also discuss their relationship to the Nazi regime and offer some prognoses for Germany’s future.
There's a play, also called Operation Epsilon, that dramatizes these conversations. I've seen it and I highly recommend it.
posted by galaxy rise at 7:45 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Fritz Haber. He's practically the embodiment of a Shakesperian tragic hero - a loyal German, born Jewish, whose R&D work was critical in making WWI as hellish as it was. The Alchemy of Air (among others) discusses his life.

Just to correct bq a little: Haber worked for the Germans during WWI, not WWII, and was one of the leaders of the research into poison gas (there's arguments he single-handedly prolonged the war by as much as a year). When he won the Nobel Prize after the war for the Haber-Bosch Process (which synthesizes ammonia from nitrogen gas: it feeds 1/3 of the world's population today, but also gave the Germans access to a replacement for saltpeter), many of his contemporaries refused to speak to him.

I don't think there's an FPP on him. I really should write it, one of these years.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:07 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

IBM is the very first one I thought of.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:51 AM on November 11, 2016

It admissible to point out that as far I'm aware Mark Cuban is neither a scientist nor an engineer? I'm sorry if it's a derail but I get bored with business people labelling themselves 'technologists' because they happen to flog computers rather than, say, scrap metal.
posted by southof40 at 1:16 PM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

What are some examples of scientists and engineers who supported, normalized, or ignored encroaching evil through their actions or work?

Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors might fit the bill.
posted by scratch at 5:43 PM on November 11, 2016

No article for you, but an anecdote that might help you find something - I know someone who was drafted into the Vietnam war and was given the option of combat or working on research into biological and chemical weapons. He said they were referred to as 'yellow berets' because everyone knew that they were just there to avoid taking a bullet in Vietnam. He said they did their work as poorly as they could get away with to avoid ever producing anything usable (don't know how that worked out).
posted by aiglet at 5:59 PM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

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