Saturday, June 16, 2007

Roald Hoffmann's "Should've": Ethics and Science on Stage

Chemistry International -- Newsmagazine for IUPAC:

Ethics and social responsibility are not easy topics to address. However, the more the scientific community learns about nature and the world, the more these issues will take center stage. In fact, the stage is what Roald Hoffmann uses to explore the ethical dimensions of science in his latest play Should’ve. The play is a mystery, a savant mélange (what else would you expect from a chemist?) of people from different generations and backgrounds, who have to deal with issues of the past and the present, in science, art, and life.

RH: Yes, I believe that an ethical code of research is necessary, for all scientists (and the play makes the point that artists too are prone to the romantic fallacy that all they do is good). Scientists are not born with ethics, nor is science ethically neutral. I think courses in ethics, or better still discussion groups, based on case studies, should be a part of the education of all scientists, and also that discussion should be continued throughout life, even for experienced scientists. I actually would argue a stronger case, one with which many of my colleagues would not agree, that there is some research that should not be performed.

LC: Your play concerns ethics and moral behavior, which calls for judgments to be made. How do you judge the behavior of the famous German Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, who is responsible for the development of chemical warfare agents? And, how, may I ask, does this judgment differ from that of the famous German Jewish physicist Albert Einstein who called for the development of the atom bomb?

RH: I think Haber was naïve, thinking that chemical weapons would be a catalyst for change, and his naïveté and arrogance led him—in this part of his life—to a terribly wrong decision. I believe in an ethics that comes out of dialogue between human beings, not prescriptive rules. So I think that Einstein’s advocacy of atomic weapons, in his letter to Roosevelt, was justifiable as self-defense in the face of Nazi German aggression and immorality.

About the Play

As Should’ve opens, Friedrich Wertheim, a German-born chemist, has taken his own life, blaming himself for putting an easy way to make a neurotoxin into the hands of terrorists. The circumstances and reasons for his death disturb profoundly the lives of three people—his daughter Katie (a scientist herself, a molecular biologist, but with very different ideas about the social responsibility of scientists), Katie’s lover Stefan (a conceptual artist), and Wertheim’s estranged second wife, Julia.

In 26 fast-moving scenes, these people’s lives are fractured by the suicide. The motive for Wertheim’s action isn’t as simple as it seems; a story about his parents’ survival in Nazi Germany emerges.

A play about the social responsibility of scientists and artists, Should’ve is also about three people trying to resist the transforming power of death. They are unable to do so, sundered as they are by the memories and a past that emerges from that death. And, eventually, the consequences shape a different bond among the three.

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