NOBELESSE OBLIGE' AND ALFRED NOBEL'S LEGACY
By John C. Polanyi
John C. Polanyi, a Nobel laureate at the University
of Toronto, was involved in framing the recent Nobel statement.
STOCKHOLM -- Some Nobel prize winners are intelligent. But some
of them are no more so than others. Why, therefore, pay attention to the
views of those who support the Nobel statement, issued to coincide with
the 100th anniversary of the Nobel prize? The answer is that one's perception
of truth comes not from intelligence but from a sense of values. Scholarship
embodies those values. Though obscure to many, this was evident to Alfred
Nobel, the Swedish tycoon and explosives manufacturer. In his will he
stipulated that his prizes recognize idealisk rigtning -- idealistic
What was it that led to the Nobel prize winners' statement? Not a sense
of oracular wisdom but of obligation. The thought was present that individuals
who had shared the experience of discovery should be able to agree on
a great deal more. Nobel was right; science engenders "idealistic
tendencies.'' But why? Because the pursuit of discovery is shot through
Discovery originates in the unsupported belief that the book of creation
is open to being read. So deep is this idealism that many are willing
to devote the best years of their lives to the quest for discovery, though
the odds against success are huge.
Idealism must also triumph over the painful fact that the first to read
nature's story may well be someone other than oneself. But the truth must
be acknowledged whatever the hands that uncover it. Christian truth cannot
be elevated over Muslim truth. Nor can accepted truth, backed by the massed
armies of orthodoxy, be protected against the claims of upstart facts.
One can trace the sense of "Nobelesse oblige'' to these idealistic
What, then, do these voices say? The initial dissension in the Nobel community
testifies to that. The opening sentence is bold enough to claim that the
dominant forces shaping history are rational. This was contentious when
written in early July and appeared still more so following Sept. 11. The
ferocity of the September attacks led Americans to believe that the attackers
were insane. However, it came to be recognized that the sustained terrorism
has its causes and purposes. The question of rationality or irrationality
is important, since what lies (to a large extent) within the realm of
reason can (to a large extent) be countered by policies grounded in reason.
Of course, the statement is as much about threats from states as from
non-state groups, and about threats of mass-destruction as well as conventional
threats. The dominant setting for conflict in each case, it claims, is
a world in which the rich and the poor live in full sight of one another.
If in addition the poor are voiceless they may well be induced to speak
through violence. Particularly so if their predicament is aggravated by
the environmental carelessness of the rich. It is a peculiar folly, under
these circumstances, for the rich to seek greater riches by selling weapons
to the poor. Even without this, the prosperous grow ever more vulnerable.
Advanced societies are complex and fragile. They operate efficiently by
being open, not guarded. Like any complex mechanism, they are, therefore,
vulnerable to the wrecker's ball.
To avoid a tragic outcome, the statement says, we shall be forced to do
what we should have done previously. That is to recognize abroad what
we have long recognized domestically: the right of all to food, shelter,
education and freedom of expression. This is a revolution in thinking
that is already underway. What is lacking, in this country as elsewhere,
is a sense of urgency.
Zhou Enlai allegedly remarked that it is too early to assess the consequences
of the French Revolution. But it is not too early to identify its origins
in the willful blindness of the French ruling class of the 18th century.
Possessed of wealth and power, they offered only promises to the poor.
Unless we recognize that the future of each depends on the good of all,
the coming years will bring escalating conflict. One need not be a rocket
scientist to see that. However, the recognition that science has thrived
on change could persuade us to behave more like rocket scientists. We
might even come to realize that idealism is today the highest form of
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of
Tribune Media Services.
For release December 7, 2001
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