Bridges - Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace

VI: The Future of Science and Human Development

Nobel Laureate Professor Torsten N. Wiesel delivered a keynote speech at UC on February 3, 2010. Under the direction of the Asia Leadership Center, this was the sixth of nine presentations in the latest series of Bridges Dialogues, hosted by the University of Cambodia over a six-month period. Prior to his presentation, Professor Wiesel was conferred an honorary doctorate in Science by H.E. Dr. Kao Kim Hourn (President of UC and Secretary of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) for his contributions to science and the developing world. In his speech, Professor Wiesel identified three key mechanisms for how science has and can continue to promote peace around the world: 1) individual peace of mind; 2) the contributions of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates; and 3) building bridges through cooperation on international issues.

A trained medical doctor and neuroscientist, Professor Wiesel considers the world we live in to be “confused,” with its wars, suicide bombers, economic collapse, global warming, and widespread poverty. For him, individual peace of mind and its collective impact are a critical component to achieving peace.

“I am particularly conscious of the potential contributions to the prevention of war that can be made through better understanding of how the mind works and how it influences behavior – especially as it relates to aggression and violence,” he stated.

He recalled a critical moment of his youth that continues to influence the work he does today. While growing up in Sweden during the 1930s, he witnessed the events that led up to the Second World War and heard the potent demagoguery used by Adolf Hitler on the radio to create mass hysteria at huge rallies. He told the UC audience that he was fascinated by “how fragile the mind is in that a powerful orator, with simple and destructive
ideas, can easily seduce individual minds and an entire population.”

Scientists have yet to discover how this occurs in the brain, sparking Professor Wiesel’s interest in continuing to explore the idea of peace of mind. He suggested that if individuals find peace in their own minds, these individuals can cooperate with others to build peace throughout the world. However, whilst this solution seems critical, it is also a complex endeavor, since it involves societal structures, such as education, health and culture.

Furthermore, he believes that increased knowledge about relationships and how they develop can help build alliances between different
groups of people, which may reduce tensions that can lead up to war.

“Scientists do this naturally because the spirit of science is international,” Professor Wiesel insisted, “and we scientists strive to open gates to new knowledge.”
While this new knowledge has been blamed in the past for developing ever more destructive weapons like nuclear bombs, scientists have sought to play an active role in promoting world peace. Speaking to his second main point, Professor Wiesel offered one source of insight into the role scientists have played to foster peace, that is, the number of scientists who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A total of 97 individuals and 23 organizations have been recognized by the Norwegian Parliament since 1901, and four of these awards were given to advocates of the banning of nuclear weapons and their proliferation, and that promoted peaceful resolution to social and political conflicts worldwide: American chemist and peace activist Linus Carl Pauling (1962); Russian physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov (1975); Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat and The Pugwash Conferences (1995); and Egyptian lawyer Mohamed ElBaradei
and the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005).

Agency (2005).
In addition, eminent scientists who were instrumental in the development of nuclear weapons used to accelerate the end of the Second World War became main advocates for the limitations of these weapons and were even persecuted as a result, namely American physicist Robert Oppenheimer (who is often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb”) and Andrei Sakharov (who played a key role in the development of the Russian hydrogen bomb).
Addressing his third main point, science as international bridge-building, Professor Wiesel cited various science organizations and scientists that have helped to promote a culture of peace through their advocacy work. For example, the organization International Campaign to Ban Landmines, along with educator Jody Williams, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for their work for the banning and clearing of landmines. At the time, an estimated one hundred million landmines around the world had been deployed and needed to be safely destroyed before they harmed innocent victims. Agronomist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in hunger alleviation and using science and technology to improve the quantity and quality of food production around the world.

He also highlighted several organizations that have facilitated global communication and cooperation among scientists, such as the New York Academy of Sciences, the International Brain Research Organization, and the Human Frontier Science Program, to name a few. These examples demonstrate how science has already had a profound effect on humankind and addressed international issues, fostering stronger alliances between people throughout the world.
Professor Wiesel ended his speech with the following quote from Albert Einstein, one of the most remarkable physicists and humanitarians of all time:
Science and art are the only effective messengers for peace. They tear down national barriers: they are far better assurances of international understanding
than treaties.

A few questions at the end of the presentation focused on how science has not only contributed to promoting peace, but has also been responsible for some of the destruction and devastation, such as the case with nuclear weapons. Professor Wiesel responded by emphasizing how science has enriched our lives and blamed some of the world’s misfortunes, like hunger, on a poorly organized world. He believes that humankind should value education, freedom of speech, tolerance, and generosity toward others to counter the negative repercussions of scientific and technological development, as well as to limit bad or harmful human actions.

In addition to encouraging individuals to be a part of the peace building process, he advocated for leaders to include the expertise
of scientists in their policy-making and encouraged countries to invest heavily in education and training so their citizens are not only more competitive in the global market,
but also more likely to promote peace and build strong, healthy alliances across borders. Professor Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981 for pioneering work on the neural basis of visual perception. Amongst his many other accomplishments, including awards for promoting science in the developing world, he is a founding member of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, and the Scientific Council of the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization. He co-chairs the Board of Governors of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and serves on the Board of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.