A place for the stories of science & its harms

We were on a fast train from Brescia to Venice, my partner and I seated on opposite sides of one of the tables that filled the cars. Across the aisle, a middle-aged white couple sat on one side, an older Asian couple on the other. We had helped the latter stow their luggage when they boarded before settling in for the two-hour train ride. I was reading a book that I’d started earlier in the trip.

After a while, the Asian man stood. He was slight but not frail. I was a little surprised but unbothered when he sat down next to me. With no pretext, he inquired, “I am from Tokyo. Why are you reading this?”

Book cover, large sun rising behind a Japanese style bridge. John Hersey, Hiroshima.

“This” was John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”. Originally appearing in The New Yorker in 1946, it chronicles the stories of six individuals who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In the edition I’m reading, Hersey went back 30 years later to find out what happened to those survivors.

The traveler’s tone wasn’t confrontational, rather soft yet direct. I paused a moment. How did I explain to this man what and why I was reading about this atrocity, taken against his country by mine 40 years ago?

I have been reading about history and science recently, I tried to explain. I want to better understand those things, what we’ve done.

“This is about bomb, yes?” he verified.

“Yes,” I replied. I briefly described the provenance, that this was the story of survivors and what they saw and experienced that day. That it had been written to show Americans what had been done.

We continued to chat for a while. He was 73 years old, so he would have been a toddler at the time the atomic bombs were dropped. He asked if I knew of Kenzaburō Ōe, a Nobel laureate (I did not); he had read Ōe’s book about Hiroshima.

The conversation expanded to include talk of travels, drawing in the other couple across the aisle. The Japanese man was a lover of art, especially Italian Renaissance art he had learned about in school. He and his wife were retired. This was their third trip to Italy, and this one would last 50 days. Before parting, he got a pen from his wife and scrawled “Hersey Hiroshima” on the back of a train ticket, so he could look for a copy later.

In the end, it felt like a wholly inadequate explanation, and really it was. The answer was complex. It was difficult to summate my motivations succinctly, and here I faced the additional challenge that English was not his first language, and I knew only a few key words or phrases in Japanese or Italian.

I hadn’t been reading many books in the recent years. All throughout undergrad and grad school, I typically stayed with suspense, thriller, sci-fi, and fantasy. I’d sometimes pick up a piece of “literature”—a classic or a book that had picked up a prestigious prize.

Late last year, I started picking up books, but the genre changed dramatically. I wasn’t looking to escape into fantastical tales. I wanted to learn and understand more about history and society, their interplay, how they shaped norms and laws, and their continuing effects and echoes today. I had been reading many posts and articles online about such issues, but I wanted to engage with longer, deeper narratives.

This particular book selection arose out of a conversation with Hilda Bastian. We’d been talking about science communication and the frequent focus on the “Look at this amazing thing science has done.” She mentioned Hersey’s writing on Hiroshima as an important example of different perspective, one that was out of step with how others were approaching the bombing.

Though Hersey’s report is rather short for a book, I’m still working my way through it. Yet it’s a clearly powerful narrative. It’s one thing to know the specs of an atomic bomb, the 30,000-foot view of its power, the clinical view of what it does to the human body. It’s quite another to connect with the stories of individuals who experienced it. With the former, we may feel sympathy toward those affected, but the details and nuance of human stories bring us closer to empathy.

In recent months, I’ve seen a trope surfacing often. “Science is apolitical. Some scientists do bad things, but science itself cannot harm people. Science can’t be racist or sexist or biased in anyway. That’s just the people involved.” But that’s simply not true.

Science is, by its very nature, a human endeavor. There are laws of nature, such as gravity and chemical equilibria, that are immutable. But science is the process of building and applying bodies of knowledge. That means we cannot separate science from the actions of individuals who conducted unethical experiments, often using vulnerable and marginalized populations, to “advance” science. That means we cannot claim that the destructive outcomes of feats of science and engineering are not part of the canon of science.

Practitioners and advocates for science should wrestle with these issues. We should understand the historical context and the environmental and human costs of scientific achievements, both in how we got there and what society did with it. That goes for scientific and technological development today. We continue to see impacts of gender and racial bias in what gets focus, how questions are framed, and what’s produced.

We cannot claim that science has saved millions of lives through the development of antibiotics and vaccines while simultaneously exiling death and destruction of the atomic bomb as the purview of politicians. If we want to claim the benefits as victories of science, then we must also acknowledge the harms are just as much a part of science. To acknowledge them, we must learn our history—the history of science and society—and the stories of those in its midst. And so, though you, my fellow traveler ,will likely never see this—sir, that is why I am reading “Hiroshima”.

# # # # #

You can read Hersey’s “Hiroshima” free online. The New Yorker also published a short piece on the background and reception of the report for the magazine’s 85th anniversary. Hilda Bastian’s post on the early history of science journalism also includes some discussion of Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and other contemporary reporting on the atomic bomb

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One Response to A place for the stories of science & its harms

  1. chall says:

    Thank you for writing this! It’s very good to remember and I’m glad he (and you) felt ok to talk about it and ask. And yes, you’re point on the trope “science is apolitical” is something I’ve thought about lately too…. there is hopefully going to be a little more disucssion about it.

    Oe is an interesting writer and if you have the time to read “A silent cry” I recommend it. I’m not sure how much is translated into English but the Nobel prize probably helped….

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