The Science in peace

New Man Magazine, Januray 2009

The smallish, 62-yearold man with graying hair walks into the meeting room, a little older-looking than the picture in the brochure we've just been given. When he is being introduced, a shadow of a smile slid across the face of Professor Gerardus ‘t Hooft,  999 co-winner of the Noble Prize in Physics. His voice is soft, as if sorry for breaking he peaceful silence. His guttural words scraped out with a slight staccato, each syllable a letter spelling out the seriousness of his mission for peace.

But exceptional expertise in science doesn't necessarily mean a particular knowledge in the peace process. Knowing how to calculate the physical properties of W and Z particles doesn't offer a vision to end complicated human conflicts. Or even just the major ones. It's not as if peace is a replicable scientific experiment (or is it?): put a little restraint in a test-tube, add a little patience, stir not shake, and viola! Peace comes dropping out slow in Yeatsian style. The truth is, science has contributed much to the creation of weapons of mass destruction.

But the Professor Gerardus ‘t Hooft sees things a little differently.

Scientific Intellect to Curb Emotions
For him, an education in science helps create a culture that's less inclined to the seductions of demagoguery and the exploitations of emotions. “Our [scientific] minds are trained to be analytical,” says Professor ‘t Hooft, “and so we scientists try to see causes and connections and relations to gain experiences in life. If I see a phenomenon in society or in the physical world around us, I try to understand and see the events we're encountering in a logical way. A scientist tends to do that much more than the average person.”

The Professor seems to underscore that a scientific education can shape a philosophy of life that is more inclined towards peace since it engages in a language that steers away from the emotional to the analytical. Cool logical heads can prevail when hot, aroused hearts are aflamed with passion. “We don't have to ignore our emotions,” says the Nobel Laureate, “but we need to put them into perspective.” The Professor thinks, for instance, that President Bush's post 9/11 war against terrorism came about because he(Bush)felt that the United States of America had lost face in the international arena. “That war has not made the world a safer place,” he says.

“Education must also be seen as a bastion against extremism. Extreme ideas of religions, nationalistic or ethnic nature usually foster from ignorance. Youngsters with good education are much more  exposed to people from nations with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and are more prone to the idea that the entire planet is inhabited by only one human race: Homo Sapiens. In this sense then, science can also act as a bridge between nations.”
“It is sad to observe, time and again, that humanity takes its refuge in beliefs from sources that one is not allowed to question, and that are sometimes at odds with scientific findings in a blatant fashion. These belief systems often inspire one to commit violence, not because the religion itself provokes violence, but because believers see no other way to impose their religious views. A major fraction of humanity cannot live without some sort of religion.” The Professor adds, “As a general statement, to secure peace then we have to educate people on the very strict rules about how to behave, and to educate people that there are other possibilities to resolve conflicts besides taking arms against each other.”

Science and Collaborations
Beyond the spirit of detached analyses provided by the culture of science, it offers also some very practical ways to bridge the differences among people. Professor ‘t Hooft acknowledges that our world is characterised by conspicuous differences. That, for him, is a good thing as differences can also be a fertile ground for innovation and progress. He points out that because of differences, there is trade between nations, there are dialogues among people and, over time, differences allow for progress to take place. He says, “The progress in scientific thinking can only come about when different people come with different ideas, investigate different mysteries, and follow upon different approaches to come up with solutions.”

Differences here are not stumbling blocks but rather building blocks towards cooperation. He asserts that in the scientific community, “different nations with different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, [can] all participate in the same endeavor”. The scientific community “build on each other's experiences, and we communicate our results to our colleagues. Science is a collaborative exercise. Only by being open, and by using the openness of others, can one contribute to the scientific adventure in a meaningful way.”

Science can often put everybody's interest on the same line, and as such improves the chances for peace and maintaining it. The Professor cites an example of a successful collaboration in which people from different countries—even warring ones, countries in direct conflict with another— come together to participate in research. “In 1964, Abdus Salam, [a Nobel Laureate himself] founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. This centre, now called the Abdus Salam Centre for Theoretical Physics, operates under a tripartite agreement among the Italian government and two United Nation agencies, UNESCO and IAEA. Its mission is to foster advanced studies and research, especially in developing countries.” The member states include Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Turkey with observer countries like France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Kuwait, Portugal, Sweden, United Kingdom and the United States.

In his visit to the country, Professor ‘t Hooft visited several local universities— Open University of Malaysia and University Malaysia Sarawak to discuss collaborative projects that could be undertaken, allowing young people to participate in cross border research and paving a way to peace even before conflicts arise.

Science and Peace
We don't have to be scientists to realise that conflicts of interests will always exist, between individuals, between nations, between members of a family. You name it. As long as you have conflicts, you cannot expect peace to be automatic. The thing that humanity at large can benefit is to resolve conflicts without resorting to physical violence but through intellectual argument and if there's no resolution between the conflicting parties, then bring in a third to arbitrate. And that's the way to go. If we go into war, we have more to lose.

No. Science does not have the definitive path to peace. But it offers platforms for scientists, scholars and students from different countries to assemble, talk and search for answers, which matter to the group, perhaps to humanity. The time spent talking and working in peace, the energy spent striving towards a common goal, will prove so much more life sustaining. Dialogue opens up possibilities. Learning to collaborate at the table can help avoid resolving conflicts on the fields of war where blood and life are spent. The point then is to get people to talk about what they have in common.

Resolution though words not guns. Even as children we've been taught, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” Not sure if that is scientific, but it works. NM