Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Science, Uncertainty and the Bomb (1998)

Theatre Review from the September 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. National Theatre.

Michael Frayn, whose previous work has won him a trio of coveted "Best Comedy of the Year" awards (for Make and Break, Alphabetical Order, and the hilarious Noises Off), has, perhaps unexpectedly, fashioned a wonderful play about science which is full of ambiguity and paradox. Its focus is atomic physics, hardly the most accessible of subjects. But such are Frayn's linguistic skills that the audience has little difficulty in following narrative, and what emerges is a compelling play about how science is done, and the way that the scientific enterprise-like other behaviour-is mediated by the personalities of those involved. In the process Frayn has written one of the best plays about science and society that it has been my pleasure to see, and one which is marvellously realised on the stage of the Cottlesloe Theatre.

In 1941, in the Second World War, Nils Bohr, the so-called "father of atomic physics", met Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen. Heisenberg had been Bohr's research assistant in the mid-1920s, and together they had developed two of the key insights of modern atomic theory: the complementarity hypothesis (Bohr) and, especially, the uncertainty principle (Heisenberg). Uncertainty is one of those common scientific ideas (chaos is another) which has become part of the common currency of language, and in doing so has lost much of its original meaning. The uncertainty principle does not suggest that the behaviour of, for example, electrons is unknowable, but rather that "what is limited is the simultaneous measurement of connected variables such as position and momentum, or energy and time". The more precisely you measure one variable (such as the position of an electron), the less certain can you be of the value to attach to the second variable (such as "its speed").

What Frayn has done is to examine the uncertainties which lie behind Heisenberg's apparent motivations. Why did he, a German working on research into nuclear fission, journey to Copenhagen in 1941, to speak to his previous professor, a citizen of a country occupied by Germans? Drawing on biographical and autobiographical records he has fashioned a handful of separate explanations, all but the last of which have already been explored reasonably fully in various publications. Frayn doesn't suggest that our thoughts and motivations are specified as pairs of variables, but rather that a person's thoughts and motivations "cannot be established more clearly than he or she is willing to state them". Frayn wants to know whether Heisenberg (or indeed anyone else) really understands with any certainty the basis of their own thoughts and motivations.

What emerges is a picture of two scientists, previous colleagues, who find themselves caught up in the race to build the atomic bomb. (A year after their conversation in Copenhagen, Bohr was spirited out of Denmark and transported to the United States where he became a key member of the team which successfully built the first atomic weapon.) The evidence seems to suggest that Heisenberg perhaps deliberately mislead the German authorities about the difficulties which faced the research team, and as a result knowingly prevented the likelihood of Germany producing the bomb first. After the end of the war he and his team were captured by the British and brought to Britain, apparently to prevent them handing on any secrets to the French and Russians. And in a postscript Frayn describes the horror with which Heisenberg first heard of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. We cannot be certain but it appears that were it not for Heisenberg's common humanity either London, or Paris, or Amsterdam might have been devastated rather than Hiroshima. Such is the murderous way in which the scientific enterprise is used by capitalism. The profits of the few must always matter more than the lives of the many. About that there can be no uncertainty.
Michael Gill

Capitalism – barrier to useful work (2011)

From the May 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many are suffering the misery of unemployment while much useful, necessary work remains undone. One of the contradictions of capitalism. We want free time, to reduce the working day so that we can move beyond the tyranny of survival into free and creative mutual activity. Both employment and unemployment are capitalism preventing our human development in this direction.

The problems of unemployment are huge – worldwide problems affecting millions in some countries and billions globally if we include the massive numbers of 'informal' workers, those recognised as outside of the system, many of them non-persons living on the very edge of existence with no access to even the basic services.

What is this strange system that grants 'remunerated employment' to some who produce nothing worthwhile or useful for themselves and others whilst totally rejecting others who have the skills and ability to grow food, to build houses, to recycle others' rubbish, to contribute all manner of useful work? Why such a seeming imbalance between the work we can all see needing to be done but left undone and actual available work?

Given the way the world economic system is structured, we recognise the logic that requires a surplus of labour, a spare pool to be drawn on as and when required, a surplus that keeps down wages and favours the employer minority over the employed majority. But, as a member of human society, who can recognise any logic based even faintly on empathy or solidarity or common sense use of human capacities for the benefit of society as a whole?

Much of worldwide discontent and dissent is predicated around this matter of unemployment which creates unnecessary and unnatural divisions between sections of both domestic and international communities. Migrant labourers working for a pittance in lands which themselves have high domestic unemployment; migrant skilled workers enjoying artificially high wages in lands where local graduates can't find work; young people fresh out of education with little or no prospect of finding work while those wishing for retirement are told to expect to work for longer before earning such a luxury; production decimated in many developed countries because overseas underdeveloped countries have won the competition for the lowest wages.

This disconnect, this illogicality stares us all in the face. We know it makes no sense for any of us as a class, a class of workers, or would-be workers. Over the years we have experienced the circumstances getting worse, not better for many. We worry for our children, our grandchildren, the next generation, the stability of the world and the whole human race. We see the inequity (and iniquities) and worry.

The work to be done versus available work
If we were to approach the problem from a different angle we could see how to turn something totally illogical into something that would work better for everybody wherever they are in the world. Doing this would entail ridding ourselves of useless work and wasted time and effort and result in getting the work that is widely recognised as necessary to be done for the good of the people done, by the people.

It will be natural for anyone considering this topic to focus first on their own country and, in particular, their own locality, if only because this is the most familiar and best understood. However, considering at the same time the wider world in general will greatly increase individual capacity to focus on the enormity of the shortfall facing the global population, a shortfall deliberately ignored by the minority who capitalize greatly by their neglect.

This shortfall, this work needing to be done, includes all the obvious stuff seen around any location but neglected because of a different kind of shortfall, lack of funds in the individual, municipal, national or international budget. It can range from the very basic to much larger issues. Housing in disrepair for which private owners are without the means for proper upkeep, public housing which is underfunded and slums which should have been cleared long ago. Holes in the road. Leaks in classroom ceilings. Grubby town centres. Negligence with regard to the safety of the general public. Heavily polluting industries affecting air and water quality. Poor standards of safety allied to working conditions. Old, substandard, decaying or lack of infrastructure of all kinds. Shoddy public transport poorly planned to meet the needs of the greater community. Inadequate and inappropriate energy provision. Lack of local production facilities, whether food or industry. Localities not structured to meet the requirements of citizens. Health and education provision woefully inadequate with insufficient trained personnel to meet the wide and varied needs.

These examples can be expanded ad infinitum according to the local neighbourhood or the wider regions of the globe. The one thing they have in common is that there is much work waiting to be done that, in all likelihood, will not get done for a very long time, if ever, within the constraints of capitalism. The logic of the capitalist system is that profit must be considered above all else, society's needs are a poor also-ran.

Useful work is manifold and includes the production and distribution of material goods and food, scientific research and development, aesthetic and artistic endeavours, service of all kinds including installations, communications, infrastructure, maintenance, health, education, recreational, technological and social; producing and providing the goods and services required and needed by society as a whole on an ongoing basis.

As unemployment figures reach ever higher it must point to the fact that there just isn't enough remunerated work available. Meanwhile, if a comparison is made of the above work waiting to be done with much of the worthless, useless work currently being undertaken for remuneration by millions worldwide it begins to become clear just what a crazy system we are operating within. Work that offers no product, service or benefit to society must surely be considered useless work. What cannot be considered useful or necessary includes all the jobs currently involved in the huge financial industry; jobs which are tied to the movement of money from one place or person to another.

Being considered unnecessary because they produce nothing of use, provide no useful service and are of no benefit to society a large number of institutions would be redundant. All banking establishments, insurance companies, tax collection, benefits and pension offices, to name a few, would no longer be required and, as a consequence, many buildings would be freed up for use to be decided upon by civil society whilst technicians, office and other associated staff would be available for more people-beneficial work schemes.

The worker – employment or meaningful occupation?
When we consider in detail the vast range of tasks undertaken by humanity of blue or white collar variety – manager, foreman, labourer, part-time, full-time, self-employed, indentured, casual, indoor, outdoor, on land, sea or in the air – all are employed in order to fulfil the same requirement, their ongoing needs. All require regular remuneration in order to feed and clothe themselves and their dependents and keep a roof over their heads.

We must wonder why then, in some quarters, there is still a derogatory slant to the use of the term 'worker'. For what is it in reality but a misunderstanding of one's own position in the scheme of things? Whether labourer or architect, hairdresser or world-famous model, cashier at a supermarket or hedge fund computer screen minder, BMW production line worker or BMW owner – whoever must work on a regular ongoing basis in order to live, whatever the size of their remuneration, is a worker. S/he works. S/he is a member of the working class. Anyone not convinced should ask themselves how long as an individual they can afford to be out of work and without pay before their own personal crisis happens?

Isn't it ridiculous, too, that there are still those who can't recognize the different but equal importance of all contributions to society? Who's to say what or who is more important or necessary to society's functions when we know that (a) even if we wanted to we can't all do everything, all the tasks that are needed in our lifetime because we all have limited skills and time, (b) we would suffer as a society without all the seemingly menial, dirty, dangerous or difficult tasks being taken care of and (c) as individuals we don't want to be denigrated or undervalued for our own contribution. When we acknowledge these terms we are also ready to accept all others' contributions as valuable too. Apart from not being able to do everything, most of us probably don't want to have to do everything, preferring to have the time to engage in the things that take our individual fancy, interest or passion; time that the majority do not have at their disposal now.

'Not enough jobs to go around!' This is the mantra. Of course there are! In a global socialist society unemployment will be a word confined to the history books. In a world of voluntary work and free access to goods and services, when society is structured deliberately and logically to do the work that we, the people, declare to be necessary and important, there will be ample occupation for all, liberating us, at last, to forsake individual advantage in favour of the common good now and into the future.
Janet Surman

Dreaming of the future

Book Review from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Poor Man's Heaven: The Land of Cokaygne and Other Utopian Visions by Omasius Gorgut, Past Tense, 2012. 134 pages.
The Land of Cokaygne was a Middle English poem, the word 'Cokaygne' from Old French 'cocaigne', probably meaning ’cake’. Thomas Aquinas had emphasised hierarchy, private property and class divisions as the natural order of human society. Eden was lost, entry to heaven restricted by Church teaching, therefore Cokaygne was a land of no work, free access, common ownership, peace, happiness, and social justice. Cokaygne was a utopia for the serf offering relief from labour and the struggle for food in a hostile natural world where a bad season might mean absolute famine. Peasants looked to a lost communist golden age. 

AL Morton saw Cokaygne as 'arising from lower class self-awareness in terms of class conflict'. Gorgut sees the Peasant's Revolt as 'serfs … becoming aware of their servitude.' John Ball preached 'have your reward both on earth and in heaven. For I say that earth and heaven are not two but one, when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature.' Gorgut writes 'a land with no lords, no clergy, no serfs, but equality under God and the king, confirm that many of the poor believed a Return to Eden was achievable in this life.'
Millenarianism was rife but what was coming to an end was not the world but a mode of economic production, i.e. feudalism. With the rise of capitalism moralising enters into the world of Cokaygne reflecting bourgeois protestant morality evident in the Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting The Land of Cockaigne with its portrayal of gluttony and sloth.
German peasant leader Thomas Müntzer attempted to establish Cokaygne declaring 'All property should be held in common’, and in the English Revolution Digger Gerrard Winstanley wrote of the 'the Earth as a Common Treasury'. Gorgut writes of America 'elevating the New World to Cockaygne-like stature' with the community of Merry Mount, Massachusetts where 'settlers, runaway slaves and servants and native Americans lived together communally, brewing excellent beere and dancing around an 60 foot maypole. This attempt to blend old world carnival fun with practical race-mixing and egalitarianism was denounced by puritan pilgrims who feared and hated everything wild and free.'
American hobo songs of the early twentieth century such as The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and Poor Man's Heaven evoked Cokaygne. They still found resonance in the 1980s when The Big Rock Candy Mountain was sung by Tom Waits in the 'hobo' film Ironweed, Rudy Wurlitzer made the film Candy Mountain, and the Indie band The Motorcycle Boy sang their own lyrics to Big Rock Candy Mountain: 'dancing with the working man, looking for the big rock candy mountain.'
Gorgut closes his book with a quote from Hal Rammel: 'Liberated from the everyday, we dream of the world's limitless possibilities, the pleasures of life, and the bountiful earth, one day free for all.' 
Steve Clayton