Science as a force for evil in WW2

Jordan Healey explores how science was used for evil in the second World War

Science has undoubtedly benefited the human race whether it would be by enabling us to live longer, support a planet with over seven billion people as well as understand nature and reality itself from the quantum state to the birth of stars and even the universe itself. We are immensely privileged to live in a time where we have access to so much knowledge across so many different disciplines that have been discovered, refined and tweaked by many incredible minds over our relatively small amount of time on Earth. Of course, however, since we have always had a tendency to do horrible things to one another this knowledge has got into the wrong hands on many occasions with devastating results. This article will focus on a few of the times science has been used as a weapon to commit some of the worst atrocities we know of either as a result of this knowledge or to further our understanding of science.

World War II instantly springs to many peoples’ minds when discussing science being used as a force for evil. Between 1939 and 1945 weapons were developed to cause as much death and destruction as possible in ways like never before. Nuclear physics, which was developed by the likes of Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford had become a damning example of scientific knowledge being used for a different reason – that is – to kill. The atomic bomb was the result of this research and it ushered in a new age of science with its ability to level the entire cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and unleash more than 15 kilotons of energy in an instant. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima alone killed 70,000 people instantly and a further 70,000 from radiation sickness, burns and various other injuries sustained following the blast. Albert Einstein, whose famous equation E=mc² helped inspire the Germans to attempt to develop the first nuclear weapon, is known to have struggled immensely with the use of his work to maim and kill others.

One of the most infamous science related atrocities in modern history concerns the research conducted on live subjects by Nazi physicians during the holocaust. Many of these operations were supervised by Eduard Wirths, the Chief SS doctor at Auschwitz between the years 1942 and 1945. Wirths’ job was to be formally responsible for the research of the 20 doctors at Auschwitz during his time there. This included, perhaps the most well-known Nazi physician, Josef Mengele (nicknamed the angel of death) who decided who was to be sent to the gas chambers and who was fit enough to carry out forced labour. He also carried out his own scientific research, mostly in the field of genetics, with twins being his main focus. During his time at Auschwitz 3000 individual twins were subject to some of Mengele’s sadistic and cruel experiments which included intentionally injecting typhus into victims to monitor its effects, transfusing blood between twins and amputating limbs to treat them hoping to give the Nazis an advantage in the war.

Many of Mengele’s and the other doctors’ experiments were quite worthless in terms of their scientific credibility; they seemed to just be carried out for the sake of it. However, a lot of Nazi experiments actually proved to be ground-breaking and decades ahead of their time. Eduard Wirths, who was mentioned previously, sent pictures and specimens to Dr. Hinselmann, who went on to invent the colposcopy, which is the procedure still used today in order to detect cervical cancer. Nazi science was also able to link smoking to lung cancer decades before it became common knowledge in the rest of the world. Furthermore, our knowledge of hypothermia was believed to be greatly advanced due to human experimentation at the Dachau concentration camp (although this is disputed by many in the scientific community). Scientists after the war argued to enable the reference of these experiments in papers published by Nature (which banned them due to ways in which information was obtained) and by 1984, 45 new publications referenced these studies from Dachau. They’re no longer cited, however, due to the data being inaccurate and possibly even falsified.

All of this abuse of science has undoubtedly left its mark on history and is a stark reminder that science is neither inherently good nor bad since it is, by definition, just knowledge.  We now live in a time where genetic engineering, robotics and technological advances could potentially introduce significant problems if not well regulated by the governments of the world. It is now up to us and future generations not to let history repeat itself in a time where we need to pull together and utilise science for the good.