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                                          On Ethics

Science and Martyrdom

George L. Murphy

St. Mark Lutheran Church
Tallmadge OH

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 41 (March 1989): 33-35.
1989 Americian Scientific Affiliation

In one experiment, M. Curie caused a relatively weak radioactive product to act upon his arm for ten hours. The redness appeared immediately, and later a wound was caused which took four months to heal. The epidermis was locally destroyed, and formed again slowly and with difficulty, leaving a very marked scar.1

Pierre Curie did not die from his experiments with radioactive materials, though that might have been his fate if he had not been run down by a horse-drawn wagon in the streets of Paris. Marie Curie's health was seriously affected, and her life probably shortened by her long work with radioactivity. In those same years at the turn of the century when the Curies and others were being exposed to dangerous radiation dosages in their studies of newly discovered and imperfectly understood radioactivity and X-rays, Jesse Lazear and Clara Maass were dying of yellow fever as a result of investigations into the causes of that disease and searches for its treatment.

We find injury and death as a result of scientific research throughout the history of science. Marie Curie's life in one way paralleled that of Galileo, whose blindness in old age was probably caused in part by direct observation of the sun with his early telescopes. In both cases, we might be tempted to say that "they should have known better," but that would be from the perspective of people who know the risks involved in what those pioneers were doing. It is in the nature of investigating new phenomena that one does not know the risks involved precisely because the phenomena are new.

Less well-known than Galileo or Curie is Richmann. He died repeating Franklin's famous kite experiment, after saying: "In these days even the physicist has an opportunity to display his fortitude."2 Chemists may think instead of Scheele, one of the greats of the eighteenth century. His health was certainly affected by the toxic materials with of hydrocyanic acid, and even reported on its taste3 Many other investigators have not been so fortunate in their excursions into the unknown.

Recently, the world was stunned by the death of the Challenger crew. Most Americans, who had gotten accustomed to the idea that the space shuttle was as routine as a commuter train, hardly knew what to make of such a disaster. In one way, of course, we did have a right to be surprised and angry, because later investigations have shown that those deaths could have been avoided if reasonable care had been taken. But we also need to realize that people have often taken a very naive view of the risks involved in space exploration, and in scientific research in general. Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts had died in the line of duty before the shuttle explosion and, if the exploration of space continues, we can be sure that there will be other deaths. Who ever promised that the investigation of the universe was going to be easy?

A phrase like "martyrs of science" might call up a picture of Galileo being forced to recant, or of Soviet geneticists being persecuted because of their acceptance of Mendel's laws. That is indeed one type of risk which scientists have had to face. But one need not be regarded as dangerously unorthodox; one need not encounter persecution in order to find danger in science. The active investigation of the world, which is what modern science is all about, is risky. Anyone today working in a laboratory in which AIDS is studied is well aware of that. Even volunteers for a psychology experiment may in some circumstances be exposed to danger.

Of course we want the space program, and in fact all research, to be as safe as possible. No society which respects human life will have it otherwise. (And even a society which has no particular respect for human life in itself will probably want to avoid squandering one of its most important resources, its scientists and engineers.) In much the same way, the Christian Church has always highly honored its martyrs who have died for their faith, but has also condemned those who try to get themselves killed for being Christians. The words, "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next" (Matthew 10:23), suggest that martyrdom is to be avoided if that can be done in a way consistent with one's faith.

We would have to make a similar judgment in the case of science. Doing an experiment without adequate safety precautions is simply foolish, and it is wrong to subject others to risks without their knowledge and consent in the name of science. But in some scientific fields, to insist upon total safety would be to forego the possibility of any advancement. It is not always possible to foresee the dangers which might arise in an investigation, and in some cases (as with attempts to develop treatments for diseases) it may well be felt by the people who are involved in the work that the unavoidable risk associated with a line of research is worth facing.

There would seem to be much more involved here than the mere possibility that things may go wrong. A person does not have to be a scientist like Pierre Curie to be killed in a traffic accident! Of course it is true that all of life is risky, but we are glimpsing another truth at least as deep as that. The scientific enterprise involves a certain forgetfulness of self, and a willingness to put the pursuit of the truth about the world ahead of personal comfort and even of personal safety. It involves at least potentially the willingness to risk one's life in order to know something about the nature of reality.

Plato was not primarily concerned with the search For knowledge about the physical world. But there may be a hint of this reality that we have glimpsed in the words he reports Socrates saying on the day of the death to which he had been sentenced because of his pursuit of truth: the philosopher must always pursue death and dying.4 Even the scientist who does not see nature as God's revelation may risk health or wealth or life itself for a truth and beauty which is, in fact, from God, for God's gifts in creation are available for all (Matthew 5:45).

In the wisdom tradition of Israel we find the willingness to sacrifice oneself for Wisdom which is explicitly recognized as God's gift:

I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases. (Wisdom 7:10)

It is through Wisdom that God gives understanding of the world:

For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animal and the tempers of wild beasts,
the powers of spirits and the reasonings of men,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. (Wisdom 7:17-22)

In the New Testament Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:30), calls people to follow him in the way of the cross. The scientist who is a Christian may move into unknown territory, knowing that there are risks involved, but also that the God whose truth is being sought is the God of the cross and resurrection.

Science and technology may also be means of service to humanity and to the whole creation. Thus, intelligent risktaking in their pursuit can be a following of the pattern given by the Incarnate Wisdom of God in John 15:13. This should come as no surprise to those who believe that the God revealed in the universe is the Crucified One.5 If that is the case, all approaches to the truth about creation will to some extent carry the sign of the cross.


1Marie Curie, Radioactive Substances (New York Philorophical Library, 1961), p. 6i.

2Quoted in John L. Heilbron, "Franklin's Physics,"' Physics Today, July 1976, P.36.

3Dictionary of Scientific Biography, editor-in-chief Charler Coulson Gillispie (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, L975), vol. X11, r.v. "Scheele, Carl Wilham

4"Phaedo," in The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1961), p. 46.

5Georgr L. Murphy. "The Paradox of Mediated Creation Ex Nihilo," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (December 1987); 221.

Scripture citations are from the Revised Standard version.