How many times have you wished that what was spoken could have remained unspoken? What was done could have remained undone? What was invented could simply have been “uninvented” again?
Several million years ago, on a soft sandy beach, sat one of our distant forefathers. He was hungry. In one hand he held a mussel. How on earth could he prise it open, he wondered? The solution was there before his eyes. He took hold of a stone and set to work. He was a pioneer; with the imagination and ingenuity to turn the natural world around him into something that could help to solve his problems.
Beside him sat another pioneer. He was also hungry. And with his recently acquired expertise, he took hold of the stone and smashed his neighbour’s skull in. Then he stole and ate the mussel.
This, my friends, is the story of human power and creativity. It is also the source of humanity’s worst outrages.
The boundaries have moved. The stones rapidly grew larger and sharper, and were succeeded by iron, steel, gunpowder – and dynamite. Which, after all, is one of the very reasons why we are gathered here this evening.
Alfred Nobel was more aware than most that progress can follow different paths. Yet his approach was that of optimism. In a letter he wrote in the 1890s to his close friend, the peace campaigner Bertha von Suttner, he expressed the hope that war would become obsolete as soon as weapons had become so powerful that they could destroy everything and everyone: “Perhaps my factories will bring war to an end before your peace conferences,” he envisioned.
Alas, we now know better. For 70 years, humanity has possessed the military knowhow to annihilate itself. Yet war is still commonplace and shows no immediate sign of going out of fashion.
«For hver gåte vi løser, springer det frem nye. En gang var atomet noe vi drømte om. Nå drømmer vi om verden bak atomet».
“Each time we solve one riddle, a new one pops up. Once upon a time, the atom was just something we dreamt about. Now we dream about the world behind the atom.”
Thus wrote the Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen in 1978. Humanity’s most notable scientific advances are also the source of its greatest dilemmas.
The modern human is obsessed by the ideal of constant motion; of creating something useful and new. But modernity also has its grotesque flipside, just as Faust found out in his meeting with Mephistopheles. The search for knowledge is also fraught with danger. Freedom may turn into impotence; in the quest to break new boundaries, a step forward may become a step backwards.
Because what has once been invented cannot simply be “uninvented”.
In November 1945, a few weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Board of Trustees gathered in New York. They were weighed down by the burden of reflection.
It had dawned on them that fully 23 of the researchers who’d been instrumental in developing the atomic bomb had received grants from their foundation. A foundation whose express purpose was to contribute to “the Well-being of Mankind Throughout the World.
“It is a tragic irony that when men have been most successful in the pursuit of truth, they have most endangered the possibility of human life on this planet”. This was how Raymond Fosdick, president of the foundation, tried to describe the eternal tension that exists between our thirst for knowledge and the fear of how this knowledge might be used.
And this is what the Rockefeller Foundation and this year’s Nobel laureates have in common – the understanding that what we can neither forget nor reverse, we must learn to deal with.
Just as in many other of life’s highways and byways: we must find out how to live with and control the things that cannot be undone. Not simply life’s big questions, but with the smaller, day-to-day things as well. Food, for example.
Once the Belgians had first started to deep-fry potato wedges; once the Americans had placed a slab of beef between two slices of bread; and once the Germans had discovered that you could fill the innards of a pig with meat, fat and spices, there was simply no way back. From that point on, our boundaries of self-control were tested to even greater limits.
Our self-control has also been put to the test this evening. Despite the fact that we can rest assured that those sitting next to us won’t use their table knives for anything more serious than setting to work on this exquisite meal. There is more than enough here for everyone. There should be no reason to covet your neighbour’s serving, let alone to plunder it by force!
We are deeply grateful to our hosts for the bounty in front of us. Skål!