Hermann J. Muller

Banquet speech

Hermann J. Muller’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1946

Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We scientists feel as if we had a little glimpse into the millennium when we visit Sweden and see what encouragements and what a high place of honor are accorded to the scientific way of life in your country. The institution of the Nobel awards is the most outstanding expression of this spirit, and it serves most effectively in spreading it wide and deep throughout the world. And, like the other recipients of the award here today, I for one am personally moved most profoundly in being chosen as one vehicle in the transmission of this great service.

An important part of the insight of Nobel lay in the fact that he did not try to separate the seeking after fundamental truths from the seeking of benefits for mankind. In some scientific work one, in others the other aspect may be more apparent, but in fact they are closely interdependent, and only the dual recognition can provide a basis for the richest, fullest and most effective motivation on the part of a scientist. We would however be hypocrites if we were to pretend today that the increase of knowledge in any particular field inevitably leads to human betterment. The example of the power of dynamite for good or ill is as everyone knows far outmoded nowadays by modern physical, chemical and biological means of metamorphosing the structure of inanimate and animate matter. And scientists can no longer stand aloof from the question of whether their work will be used to wreck or to re-create civilization, even though they can scarcely have the deciding voice.

But most of us scientists, I hope, have come to know that, both for the further expansion of human understanding and human control over nature, and also for the increase of our general human well-being – in fact, for the very saving of us from destruction – there are today two great underlying requirements. One is that the thousands-of-years-old growth (ofttimes very painful) in the freedom of the human spirit to examine into and question all things, and to communicate one’s thoughts, doubts, findings and criticisms freely in every field, should go on, and should be greatly accelerated, and spread to all the peoples of the earth. This means a society of men educated in all the fundamentals of modern knowledge, and trained to think independently and fearlessly. But, to be effective, it means, secondly, the bringing of the benefits of modern techniques to all, the raising of the standard of living of the broad masses everywhere, not exclusive of any groups or races, as they could now be raised with the aid of modern science, so as to make high culture and free criticism not the unstable possession of a limited sector of society, as among the ancient Greeks, but a part of the accepted inheritance of all humanity. This implies among other things not only suitable employment for all but also a more effective, more informed, and more direct participation than exists in most places, on the part of what are now the fourth and fifth estates, in the making of decisions affecting themselves and the commonalty. For human nature has never proved altruistic enough to allow the interests of one group to be successfully entrusted entirely to another one. Necessarily this will require some sacrifice on the part of some of those now more favored, but it will be to the benefit of their children too in the end.

History indicates the suppression of either one of these two related modes of progress to be equally disastrous. In fact, the destruction of civilization, and of most of mankind, today, would hardly be more deplorable than the sealing of the bonds of either our intellectual or our economic enslavement by the victory, even if bloodless, of any system which, though it temporarily offered one of these two types of development, gave no hope for progress in the other.

It is to be fervently hoped that the world will have to make no such devil’s choice. In the quantitatively major countries many scientific men, especially among the physicists, are coming to realize the urgency of this matter, and so are many publicists and many ordinary people, but not nearly enough of them yet. Sweden, however, is one of the few countries which is very notable in having made great advances in the simultaneous solution of the problems involved in both required lines of development, and the example of Sweden is most heartening to all the world. With a background of such progress here in both directions, the nourishment which this country gives to science, and which is so well represented in the institution of the Nobel awards, may be expected here at least to redound to mankind’s benefit only. Could this be true of other countries as well, we might look forward with enthusiasm to the future.

But we of the other countries must not allow our efforts to be frustrated by the greater complexity and size of our own problems. In particular, it is the obligation of scientists in all fields to do what they can to bring to people’s minds that better realization of the situation which should come from knowledge of the possibilities of science for good and for bad, and from knowledge of the requirements of science, and of the ultimate dependence of scientific development on general human development. The institution founded by Nobel is a most powerful force in helping to give scientists the necessary voice for this, as well as in making them themselves more cognizant of their heavy responsibilities in this regard. And the fact that the main seat of this institution is in Sweden is an extremely fortunate circumstance, in helping to put forward that blazing ideal towards which scientists, in common with all humanity, must now more than ever strive with all their might.

Prior to the speech, Sigurd Curman, President of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: “Professor Hermann J. Muller, the winner of the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine, has concentrated his investigations on heredity, that remarkable science which investigates the origin, development and changes of all living things, how given characteristics are passed on from parent to child, how the family flourishes and degenerates, all of those questions which, since times unknown, have been the object of man’s wondering curiosity. Your contribution, which has now been rewarded by the Nobel prize, is the amazing discovery made by you that it is possible, by special means, to intervene in the strange manifestations of what was formerly called ‘the blind play of Nature’. These manifestations, by which new species with changed properties spontaneously appear, are known by scientists as ‘mutations‘. Such mutations occur extremely seldom in Nature. You, Mr. Muller, have discovered that it is possible, by means of roentgen radiation, to increase enormously the number of mutations. You have thus opened up new possibilities for experimental investigations and have pointed the way towards an answer to some of the many ‘why’s’ which science aims at answering.

There is no doubt that your discovery has already led to a considerably increased knowledge of the nature of the hereditary factors and is thus of fundamental importance for the study of living beings in general. It suggests new possibilities within your field of science – new discoveries, which will perhaps be awarded in the future with a fresh Nobel prize. Dear Mr. Muller, you will perhaps allow me, when I now express our sincere congratulations on winning the prize, to ask you a playful question on a serious subject: Do you consider it possible to discover and isolate a kind of cosmic ray which – applied to humanity – would bring about a mutation making it peace-loving and more suited to happy relationships with others?

If you succeed, you may certainly count on a new Nobel prize in physiology and medicine as well as many Peace prizes in Oslo.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1946, Editor Arne Holmberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1947

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1946

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