Edward V. Appleton’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1947
Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I wish to thank you, Professor Tiselius, for the kind and generous way in which you have commended us to the distinguished gathering assembled here tonight; and I want to thank all of you for the warm response you have given to the toast. Your kindness has made me discover a new characteristic of human beings, and that is that it is possible for a person to feel both humble and proud at the same time! I feel humble because I know how much my scientific work has been dependent on the cooperation and assistance of so many people and organisations, of which I am, tonight, the fortunate representative. But I am certainly proud to stand here with my good friend Sir Robert Robinson, the President of our own Royal Society in Britain, and with my distinguished colleagues from the United States and Argentina.
Perhaps you will understand me when I say that I much regret that my old professor, Lord Rutherford, a Nobel Prizeman himself, who gave me the warmest encouragement and help when I began to work on the ionosphere, is not alive today to let me hear his own words of approval.
For the period of the war, in my own country, it was necessary, and regrettably so, for scientific workers to devote their whole time to the applications of existing scientific knowledge. But, with the return of peace, there has been a great change, and fundamental research, designed to extend the endless frontier of knowledge, is now again receiving the attention it deserves. The English philosopher, Francis Bacon, distinguished between what he called experimenta fructifera – fruitful experiments – and experimenta lucifera -light-giving experiments. In the extension of science for the welfare of mankind we clearly want both kinds of experiments, for the light-giving experiments of which Bacon spoke, although prompted solely by man’s intellectual curiosity, have not only enlarged man’s understanding of himself and of the world around him, but have also shown a surprising capacity for being useful.
In my subject of scientific radio the whole earth itself is our laboratory, so that you can well understand the need for international collaboration. Fortunately, under the auspices of the International Scientific Radio Union, such collaboration has been forthcoming in full and generous measure. Next year the Union hopes to hold its 8th General Assembly in this beautiful city of Stockholm on the invitation of the Swedish National Radio Committee, whose President is Dr. Håkan Sterky.
It seems to me that we must recognize that the proper use of science is one of the most important challenges of the present day. And here I think the scientist has a twofold mission, not only of extending the frontiers of knowledge but also of interpreting his results to his fellow-men. For the use that can be made of the same scientific knowledge can be good or it can be evil. It is only in the heart of mankind that the distinction can be made. We have long realized that even the gift of radio, whereby nation can speak unto nation, can be abused and unworthily employed to generate hatred instead of to promote international friendship. Today the physicist, having unlocked the store of energy in the atom, demands that mankind shall choose the way in which his knowledge shall be used – whether it shall be used for the good or for the ruin of mankind.
It has been suggested in some quarters that the development of the benevolent uses of atomic energy can be separated clearly from the development of the atomic bomb, and that we can distinguish sharply between safe and dangerous activities in the atomic energy field. There can be no greater mistake. All activities can be safe. All activities can be dangerous. Mankind must decide which it shall be. The physicist, knowing better than anyone else the vital importance of the issues at stake, has already made known, in the clearest terms, what he feels the decision should be, and I, for one, am confident that the final decision of his fellow-men will be the same.
Finally, I would like to thank you all again for your charming hospitality – hospitality as graceful and gracious as Sweden herself.
Prior to the speech, Arne Tiselius, Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Sciences, made this comment: “From Great Britain two distinguished Laureates honour us with their presence: Sir Edward Appleton, the explorer of the unknown regions which form a border between our earth and the universe, and Sir Robert Robinson who with masterly skill explores the fine structural details of the complex molecules of organic origin. May we express our deep admiration for such brilliant achievements from a country which has suffered and still suffers so markedly from the consequences of the war.”
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.