In 1988, I was a student taking the Social Responsibility of Science course at King’s College, London, where I had the fortune to be tutored on a regular basis, one on one, by the late Nobel laureate Maurice Wilkins. The professor is remembered as part of the trio of Crick, Watson and Wilkins who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA. However, I also discovered that a very young Wilkins, who having graduated from Cambridge, then worked on the Manhattan Project which ultimately developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One gray London August day in 1988, I sat with Wilkins only to find him in a very somber mood. It was of course the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. We proceeded to have a profound conversation about his journey to Japan in 1982, to as he put it “apologize to the people of Japan for having help invent that blasted thing. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel sorry for it and the misery that it caused. I will have to live with that.” Wilkins reflected, on that day, that “he was young and wanted to do exciting science and there wasn’t anything more exciting for a young man than the work in Los Alamos.”

In later years, Wilkins worked hard to teach a whole new generation of scientists that science itself has no inherent moral system attached to it, but that it is up to human beings to utilize scientific discoveries for the betterment of mankind or else to bring misery to humanity. It is human beings who do good or evil with knowledge and power. This is a lesson that I have never forgotten, and may we all never ever forget this.

Paul Ong


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