I’m a refugee. I fled Communist Poland and was granted political asylum in the United States. That was so long ago that I don’t think of myself as a refugee any more. I’m an American — not by birth but by choice. My understanding is that being an American has nothing to do with ethnicity, religion, or personal history. I became an American by accepting a certain system of values specified in the Constitution. Things like freedom of expression, freedom from persecution, equality, pursuit of happiness, etc. I’m also a Pole and proud of it. I speak the language, I know my history and culture. No contradiction here.
I’m a scientist, and I normally leave politics to others. In fact I came to the United States to get away from politics. In Poland, I was engaged in political struggle, I was a member of Solidarity, and I joined the resistance when Solidarity was crushed. I could have stayed and continued the fight, but I chose instead to leave and make my contribution to society in other areas.
There are times in history when it’s best for scientists to sit in their ivory towers and do what they are trained to do — science. There is time when it’s best for engineers to design new things, write software, and build gadgets that make life easier for everybody. But there are times when this is not enough. That’s why I’m interrupting my scheduled programming, my category theory for programmers blog, to say a few words about current events. Actually, first I’d like to reminisce a little.
When you live under a dictatorship, you have to develop certain skills. If direct approach can get you in trouble, you try to manipulate the system. When martial law was imposed in Poland, all international travel was suspended. I was a grad student then, working on my Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Contact with scientists from abroad was very important to me. As soon as the martial law was suspended, my supervisor and I decided to go for a visit — not to the West, mind you, but to the Soviet Union. But the authorities decided that giving passports to scientists was a great opportunity to make them work for the system. So before we could get a permission to go abroad, we had to visit the Department of Security — the Secret Police — for an interview. From our friends, who were interviewed before, we knew that we’d be offered a choice: become an informant or forget about traveling abroad.
My professor went first. He was on time, but they kept him waiting outside the office forever. After an hour, he stormed out. He didn’t get the passport.
When I went to my interview, it started with some innocuous questions. I was asked who the chief of Solidarity at the University was. That was no secret — he was my office mate in the Physics Department. Then the discussion turned to my future employment at the University. The idea was to suggest that the Department of Security could help me keep my position, or get me fired. Knowing what was coming, I bluffed, saying that I was one of the brightest young physicists around, and my employment was perfectly secure. Then I started talking about my planned trip to the Soviet Union. I took my interviewer into confidence, and explained how horribly the Soviet science is suffering because their government is not allowing their scientists to travel to the West, and how much better Polish science was because of that. You have to realize that, even in the depth of the Department of Security of a Communist country, there was no love for our Soviet brethren. If we could beat them at science, all the better. I got my passport without any more hassle.
I was exaggerating a little, especially about me being so bright, but it’s true that there is an international community of scientists and engineers that knows no borders. Any impediment to free exchange of ideas and people is very detrimental to its prosperity and, by association, to the prosperity of the societies they live in.
I consider the recent Muslim ban — and that’s what it should be called — a direct attack on this community, on a par with climate-change denials and gag orders against climate scientists working for the government. It’s really hard to piss off scientists and engineers, so I consider this a major accomplishment of the new presidency.
You can make fun of us nerds as much as you want, but every time you send a tweet, you’re using the infrastructure created by us. The billions of matal-oxide field-effect transistors and the liquid-crystal display in your tablet were made possible by developments in quantum mechanics and materials science. The operating system was written by software engineers in languages based on the math developed by Alan Turing and Alonzo Church. Try denying that, and you’ll end up tweeting with a quill on parchment.
Scientists and engineers consider themselves servants of the society. We don’t make many demands and are quite happy to be left alone to do our stuff. But if this service is disrupted by clueless, power-hungry politicians, we will act. We are everywhere, and we know how to use the Internet — we invented it.
P. S. I keep comments to my blog under moderation because of spam. But I will also delete comments that I consider clueless.
Here’s a little anecdote about cluelessness that I heard long time ago from my physicist friends in the Soviet Union. They had invited a guest scientist from the US to one of the conferences. They were really worried that he might say something politically charged and make future scientific exchanges impossible. So they asked him to, please, refrain from any political comments.
Time comes for the guest scientist to give a talk. And he starts with, “Before I came to the Soviet Union I was warned that I will be constantly minded by the secret police.” The director of the institute, who invited our scientist, is sitting in the first row between two KGB minders. All blood is leaving his face. The KGB minders stiffen in their seats. “I’m so happy that it turned out to be nonsense,” says the scientist and proceeds to give his talk. You see, it’s really hard to imagine what it’s like to live under dictatorship unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Trust me, I’ve been there and I recognize the warning signs.