APS News

April 2002 (Volume 11, Number 4)

Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

Mad Scientists Give Way to Mad Capitalists

By Joel Achenbach

Incredibly, businessmen are now as scary as scientists. The world of business, like that of science, has suddenly become famous for its horrors and abominations. This is an enormous cultural development.

Scientists - mad, cackling, disheveled, hair flying upwards as though in an antigravity field - have always disturbed our dreams, for they and their hunchbacked assistants are continually inventing things that are dangerous, invasive and certain to culminate in mayhem. Monsters spawned by Science (and its demonic cousin, Technology) have included Frankenstein, the Blob, the H-Man, Godzilla, the Andromeda Strain, Robo-Cop, the Terminator, the Jurassic Park velociraptors and the new Greta Van Susteren.

But no one despises Science entirely, for it also makes life better. Antifungal ointments come immediately to mind. Microwaveable pizza. Beyond those two things I'm drawing a blank but I know the list goes on and on.

The question we all have to ask is, does the invention of, say, the remote control clicker outweigh the risk that an overworked grad student at a high- energy particle accelerator will forget to carry the 2 in one of his calculations and, instead of discovering a new quark, inadvertently destroy the entire universe? It's a close call, obviously.

A similar conundrum is presented by Business, newly revealed as a terrifying enterprise only lightly tethered to morality and decency. Every day we learn of new financial instruments and accounting techniques that, like evil computers in science fiction movies, have turned on their masters. We hear about equity derivative transactions, related party entities, hedge funds, offshore bank accounts, submerged bank accounts, bank accounts hidden inside volcanoes, and so on.

The Enron scandal calls into question the integrity of the entire capitalist system, which previously we assumed was based on honest, straightforward greed. The Enron executives and their accountants, we've learned, have strayed from the American tradition of ripping off the little guy fair and square. Everyone knows that a company is supposed to be deceitful in its ledgers, but it is also supposed to be artfully deceitful. There are standards of dishonesty to uphold. The Enron people violated all these unspoken rules. It's okay to hide the fact that you've lost a million dollars here or there, but when the Enron executives tried to hide a billion dollars in losses - when their lies involved the B-word - they crossed the line.

Enron was simply too aggressive. Listen to the words of whistleblower Sherron Watkins in her famous memo to Kenneth Lay: "Enron has been very aggressive in its accounting - most notably the Raptor transactions and the Condor vehicle."

Raptor. Condor. These businessmen fantasize themselves as birds of prey. (Notice that they didn't name their financial vehicles "Bunny" or "Otter" or "Mary Poppins.")

The most amazing thing about this case is that Enron officials may never be convicted of a crime. So far they've been charged with nothing, having endured merely the ritual torture of media demonization. Everyone hates them, but they're free to come and go as they please, so long as they keep the paper sacks on their heads.

The problem is that, although they are potentially guilty of wire fraud, securities fraud and racketeering under the RICO Act, they are also potentially guilty of nothing other than being aggressive American business people. Hiding losses in an obscure business partnership, and cashing in millions in stock while your employees watch their 401(k) plans evaporate into nothingness, is apparently legal. It's not even a crime t xes and absurdities of the Enron case once again bring Science to mind, specifically the assurance by Science that things utterly illogical can in fact be true, like light being both a wave and a particle, or the universe having no boundary, or a bowling ball falling to the ground at the same speed as a paper clip.

The standard tale of science gone awry features a tormented genius with no moral compass. He invents something, and he loves this invention more than he loves anything else, even though we, as outsiders, see that it will turn on him. Think, for example, of Dr. Moreau, the exiled vivisectionist of the H.G. Wells novel, piecing together parts of humans and animals to form new, loathsome hybrids. This man, we now suspect, could have risen far at Enron.

Combating corporate evils is a tricky business. If you blow one of these secret partnerships to smithereens, each individual smithereen can regenerate into an entirely new secret partnership. The paramount rule that governs Demon Spawn is that they cannot be killed. They can only be contained. Think of Godzilla: you can take him out with a nuclear device but you know that, eventually, he'll be back. Enron is now in shambles and its executives are less popular than figure skating judges, but someday, in some form, it too will return. Beware the Son of Enron.

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and author of Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe (Simon & Schuster, 1999). The above originally appeared on February 19 in Achenbach's "Rough Draft" column. Reprinted with permission

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

April 2002 (Volume 11, Number 4)

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Articles in this Issue
Executive Board Expresses Concern Over Funding Imbalance In Bush Administration's Fy2003 Budget Request
Outlook On FY2003 Budget Bills
Task Force To Weigh Pros And Cons Of Topical Groups
APS Establishes Task Force On Countering Terrorism
Preposterous Public Lecture Highlights Albuquerque Meeting
APS Extends Free Journal Access And Membership To Argentina
"Copenhagen" Cast Meets Protagonists' Progeny
The Back Page
This Month in Physics History
Members in the Media
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis
Focus on Committees