Well, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

New York Times, November 30, 2003.


“BUT what are the worst accomplishments?” the interviewer asked. We had been discussing great accomplishments in the arts and sciences, a subject on which I’ve written. The question stopped me cold. Art and science that are simply bad have no “worst” — all of it is equally unimportant. But the unintended consequences of great art and science are another question. Einstein did not have nuclear weapons in mind when he discovered that E=mc2, and Lenoir did not envision smog when he invented the internal combustion engine.

So, too, in the arts. A book can be misread, a painting can arouse prurient thoughts and a Wagner’s music can inspire a Hitler. Since it can happen so easily, the question arises: What belongs in the hall of fame of unintended outcomes in the arts and sciences, when a truly wonderful accomplishment inadvertently contributed to some truly awful consequences?

New York Times