‘That’s not my department’ says Werner von Braun

At an EPSRC meeting last week to discuss our work on responsible innovation. We were reminded by one of the EPSRC’s strategic advisers of the rather wonderful, if vicious, song, “Werner von Braun” by Tom Lehrer. We were discussing the ways in which some scientists might abdicate their responsibilities (‘organised irresponsibility’ as Ulrich Beck puts it). It was Tom Lehrer who said that satire died the day that Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. I come from a showbiz family, who view things through sequin-tinted spectacles. They tend not to understand my career choice. Satire is the only language they understand. A comic song or two comes in handy…

Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience
Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown
“Ha, Nazi schmazi,” says Wernher von Braun

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
Say rather that he’s apolitical
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun

Some have harsh words for this man of renown
But some think our attitude should be one of gratitude
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun

You too may be a big hero
Once you’ve learned to count backwards to zero
“In German oder English I know how to count down
Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Wernher von Braun

Serious point: given the ease with which responsibility can be disorganised – through malice or inaction – in science and innovation, the remarkable thing is that there are so many scientists who actively seek it out. For every Werner Von Braun there is, thankfully, a Joe Rotblat.


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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One Response to ‘That’s not my department’ says Werner von Braun

  1. Pete Shanks says:

    A golden oldie!

    (From the man who wrote “The Old Dope Peddler” in about 1952! A genius, a wizard, and a true scholar and gentleman.) Thanks for the anti-anti-science post, too, that’s how I got here.

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