Imagine a Peacekeeping-Industrial Complex

First published in The Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, 14 June 1998


by Juliet O’Neill, The Ottawa Citizen


One of the freaky things about Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda — and this comes from a Los Angeles mortuary director — was that his body had not decayed one bit 20 days after he died.

It’s the sort of morbidly fascinating fact that would impress most little boys, although Walter Dorn probably wasn’t your average 13-year-old Toronto kid when he was swept away by Yogananda’s life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, in the mid-’70s.

“I was entranced,” he recalls now. “I was entranced. I was lifted to another world.” Mr. Dorn’s recollection stops.

“That sounds pretty hokey. Wouldn’t you rather talk about ionic conduction of lipid membranes?” Not really.

But for the record, that was the subject of Mr. Dorn’s University of Toronto PhD, findings useful in the development of devices used to sniff out chemical and biological weapons. He finally got the PhD in 1995, after years of playing hooky in the library when he should have been in the lab peering through a microscope.

If he wasn’t in the library reading history and United Nations documents, Mr. Dorn was at the United Nations researching his book on satellite use in arms-control verification or writing the 60-page index to the chemical-weapons convention — probably the best arms-control treaty in existence.

Mr. Dorn, 36, has been the Canadian Science for Peace representative to the United Nations since its inception in 1982.

A man who says the only constant in his life is his e-mail address, he is based this year as a fellow at the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, writing a book about UN monitoring and verification.

He travels constantly to give lectures and fulfill contracts, including his latest one at the Sandia National Labs in New Mexico, where he is surrounded by nuclear scientists.

Mr. Dorn is only half joking when he describes his effort to convert the military-industrial complex to a peacekeeping-industrial complex.

He is one of the few scientists in the world specializing in the subject of peacekeeping technology, something with which he believes the UN should be equipped, although it has neither the money nor the personnel to do so. Nor does the UN have its own military force.

Often, his current work is a matter of distinguishing the destructive from the constructive use of military technology.

“Take a knife: it can be used to cut bread and share with someone, but it can also be used to hurt someone,” Mr. Dorn notes. “For example, night-vision devices can be used to monitor somebody trespassing in a demilitarized zone or, as the Serbs did in Sarajevo, to target sniper fire at night.”

Thousands of scientists work in the development of war machinery, so Mr. Dorn wonders: why not have some devoted exclusively to equipment helpful in preventing and stopping conflicts?

It was in 1978 that Mr. Dorn first went to a talk by John Polanyi — co-winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for chemistry — at the U of T about the International Satellite Monitoring Agency. That the most advanced technology — satellites orbiting the Earth — could be used for conflict prevention captured Mr. Dorn’s imagination.

“He was saying science could be used in the service of peace.”

Mr. Dorn specifically remembers Polanyi’s using India and Pakistan as an example of where this could be useful.

Both countries recently exploded nuclear devices and there’s been controversy over how U.S. satellites didn’t see India’s preparations but did see Pakistan’s only days later.

“I thought that science would be able to provide me with truth, but I’ve since discovered what a human activity science really is and that although nature does abide by certain laws, much more is determined by human emotions and motivations than by nature,” he said.

“Science is the physical world, one aspect of truth, just a small part of what life is all about.”

Wary of coming off as a bit of a kook, Mr. Dorn puts himself in the company of the great scientist Albert Einstein, quoting him as having said that the highest experience that a human being can have is a cosmic religious experience.

Often, Einstein would solve a physics problem intuitively, then work back through his equations to explain it. “When he was a boy, Einstein wondered what it would be like to ride on a beam of light,” Mr. Dorn said.

The theory of relativity Einstein discovered as an adult showed that if you rode a beam of light, time would stand still and you would become infinite.

Mr. Dorn scrawls the relativity equation, his favorite, down on a piece of paper. “It tells me that when you go out to the speed of light or beyond, you are going to a realm which our human mind, caught in three dimensions, cannot possibly understand.”

He doesn’t expect world peace for several centuries. “And then world peace will depend on inner peace, too,” he said. “We’ll need to have people who are able to find a reservoir of peace within themselves, so they can’t imagine themselves resorting to killing other people.”