Sergei Kapitza, 1928 – 2012
In early 2012, Sergei Kapitza won the first gold medal awarded by the Russian Academy of Sciences for his “outstanding achievements in the dissemination of scientific knowledge.” This was appropriate, because Kapitza was one of the few people–one of the important few–who could be described as a “science popularizer.” Many people are science teachers or science writers, but only few warrant this designation. To give some context to this characterization, other notable individuals deemed science popularizers are Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Kapitza earned his place among this group by hosting the Russian television show, Evident, but Incredible, as well as editing the Russian counterpart of Scientific American—not to mention his extensive work in the hard sciences, specifically in applied electrodynamics and accelerator physics.
For this work in science education, Kapitza was awarded UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize (full title: the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science) in 1979, which is given for exceptional skill in presenting scientific ideas to lay people. Above and beyond directly educating the public, Kapitsa was also involved in a number of issues covering the intersection of science and society. He was a committed advocate for planetary exploration and served on the advisory council of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1980 and dedicated to the exploration of our Solar System. In the early 1980s, Kapitza, along with Carl Sagan, argued staunchly against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He was also the vice president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Russia and the president of the Eurasian Physical Society. He fought for the restoration of the scientific community in Russia. He was a laureate of the Council for Secular Humanism’s International Academy of Humanism and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
Kapitza left an indelible mark on the minds of countless people through his work on Evident, but Incredible and Scientific American and his tireless advocacy for science in general. He was a paragon in the scientific community, and his influence on science, both in Russia and across the globe, will be missed.
Thomas Szasz, 1920 – 2012
Controversial to the end, Thomas Szasz was the most influential critic of psychiatry and psychotherapy of the twentieth century. Born in Budapest in 1920, Szasz relocated to the United States in 1938, where he studied physics and medicine. He finished his studies at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1950, worked there for five years, and then settled at the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, where he became an emeritus professor in 1990. Best known for his critiques on the influence of modern medicine on society, and in particular his characterization of mental illness as “fake disease,” Szasz was, above all, an advocate for human freedom and independence, not to mention a voice in the libertarian and humanist movements. He was an early supporter of the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry.
His best-known book, The Myth of Mental Illness (1960), categorized mental disease as essentially pseudoscience. His criticisms were based on the idea that illness and disease can only correspond to physical bodies, and thus mental illness should never be addressed with the types of treatments used to address physical ailments. He often said that true brain diseases should be addressed by neurologists, not psychiatrists. Szasz further argued that mental illness did not necessarily constitute an absence personal responsibility and thus should not be used to justify forcible treatment or to excuse the criminally guilty. This is not to say that Szasz was against the use of psychology and psychotherapy to alleviate mental stresses. He was an ardent supporter of therapy to the extent that it was elective and conversational. He was opposed to what he called the “therapeutic state,” that is, the collusion of the state and medical industry into a system in which abnormal thoughts and behaviors could be repressed by “approved” medical interventions.
Some of his ideas may have fallen into disrepute, but Szasz was an important skeptical voice in the psychiatric community. He raised tough questions about victimhood, personal responsibility, and the government’s influence on matters of personal health. Regardless of whether you agreed with his views, he challenged the authority of what he deemed to be pseudoscience, and he did so sincerely. That is a deed worthy of respect.