Nietzsche, Henry Moseley, and Conscript Armies

Years ago, as a schoolboy, I read Isaac Asimov on the evolution of the periodic table from Dmitri Mendeleev’s relative atomic mass version to Henry Moseley’s atomic number version. At the end of the essay, after describing Moseley’s contributions to devising the modern form of the periodic table of the elements, Asimov wistfully noted Moseley’s death in 1915 at Gallipoli (“”In view of what he [Moseley] might still have accomplished … his death might well have been the most costly single death of the War to mankind generally”). Moseley had enlisted (in the Royal Engineers and taken a sniper shot to the head; the Nobel Prize that might have been his in 1916 was never awarded. I was stunned by this coda to the seemingly straightforward story of scientific discovery that I had just been reading, and for years, was haunted by the thought of what the twenty-eight-year-old Moseley might have gone on to do.

It is said that Nietzsche has a line for everything. So, well, from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, Section 442, Chapter 8 (“A Glance at the State”):

Conscript army. The greatest disadvantage of the conscript army, now so widely acclaimed, consists in the squandering of men of the highest civilization; they exist at all only when every circumstance is favorable-how sparingly and anxiously one should deal with them, since it requires great periods of time to create the chance conditions for the production of such delicately organized brains!….and, in fact, it is the men of highest culture who are always sacrificed in the relatively greatest number, the men who guarantee an abundant and good posterity; for these men stand as commanders in the front lines of a battle, and moreover, because of their greater ambition, expose themselves most to dangers.

As always, standard caveats about Nietzsche apply.

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