DNA, the Bomb and the misappliance of science

I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier
June 18, 1999

When we were quite young, my wife and I spent a summer renting a house perched on the Berkeley Hills above San Francisco Bay and which contained an enormous collection of early books. Fortunately, our tenure included no serious earthquakes and only a few brushfires, both of which are common enough hazards there for it to have been unwise to have left the books in the care of two such novices. Our landlord was a literature professor specialising in bibliographies -which made him a bibliographer of bibliographies, ie three steps away from the subject matter itself. This is to an extent the problem in reviewing a book that is largely a collection of reviews of memoirs - do you review the style, the content, or the content of the content? Actually, about a third of the book is original memoir, and another large fraction is reviews so critical or involving so much personal knowledge that they may be seen also as independent. Many, in fact, were written for The New York Review of Books , where reviews tend to be much more complete and free-swinging than conventional reviews.

As for the content of the content, a group of pieces comprising about the first third of the book is concerned with wars, mostly hot but some cold. I think most readers will find this the most intriguing, and also the best-written part; Perutz's own emotional involvement comes across very clearly. The first piece, on Fritz Haber, is a fine skewering of "Geheimrat Haber", the super-German patriot who bypassed the Hague Convention to become the driving power behind the introduction of poison gas into the first world war, who drove his wife, an equally talented chemist, to suicide, and yet was rewarded by the Swedes with the 1918 Nobel prize in chemistry. In the end he lived to see his institute destroyed by the Nazis because he was Jewish. He was also the inventor of Zyklon, the gas used to kill many of his surviving relatives.

There follow chapters on Lise Meitner, on Leo Szilard, on the Farm Hall transcripts, on Sakharov, and on Francois Jacob. Each contains a little extra spice, in one form or another, if only in revealing the extraordinary nature of the personalities involved, as in the cases of Szilard and Jacob. Szilard is introduced as the lazy if brilliant hypochondriac who patented the Bomb - in March 1934, not five years later - as well as the cyclotron and the linac, even more presciently. He designed and helped Fermi build the world's first atomic pile reactor, after having led the effort to persuade Britain and the US to take nuclear weaponry seriously, yet was rapidly frozen out of the Manhattan Project. After the war he became one of the earliest campaigners for nuclear restraint in all forms. The chapter begins with the 1940 intelligence report on Fermi and Szilard, branding both as dangerous, probably subversive aliens - military intelligence is still an oxymoron, to be sure, as we have been recently reminded.

To my mind, the pieces on Meitner, on Sakharov, and on Farm Hall are related - as to some extent all of these chapters are - by the moral dilemmas encountered in dealing with an evil, totalitarian regime. Meitner's story was one of surprising success as a Jewess brought up in the lively, tolerant, polyglot society of Hapsburg Austria and achieving, through the friendship of Otto Hahn, a prominent position in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Not until 1938, on the threshold of their great joint discovery of nuclear fission, was she forced out of Germany to an unwelcoming Sweden, where she remained quietly throughout the war while her nephew, Robert Frisch, with whom she had written the crucial papers, went off to England and collaborated with Rudolf Peierls in producing the first practical proposal for the use of fission in weapons. Perutz is correctly critical of Meitner's biographer for her lack of sensitivity to the scientific and cultural overtones of this life, yet I feel he could have been a little more sensitive himself to the obtuse (to say the least) choice of the German Hahn as the only Nobelist ever to be associated with fission, whether or not Hahn was a genuine anti-Nazi. Even in 1944 the choice smacked of anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, and pro-Germanism on the part of the Nobel committee. Meitner was distressed at being lionised for the Bomb, in which she had not taken any part. Hahn was an even more conflicting character, who plays a role in three of these chapters: as Haber's faithful -but reluctant - assistant; as Meitner's purely altruistic supporter and collaborator; and as a participant in the Farm Hall transcripts, which were the result of eavesdropping on the reactions of captured German scientists to the Hiroshima device. I am more sceptical of the claims of Hahn to innocence than Perutz is able to be, as I certainly am of Heisenberg's. At some point cooperation with the perpetrator of crimes against humanity becomes complicity, and the wilful ignoring of the horrors can be no excuse.

Sakharov is presented as by no means the almost iconic figure he has become in the West. The relevant question is, what about the half of his life spent in uncritical loyalty to a brutal regime, actually participating in its corruption (his first H-bomb was a fake) and inhumanity (he was aware of the consequences of fallout)? Perutz ably explores the contradictions of his character.

The final chapter of this section is, in itself, enough to make the book worth having. Perutz was one of the large number of "enemy" aliens, most of them refugees, deported by the British when Churchill gave the command "collar the lot" on hearing unsubstantiated rumours of the role of fifth columnists in the invasion of Norway. There were at least two future Nobel prize-winners (the other being Walter Kohn) among the Austrian refugees summarily dragged off to work camps in Canada. But they were far luckier than the Italians, who were harried onto a rickety old ship with no lifeboats and no anti-submarine protection, which was immediately torpedoed with the loss of 1,600 of the 2,600 innocents on board. Perutz tells this story in the words of a friend who survived - one of the few editing errors in the book is that this section is not given a separate heading and it is not clear whose voice is telling the story. The chapter concludes with a hilarious recounting of Perutz's adventures when he returned to England and was made second in command to a crackpot named Pyke, while all of his former colleagues at Cambridge were busy winning the technical war.

A second small group of chapters, though scattered rather randomly through the rest of the book, seemed to me to belong together: pieces in which Perutz seems especially involved in defence of his own views -which, in general, happen to be those of many scientists including, to an extent, myself. Particularly good is a crushing review of a book on Pasteur by Princeton historian Gerald Geison, which epitomises the objections scientists have to the attempt to chronicle science without adequate understanding of the subject. A second review, of an unfortunately typical scaremongering book on nuclear power by a non-scientist, Marilynne Robinson, makes the same point: that where generations of highly competent and courageous scientists such as Szilard Pauling, Henry Kendall and many others have confronted the problem of nuclear safety with responsible competence, ignorant hysteria seems designed only to sell books. Finally, there is a laudatory discussion of the pioneering work on chemical contraception and the remarkable career of Carl Djerassi.

Most of the remainder of the book revolves around Perutz's own scientific speciality, broadly interpreted: the structure and function of the basic molecules of life. In rather haphazard order are a series of chapters that could be linked together into a capsule history of X-ray crystallography and its application to biology: a memoir of Lawrence Bragg, the first crystallographer and Perutz's mentor at Cambridge; one of Max Delbrück, the founder (almost in spite of himself) of molecular biology; an obituary of Linus Pauling, who made crystallography into a chemical method; one of Dorothy Hodgkin, who first solved really complex structures; and the anecdote that gives the book its (to my mind) slightly unfortunate title, about Perutz's own first success with a protein - this one being unique in being marred by technical jargon such as "meridional reflections" and "goniometer".

Then there are two quite long chapters on the crucial discoveries of the structures of DNA and of haemoglobin, in both of which Perutz's group at the Cavendish was central. His DNA piece is notable for an attempt to bring out the important role of Oswald Avery in identifying DNA as the genetic material; perhaps in deference to the amount of attention they have been given, he does not spend much time on Crick and Watson's work. One wonders whether the picture Watson drew of him in The Double Helix may have been uncomfortably accurate. The chapter on haemoglobin matches in length - or at least in density - the 40-year time span of the work, which constituted the bulk of Perutz's career, and was in its central core a rightly celebrated tour de force of crystallographic skill. This is a Scientific American reprint and shares the weaknesses and strengths of the genre: a lavishly illustrated but somewhat heavy-handed treatment of the science, ending necessarily on an unconvincingly triumphal note. It will not be very accessible to non-scientists.

There is more still to the book - brief sketches of a number of noteworthy scientists or scientific topics, many bearing on the medical aspects of haemoglobin, as well as a couple of interesting philosophical essays, in one of which he takes issue with Popper on evolution and in the other examines the history of human rights. All share Perutz's graceful writing style (perhaps owing a debt to his habit of preserving noteworthy quotations in a "commonplace book", which he adds at the end of this one) and his penetrating intelligence. Certain readers may note a slight establishmentarian flavour - I picked up "Tony Hewish and colleagues" as the discoverers of pulsars, where the scientifically as well as politically correct ascription is to "Jocelyn Bell and Tony Hewish", and another reference to a discovery by a nameless "Bell Labs scientist" in an article where all the other participants are named, which evoked my own days at the Cavendish.

On the whole, this is a book heartily to be recommended. Few other books that are so accessible to the general reader combine science, politics, and moral and philosophical thought in such generous variety. With its diverse subject matter, many readers will want to keep the book by them and sample the material at will.

Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, is emeritus professor of physics, Princeton University.

I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity

Author - Max Perutz
ISBN - 0 19 850531 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 354

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