Per ardua ad Stockholm

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

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press: 1998. Pp.354. $39
Max Perutz: extraordinary historical grasp. Credit: ROB STEPNEY/SPL

Speaking at a memorial symposium for A. Michelson, Einstein related the following anecdote: he had, he said, once asked Michelson why, when the velocity of light was already known with adequate precision, he was continuing to measure it with ever greater accuracy. “Because,” Michelson had replied, “I get so much fun out of it”. “Das finde ich wunderbar,” was Einstein's verdict.

The parallel to Max Perutz's 60-year devotion to the red protein, haemoglobin, is not exact of course, for the deeper he has dug into its workings, the more rewarding the lessons that have emerged, and his work stands now as one of the pinnacles of this century's achievements. The pleasure he has drawn from his quest shines through this life-affirming selection of his writings, and he quotes with approval Noël Coward's dictum: “Work is fun. There is no fun like work.”

The centrepiece of this collection is Perutz's account of his experiences during the Second World War, when, in the company of thousands of desperate refugees from the horrors unfolding in Germany, and of Italian chefs and waiters who had lived peaceably in Britain for decades, he was incarcerated on the Isle of Man and then deported to Canada. The ageing blimp who commanded the camp was heard to remark that he had had no idea so many of these Nazis were Jews. A ship, the infamous Arandora Star, was torpedoed, and most of the internees, confined below decks, were drowned. Perutz relates the harrowing experience of one Italian survivor, later professor of Italian at the University of Cambridge, who told it to him.

Perutz, eager to play his part in the war, was eventually rescued through the intervention of J. D. Bernal, and was drawn into a comically ill-starred project, conceived by the eccentric inventor Geoffrey Pike, to construct floating airstrips of reinforced ice in the Atlantic Ocean. He eventually returned to Cambridge and his haemoglobin crystals.

Perutz's favourite scientists, vividly portrayed in his pages with many good anecdotes, include the two great masters of his craft: the crystallographers W. L. Bragg, his admired mentor who started it all, and Dorothy Hodgkin. Another friend is François Jacob, whose outlook, civilized and humane, as his writings reveal, is so reminiscent of Perutz's own.

Perutz's benevolence deserts him only in the face of injustice, pomposity or casuistry. Here for instance is how he deftly slips the knife into Richard Lewontin, who proffers the oracular assertion that “Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is obviously [sic] nineteenth-century capitalism writ large, and his immersion in the social relations of a rising bourgeoisie had an overwhelming effect on the contents of his theory”: “Marxism may be discredited in Eastern Europe,” Perutz observes, “but it still seems to flourish at Harvard”. He is infuriated by the school of science history which holds that all truth is relative and conditioned by the culture of time and place, for there is nothing fugitive about the structure of DNA or haemoglobin.

Perhaps it was his impatience with the rhetoric of soft disciplines and his insistence on intellectual rigour that drew Perutz into the most unequivocal of scientific pursuits. The crystallographers established an ascendency over chemists from the outset. When the Braggs solved the crystal structure of sodium chloride, Henry Armstrong, a prominent and highly vocal chemist, erupted in Nature in a spluttering paroxysm of affronted professional pride. His invective, which bore the title “Poor common salt”, pronounced that no one with an ounce of chemical education could have put forward such a monstrous absurdity as a molecule that was not a molecule. Bragg himself told of how, at the end of a lecture, a chemist approached him to ask whether he might not see his way to moving the sodium atoms in the crystal even the tiniest bit closer to one or other chlorine.

Perutz's demolition of a revisionist biography of Pasteur, which derogates the man and his achievements, is magisterial (although it should be said that in the subsequent exchanges in the New York Review of Books he did not have it entirely his own way); and his analysis of a meretricious account of nuclear waste management in Britain is crushingly informed and incisive. In a sympathetic review of Ruth Sime's biography of Lise Meitner (whom he befriended in her old age in Cambridge), he nails the feminist canard that Otto Hahn deliberately sought to diminish her contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission and magnify his own.

Perutz also records the injustice done to Albert Schatz, who was robbed by Selman Waksman (to whom a misplaced Nobel prize eventually accrued) of the credit for discovering actinomycin. He is a mite hard perhaps on Andrei Sakharov for willingly working on the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and is not altogether correct in the assertion that Sakharov and his colleagues lied when they reported that they had achieved fusion in their first hydrogen-bomb test. Richard Rhodes in his definitive account, Dark Sun, states that 15-20% of the total yield came from fusion, compared with 24% from the first American thermonuclear device, exploded eight months earlier, with an admittedly much bigger bang.

A trifling distortion also occurs in the review of Hans Krebs's memoirs: the epic paper by Krebs on the citric acid cycle was not exactly rejected by the editor of Nature, Sir Richard Gregory, relying too confidently on his own scientific judgement. Rather, the editors of Nature presented their compliments to Krebs (as was their wont in those more courtly times) and begged to inform him that the Letters section of the journal was for the present fully supplied, but he was welcome to try his luck again a few months later.

Perutz remarks that, for all Krebs's loyalty to Britain, which had given him shelter in a time of need, he remained ponderously Prussian in manner. Few Englishmen, he thinks, could have made such a sententious show of their upright principles as Krebs does in his memoirs. When in 1949 Perutz's student Francis Crick demolished a cherished conjecture about the structure of haemoglobin, he [Crick] would scarcely have solemnly recorded that he had acted “honestly, in good faith and in a spirit of helpfulness” (Krebs's words), rather than, as Perutz puts it, “admitting to a certain mischievous satisfaction in the dastardly deed”. I can certainly confirm that, like the Bible, Krebs's book is unsullied by any trace of humour from first to last. And when Krebs asserts that he was not in the least discomposed by a false rumour that he had won a Nobel prize, Perutz recalls his own feelings at a time when similar rumours began to circulate in his laboratory. One day, two telegrams were delivered to the lab, one for John Kendrew and one for himself. But they turned out to be an enquiry about how many reprints they would require of a paper read at a recent conference. “We also,” he confesses, “pretended to a stoic calm”.

Many of these pieces were first published in the New York Review of Books, but I enjoyed them even more the second time than the first. Perutz's extraordinary historical grasp and the breadth of his personal experience and cultural perspective give his reviews an interest that often transcends that of the books themselves. He brings luminously to life such figures as Fritz Haber, Lise Meitner and Leo Szilard. He writes with wonderfully lucid precision about science and offers also a fine polemic, first read to the American Philosophical Society, on the meaning of freedom. The copy-editors might have done a better job of checking names, and I wonder whether the opera-loving Peter Medawar could really have alluded to Verdi's Faust? This, though, is a wholly captivating book; it has warmth, wit and style, and not a dull sentence. I urge you to read, enjoy and learn.

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Gratzer, W. Per ardua ad Stockholm. Nature 393, 640–641 (1998).

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