Sunday 17 February 2013

Haldane, J.B.S.

"Keats and Shelley were the last two poets who were at all up to date with their chemical knowledge”.  This quotable quip from scientist, Marxist and polymath J.B.S. Haldane suggests that scientific knowledge is not only necessary for anyone who considers himself educated but also has become dauntingly extensive and complex. That insight helps to explain why universities are typically separated into two mutually uncomprehending blocs – the Faculties of Arts and Science: literature, history and philosophy are hard enough without getting to grips with anti-matter and global warming.  That in turn helps to explain why there are so few scientists who can construct a sentence about their work that is both strictly true and intelligible to their own mothers.

As well as being a notable contrarian and part-time curmudgeon, Haldane also had an exceptional talent for sharing his passion for science with ordinary people.  Nephew of cabinet minister and Labour Chancellor Richard Haldane, and son of physiologist J.S. Haldane, he was keen to assist his father by tirelessly, indeed recklessly, experimenting on himself to track the effects of carbon-dioxide and other poisonous gases on the human body.  He went to Eton and served in the Black Watch during WWI; later, with predictable political incorrectness, he confessed that he greatly enjoyed slaughtering Germans in the No Man’s Land of Flanders. Although this privileged background undoubtedly gave him a leg-up, he was clearly a well-educated, smart fellow with a well-honed crap-detector.  As a committed Marxist, he used these talents to bring a wide-spread appreciation and understanding of science to the readers of the Daily Worker by writing a regular column until the paper was suppressed during WWII.  Extrapolating from wrens through pigeons he asserted that if angels had working wings, the muscles of the chest would need to be 6 ft thick.  Similar arguments led him to assert that while a mouse would walk away from a fall down a mine-shaft, a man would be broken and a horse would splash.  Many of these essays are gathered into his book Possible Worlds.

He also deserves enormous credit for using elementary maths to show that in most cases eugenicists are “at nothing” if they attempt to “cull the defective” because almost all a population’s genes for the defect are undetectably hidden in the carrier state.  He showed, against ‘everybody knows’ certainties, that a policy for sterilising or otherwise eliminating those manifesting the undesirable trait would take thousands of generations to halve the incidence.  With such arguments in the 1930s and 1940s, he was the third leg (with RA Fisher and Sewall Wright) of the great triumvirate of mathematical geneticists who put manners on their subject and reconciled Mendel’s work on individual genes of large effect  in peas (tall vs short; green vs yellow; wrinkled vs smooth) with Darwin’s insight that natural selection acted on infinitely small variations.

Always happy to push the counter-intuitive, Haldane maintained that it was more important for scientists to wash their hands before they went for a pee than afterwards: if you’re not sure where those hands have been, you don’t want them to be touching anything important down there.

In his declining years he took a stand against the imperialism and privilege which had served him so well and emigrated to India, becoming a citizen of that republic and setting up a research institute with one of his students.  Haldane died, nearly fifty years ago,  from the effects of bowel cancer and used this as an opportunity to act the Renaissance Man by writing a poem which began “I wish I had the voice of Homer / To sing of rectal carcinoma . . .”. (Full text link courtesy of Dan Graur) He was almost the last scientist who found time to read Keats with attention and write poetry which both rhymes and scans.

NotSundayMisc  VII

No comments:

Post a Comment