Science Reads: ‘I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity’ by Max Perutz

Our new Prime Minister has just announced his Cabinet, and for the first time since 1931, the Australian government does not have a Minister for Science. (After all, who needs scientists when we have the Pope to decide how the universe works? Just ask Galileo how well that went.) But here at Memoranda, we love science, so we’ve unilaterally declared this week ‘Science Reads Week’. It’s already Tuesday, so it’ll be a fairly short week, but each day for the rest of the week, I’ll be posting about some interesting science reads.

Today, I’d like to recommend I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz, who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out the structure of haemoglobin (which is the molecule in our red blood cells that transports oxygen around our bodies) and myoglobin (which does a similar thing inside muscles). Max Perutz also helped found the European Organisation for Molecular Biology, was an excellent science communicator, and seems to have been a genuinely nice person. John Meurig Thomas, for example, wrote:

“Perutz was a gentle, kindly and tolerant lover of people (particularly the young), passionately committed to social justice and intellectual honesty; and the warmth of his personality radiated a sense of human goodness and decency which induced others to behave sanely, especially because he exuded an inner excitement that stems from a love of knowledge for its own sake.”

In this collection of science-themed essays and book reviews, Perutz writes eloquently about the development of chemical weapons during WWI, atomic weapons during WWII, and biological weapons during the Cold War. He also discusses a number of important twentieth-century scientists, most of whom he knew personally, including Peter Medawar (whose work on immunology led to successful organ transplants), Albert Szent-Györgyi (who isolated Vitamin C), Linus Pauling (who, among other achievements, worked out how molecules were held together by chemical bonds, and identified that amino acids had alpha-helix structures, which helped Watson and Crick figure out that DNA had a double-helix structure), Dorothy Hodgkin (who figured out the structure of cholesterol, insulin and penicillin, and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964) and Lise Meitner (who identified the splitting of the uranium atom and named it ‘fission’, although it was her male colleague who was awarded the Nobel Prize for their work). There are also powerful arguments for human rights, for freedom of expression, and for women to have the right to control their own fertility with contraceptive drugs and safe abortions, as well as a thoughtful exploration of whether an accident at a UK nuclear energy station led to long-term environmental damage and health problems in the local population.

However, my favourite piece was about Perutz’s experiences during WWII. He was born and raised in Vienna, but moved to England to study chemistry at Cambridge in the 1930s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, he was unable to return home due to his Jewish ancestry. His parents managed to escape Austria and join him, but after war was declared, Perutz and his father were both interned by the British as ‘enemy aliens’. Even though Perutz was passionately anti-Nazi and had just been awarded a PhD from Cambridge (which you’d think would be pretty useful for the war effort), the British government decided to send him to a prison camp in the wastelands of Canada. After further adventures and with the help of his British scientist friends, he made it back to England, where he spent the war working for a very eccentric civilian named Geoffrey Pyke. Among Pyke’s pet projects was the development of bullet-proof ice, reinforced with wood pulp, called pykrete, although the plan to use it to make sea-borne aircraft carriers sank (literally). Pyke also came up with the bright idea of “the construction of a giant tube from Burma into China – much easier than building a road . . . Through this tube, Allied men, tanks and guns were to be propelled by compressed air.” Not even Churchill supported this ridiculous scheme, and Perutz eventually “returned to Cambridge, sad at first that my eagerness to help in the war against Hitler had not found a more effective outlet, but later relieved to have worked on a project that at least never killed anyone – not even the Chief of the Imperial General Staff [who had been injured when a bullet rebounded off a block of pykrete during one of Pyke’s ill-conceived demonstrations].”

Of the thirty-seven essays in the book, I think only two require readers to have some specific scientific knowledge (one is about haemoglobin’s structure, the other about how X-Ray crystallography developed into a useful tool for analysing biological molecules). For the most part, this is an accessible, engaging and fascinating book about science and its effects, good and bad, on humankind in the twentieth century.

Tomorrow in Science Reads: Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins

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