Fortean Times, September 2002
I wish I'd made you
angry earlier: Essays on science and scientists
Oxford University Press 2002
pb, £9.99, pp354, index, illus, refs ISBN: 0 19 859027 X
'What is known for certain is dull.' So said Max Perutz, pioneering molecular biologist and antithesis to the idea that science is an entirely objective impersonal process, who died earlier this year. In this collection of essays and reviews, Perutz highlights the all too human stories behind some of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century, focusing on the generation of European scientists who found their work disrupted - or in some cases accelerated - by World War II.
The most remarkable story is Perutz's own, told here in the longest essay, 'Enemy alien'. As an Austrian national in Cambridge in 1940, he was interned as a civilian prisoner of war and spent long months being shipped around British and Canadian prison camps, often in appalling conditions and in considerable risk of attack during the transatlantic crossings. Then in 1942, he was enrolled by the British MoD in what he describes as one of the most imaginative and absurd projects of the Second World War - Project Habakkuk.
The project, led by the fiercely anti-establishment Geoffrey Pyke, involved the development of reinforced ice strong enough to withstand a bullet. The idea was that this 'pykrete' would be used in artificial icebergs which would serve as massive, inexpensive and impregnable aircraft carriers. Twenty-six times the size of the largest ship then afloat, these bergships would also be equipped to attack enemy harbours with cannons firing supercooled water to freeze the enemy in their place!
Disappointingly for lovers of engineering on the grand scale, the bergships never went into production. This was largely due to the development of combat aircraft of a much greater range - and partly to the fact that the amount of steel needed to build a refrigeration plant of sufficient size to create the ship would have been more than enough to build the entire carrier out of steel, somewhat obviating the cost savings of using ice.
Perutz's profiles of his peers provide some no less remarkable stories. Several essays feature biologist Peter Medawar, a vociferous critic of the ways in which the prejudices of the scientific establishment can obscure what's really going on, particularly the habit of younger researchers to come up with results that exactly match what their professors expect them to find.
Also notable are the cases of genuine scientific geniuses stepping over that thin line into outright crankery, such as biochemist Albert Szent-Gyšrgi, discoverer of vitamin C, who ended his career theorising about the 'alpha' and 'beta' states of all living matter. Worryingly for believers in objective science, his conspicuously false ideas were soon confirmed experimentally by English and Russian chemists perhaps too eager to ally themselves with an acknowledged expert.