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Books : British Molecular Biologist Takes Science Off the Hook

Is Science Necessary? Essays on Science and Scientists by Max F. Perutz (E.P. Dutton: $19.95; 285 pages)

For the last hundred years or so, society has looked to science as the way to solve the world’s problems. The public-health triumphs of the turn of the century made people think that knowledge could make all ills disappear.

This was a new role for science. Historically, scientific knowledge had been pursued largely for its own sake. It was interesting to know about astronomy, but not much more. The Industrial Revolution used technology for economic and commercial gain.

But it was not until later that people began to think that scientific insights could be used broadly to improve health and welfare, an idea that remains a cornerstone of public support for research to this day.

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Never mind that it was easier to wipe out diphtheria and yellow fever than to wipe out poverty and hunger. Never mind that the application of scientific knowledge frequently has unfortunate side effects like pollution. The notion is still very much with us--at least in most quarters--that science is the way to improve the world’s standard of living.

This is the view taken by Max F. Perutz, a Nobel Prize-winning British molecular biologist, in “Is Science Necessary?” a collection of his essays written over the years. The title of the book is the title of the first and longest essay in it, and the answer Perutz gives is an emphatic yes.

Last Best Hope

Science is not only necessary, it is crucial. In fact, he argues, it offers the only solution to the problems of food, health and energy that confront the world. There are simply too many people on the planet to get by without it.

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Perutz is aware--as who isn’t?--that knowledge has a downside. “Science often exacts a price,” he writes. “Benefits and risks are complementary aspects of each technical advance.” But he comes down foursquare on the side of the benefits and has little patience for nostalgia for the simpler good old days, which, he says, weren’t so good.

“Both the Irish potato famine of the last century and the great Bengal famine of the 1930s were caused by fungi attacking crops,” he writes. “If we reverted to organic farming without fungicides, we would not be able to prevent a repetition of these disasters.”

That is the overall argument of the essay, and it is undoubtedly true, though it is unlikely to persuade those who focus on the risks of science rather than on its benefits.

Perutz’s essay is a powerful restatement of what many people believe and what those who don’t are not likely to. It’s an important essay, but it doesn’t tell us much that’s new.

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Oddly, the remaining essays in the book are more engaging. They deal with smaller themes and include many personal observations from a life in science, but they say a great deal.

“I am suspicious of scientists who tell me that others have pinched their ideas,” Perutz writes in one of them. “Far from preventing people from stealing it, I have always had to ram any new idea of mine down their throats. Even scientists are unbelievably conservative.”

Like most people, scientists prefer order to progress.

The one autobiographical essay in the collection is an entertaining account of Perutz’s experiences during World War II. A native of Austria, he was judged an enemy alien by the British in 1940, though he had just gotten a Ph.D. from Cambridge and was briefly interned and sent to Canada.

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After his release, he was put to work on a project to make ice harder so giant icebergs could be used as landing strips for Allied planes in the middle of the ocean. No kidding.

Scientists Profiled

There are also short profiles of various scientists, including Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, who turns out to have been plodding and unimaginative, leading Perutz to observe:

“Success in research is a haphazard business, and great discoveries are not always made by great thinkers. Some are made by skilled craftsmen, some by observant watchmen, and some even by prosaic people doing a regular job because they are paid for it.”

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In the course of writing about topics and people, Perutz reveals a fair amount about himself and what he has learned from years at the laboratory bench. “Science offers a safe niche where you can spend a quiet life classifying spiders, away from what E. M. Forster called the world of telegrams and anger,” he says.

Not all scientists would agree with this monastic view of the scientific life, but it is an ideal to be cherished, and it leads to a civilized view of the world that is very much on display in this book.

Reaching the Top

“A discovery is like falling in love and reaching the top of a mountain after a hard climb all in one, an ecstasy induced not by drugs but by the revelation of a face of nature that no one has seen before,” Perutz says.

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From start to finish, Perutz makes a strong case for the orthodox view of science, its methods and its accomplishments.


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