Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Log 560 September 19 2017: James Watson’s The Double Helix: a book of remarkable frankness towards the world of scientists in which the author moved so effortlessly

I spent most of my weekend reading a delightful book on a subject that, intrinsically, is of absolutely no interest to me --- that is an account of the process by which the structure of DNA was discovered by two scientists working between 1951 and 1953, in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.
The book, The Double Helix, was written in 1968 by James D Watson, an American student who was 23 years of age when he embarked on the search with a British scientist, Francis Crick, who was 12 years older, but was still a graduate student working towards his doctorate.
I found the book, published 15 years after the events, to be charming because of the remarkably frank, yet on the whole friendly, descriptions Watson gives of the scientists he worked with and against, in the process of making this epoch-making discovery, which has generally been regarded as having unveiled the secret of life (if it means anything to say that, I am not sure).
For example, in the first paragraph of the book, he writes of Crick, with whose name he has become inextricably linked by history, in this way: “Although some of his colleagues realized the value of his quick penetrating mind and frequently sought his advice, he was often not appreciated, and most people thought he talked too much.”
Two pages later: “Though he had dining rights for one meal a week at Caius College, he was not yet a fellow of any college. Partly this was his own choice……also a factor was his laugh against which many dons would almost certainly rebel if subjected to its shattering bang more than once a week. I am sure this occasionally bothered Francis, even though he obviously knew that most High Table life is dominated by pedantic, middle-aged men incapable of either amusing or educating him in anything worthwhile…”
The young American was obviously being introduced to an entirely non-American way of life as he settled in to work at the Cavendish, a laboratory so much dominated by tradition that the door, to which there was only one key,  was firmly locked at 10 o'clock every night because Rutherford, who had held the post of Cavendish professor from 1919 for 18 years, and had ruled unchallenged over the laboratory and all its works during that time, had held the belief that young scientists would be better employed on the tennis courts in the evenings, rather than swotting away in the lab. And Rutherford had passed on a good 15 years before Watson ever showed up, but such was the power of tradition….
In chapter two he describes how Crick was working on other things, although he was not influenced by the sceptics among scientists who thought the evidence about DNA (whatever it was) was inconclusive, because, suggests Watson: “One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.” Another factor that prevented Crick from moving into the field was that the major work had been done by a friend, Maurice Wilkins, at King’s College, London,  and “the combination of England’s coziness --- all the important people, if not related by marriage, seemed to know one another --- plus the English sense of fair play would not allow Francis to move in on Maurice’s problem, In France, where fair play obviously did not exist, these problems would not have arisen. The States also would not have permitted such a situation to develop. One would not expect someone at Berkeley to ignore a first-rate problem merely because someone at Cal Tech had started first. In England, however, it simply would not look right.”
One can almost imagine this skinny, enthusiastic youngster, looking so much like a kid among all these older fellows, settling in among them with a series of unending chuckles at their eccentricities.  For me these  descriptions of this colleagues so much enlivened the complex stuff describing the problems they were solving, all of which are completely over my head, as to make me glad I have read the book at last, after all these years.
Their friend Maurice Wilkins --- with whom they were joined in the Nobel Prize awarded for this work in 1962, had employed a young woman named Rosalind Franklin as his assistant in London, but she turned out according to Watson, to be determined not to be anyone’s assistant, since she undertaken work as a crystallographer that was as important in the field as anything being done by anyone.  “Mere inspection suggested she would not easily bend,” comments Watson. “By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities….she might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not….at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.” (A good deal of the book is devoted to Watson’s fascination with beautiful young women, and of how he went out of his way to meet as many as he could of continental au pair girls, of whom there were plenty in the service of Cambridge’s academics.)
 Rosy, as they called her, died at the early age of 37, and after giving her a hard time all through the book, Watson recants on the last page, saying that in the years after she died, both he and Crick came to greatly appreciate her personal honesty and generosity, “realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosy’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death.”
And so he should have asked her pardon thus, because apparently he and Crick had used her crystallography, provided to them by Maurice Wilkins for whom she worked, because it turned out to provide some of the elements essential to their success  in their enterprise. Questions about the doubtful ethics of their use of her material without seeking her permission have dogged Watson through his life.
The closeness of the relationships among scientists, from all over the world, working on the same problem, provide a fascinating interest in this remarkable book (recently named in the Observer’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books ever written). In particular, the two Cavendish scientists were in competition with Linus Pauling, working on the same problem in California, who had, with a typical flourish of publicity, declared results that in England they feared might mean he would beat them to the prize. He might have done, too, because he was on his way to England when he was stopped from leaving the United States because of his interest in the World Peace movement, generally regarded in the US as a work of communism.  The English researchers feared that if Pauling had seen the direction in which they were taking their research, he might well have leapt intuitively to the solution of the problem. But he never saw it and was just pipped at the post when Crick and Watson announced their achievement, which Pauling greeted with warm generosity.
 Pauling (I had the pleasure of interviewing him once) is the only person ever to have received two unshared Nobel prizes, for chemistry, and for peace. He was the outstanding figure in US chemistry research for many years,  and a firm opponent of the Cold War with its nuclear deterrent, but at the end of his life he began to recommend megadoses of vitamins for improved health and as cures for various diseases, including at one point cancer, claims that have since been experimentally disproven.
 Just to end this, the book contains two pages that are an amusing description of a Christmas Watson spent in the home of the left-wing British writer, Naomi Mitchison, to whom his book is dedicated, along with a household full of her high-powered British intellectual family and friends. He remarks mildly at how puzzled he was that such a leftist household could have been worried about how he dressed for dinner. A remark, so mild, yet so pointed, so amusing, that I could not help myself from  laughing out loud as I was reading this book, of which more than half was a complete mystery to me.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Link of the day, September 5 2017: “US foreign policy as bellicose as ever.”

IN an article entitled US foreign policy as bellicose as ever, that seems to me to describe a rational person’s view of American foreign policy, Serge Halimi, director  of the admirable Le Monde Diplomatique of Paris,  draws attention to the hysteria that appears to grip the US media as a whole, and different sections of the US political class, which has embarked on an unaccountable anti-Russia mindset, and also appears  to have settled on a policy of removing Trump from office by hook or by crook.  Among other things Halimi quotes with approval a republican member of Congress who broke the silence when he said that ‘The United States has been involved in one way or another in 81 different elections since World War II. That doesn’t include coups or the regime changes, some tangible evidence where we have tried to affect an outcome to our purpose. Russia has done it some 36 times.’ “This perspective rarely disturbs the New York Times’s fulminations against Moscow’s trickery,” Halimi says. I urge readers to take in the article here.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Quote of the day, September 2 2017: from John Bellamy Foster

 From an interview published  in an e-bulletin in Socialist Project, called “A Resistance Movement for the Planet,” by socialist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregan, and editor of Monthly Review:  

JBF: The struggle at Standing Rock has left an indelible imprint on today’s environmental struggle. It was a great victory, even though with Trump’s election the conditions were set for the overriding of what had been won. Indigenous peoples once again demonstrated, as they have over and over in recent years, their leadership in the struggle to protect the environment. The water protectors stood fast while they were hosed in subfreezing weather, subjected to non-lethal bullets and tear gas, and dogs set on them. The whole world gasped. It was difficult not to recall the struggles of the civil rights era in the Jim Crow South. The battle was primarily to protect the water which was threatened by drilling the pipeline under the Missouri River. But everyone understood – and not just environmentalists that joined them, but especially the Indigenous peoples themselves – that this was a battle for the whole earth.

For me, though, the high point was near the end when thousands of U.S. veterans arrived en masse, approaching Standing Rock in long winding lines of vehicles strung out over miles, to provide a “human shield” for the water protectors. They declared that they were standing with the Indigenous peoples – and even taking it upon themselves to apologize on bended knees for the history of U.S. treatment of Native Americans. It is no accident that the government gave in a couple of days after that. The conflict that would have ensued would have drawn untold numbers of people to the environmental resistance and, in that sense, would have been a full-scale disaster for the powers that be. So they chose to pull back at that point. But what really made this so important was that it represented an act of solidarity cutting across the lines that have historically divided us. It is the emergence of human solidarity in the hour of need in this way that tells us that we can win.

Friday, September 1, 2017

My Log 559 Sept 1 2017: Of this and that: those idiots whose attitudes to life just ask for trouble: are the rest of us always bound to bail them out

It’s always a lively question when people, through their stupidity, get themselves into trouble and depend on public agencies, funded by the public through taxation, to bail them out. You know the sort of thing I am talking about: some half-wit decides to ski on a mountain prone to avalanches; or he or she might head off into the mighty Atlantic Ocean in a tiny, ill-equipped sailboat, and after a couple of weeks signals to the outside world that he or she is on the edge of a horrible death and needs immediate rescue at a cost of thousands of dollars to the public purse.
These are the sort of questions that can be asked after almost every calamity caused by natural disasters. For example, a community has been built on a flood-plain. Every ten years or so, the flood-plain is inundated, the community has to be evacuated, losses mount into the milions of dollars, some peoole may even be killed, and then the evacuated people whose homes have been destroyed go right back into the same flood-plain and start to rebuild their community anew.
These are tough questions even to write about: I find myself, for example, questioning the certainties expressed in my first paragraph, to a certain extent. We wouldn’t want laws that limit people from going to the depths of their aspirations, from undertaking dangerous exploits, even if others might think them foolish. The best that could be said in such circumstances is that they should go in with their eyes open, knowing that if their disastrous experiences are repeated, they can hardly expect to be bailed out repeatedly by the public purse.
Some people have raised such reservations about the experience of Houston in face of its disastrous floods.  Houston is a city of six million people or thereabouts, and it has no building regulations. It has never had any zoning. This is because of the ideology of the people, their proud boast that in Texas the individual can do what he wants, no one can stop him from building whatever he wants wherever he wants.  Why not? Hey, you’re in Texas now, your own master in Texas. As a result Houston, as someone told me this week, is built on a swamp, a swamp that has been covered over by the city’s concrete, a swamp just waiting for the rainfall of the century to fall and bite Houston on the backside, as it were.
This week some online magazine or other had a cartoon in which some good old boy Texan, the sort that has always objected to federal controls, is standing on the roof of his home yelling for help from some federal agent ready to rescue him by helicopter.  This seemed to suggest that the charitable impulse to help people in distress might be considered to be constrained  because of the idiocy of the past behaviour of the guy in distress.  Respondents by the hundred, armed with moral certitude, denounced the magazine for such disgracefully poor taste in suggesting that such criticism might be appropriate in such dire circumstances. Yet, the question remains, how could a city of six million people, armed with all the modern knowledge available to those who run it, have been so stupid as to allow the city to just grow, like Topsy. (Incidentally, who was Topsy? Thanks to Wikipedia I have discovered that the expression stems from a slave character called Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who, when asked where she came from said, “I spect I growed. Don't think nobody never made me.” The book became the biggest seller ever in the United States, and the expression “grow’d like Topsy” quickly passed into general use, until now it is used to suggest something that has grown large, but completely without direction. So, it turns out, the expression is exactly apt for Houston.)
In searching recently for equivalents to further illustrate my point, I have kept coming back to my story about Bangladesh.  I have written about this many times, but it is worth repeating. In 1975, while covering an international conference on Human Ecology in Auckland, New Zealand, I heard a speaker from Bangladesh say that by the turn of the century, that is in 25 years, that small country would have a population of 125,000,000 people --- about 25 million more than at time of speaking. That struck me as extraordinary. Since I had been born in the South Island of New Zealand, I wondered how it measured up in terms of size to Bangladesh, and I discovered that the two areas were almost the same, at around 58,000 square miles. At that time the South Island had 842,000 people, and I figured that to accommodate a population of 125 million, every hamlet of 1,000 or more in the South Island would have to grow to more than a million  In other words, this was unimaginable. (Of course, I am aware this is not an exact parallel: my intention is simply to illustrate the drastic overcrowding of such places as Bangladesh.)
The payoff is that today Bangladesh is estimated to have 160 million --- and at time of writing it appears that at least half of the area of the country is under water, and uncounted millions have been driven from their homes, with hundreds dead.
Now the imperatives of life for people living in Bangladesh are perhaps the harshest in the world: lack of arable land, overpopulation, lack of natural resources, and so on. But, the question remains: how much sympathy does Bangladesh deserve when it has simply kept on, possibly for religious reasons as well as those of poverty, increasing population by continuing to have families with seven, eight and even more children.  Today it is scarcely imaginable that this tiny country could have 160 million people, when, only 40 years ago it had 60 million fewer. And similar stories could be told of some countries in Africa, Kenya for example. What is the responsibility of those running these countries for these idiotic results?
I cannot really accept poverty as the sole excuse for this. In 1978 I spent three months in China, making some documentary films, and one film we made was about what was called in those days a people’s commune, an area containing three villages of farmers on land that in Canada we would have called marginal.  I earnestly probed for facts about the income in this commune, and my conclusion was that in terms of income it was one of he poorest places I had ever been in, comparable to the worst African slum, Latin American favela or Indian village. And yet the commune, receiving  very few subsidies from outside, had managed to create a society in which every child was in school, every adult had a job, every family a house, and in which the health standards, kept under surveillance by a system of so-called barefoot doctors, was not far short of our own. In addition, the commune grew enough grain to be able to export much of it to neighbouring towns.
So poverty itself need not be a determinant of action. More important is political will. And in Bangladesh, with no other changes except a rigorous family planning programme, surely this population explosion could not have happened.
On the question of whether they deserve help, of course, surely they do, just as do the desperate people of Houston, on humanitarian grounds. But wouldn’t it be a nice idea if that help could be used in some way to persuade people, whether in Bangladesh, Houston or anywhere else,  to adopt a more comunitarian attitude, such as the socialist idea that everyone is his brother’s keeper?
Unfortunately, other ideas crowd in: such as the incredible actions of the United States government (copied in Canada under Stephen Harper, now fortunately abandoned), to refuse aid to any organization anywhere in the world that advocates family planning. This is barely comprehensible from the nation in the world which boasts the highest income, the most sophisticated institutions of learning, and the most insistent aspiration to export its attitudes and beliefs to other nations, and which in doing so, claims leadership of the entire world. It beggars understanding, this, as does the action of the US electorate in choosing a president so manifestly unfit for the role, and so abysmally ignorant of the condition in which people live in this world.