“I once bicycled across a gap in full view of the Germans, having foreseen that they would be too surprised to open fire.”
The quote is from biologist JBS Haldane, whose rather dashing picture is above. Haldane actively enjoyed the First World War, according to fellow scientist Peter Medawar:
"The First World War seems to have been the happiest period of Haldane’s life…Haldane described life in the front line as ‘truly enviable’; he enjoyed the comradeship of war and even (if what he says is anything to go by) the experience of killing people: ‘I get a definitely enhanced sense of life when my life is in moderate danger'."
Haldane is famous for having experimented on himself for wartime science. He and his father investigated the effects of exposure to chlorine and mustard gas. JBS pioneered the science of scuba diving and decompression sickness, his experiments inducing crushed vertebrae, panic attacks and perforated eardrums (through which he could blow smoke). He was truly courageous, and his science made a difference in wartime events. British commandos applied Haldane's research to their diving routines, and the knowledge allowed them to defend and hold the crucial stronghold of Gibraltar when Hitler tried to take it.
Haldane was not alone in self-experimenting. “A good many biologists experiment on themselves,” he once wrote. Dying while trying to work out the mechanism behind communicable diseases is “the ideal way of dying”, Haldane says. It’s so admirable because scientists know that they are working with incomplete knowledge. “I have no doubt that the theories to which I entrusted my life were more or less incorrect,” he says. Nonetheless, the working hypotheses were good enough to enable him to make reliable risk assessments.
Those quotes come from a gem of a book Haldane published in December 1927. It’s called Possible Worlds, and is a collection of essays he wrote for publications as diverse as the Rationalist Annual and the Daily Mail. Haldane says he wrote most of them during train journeys, and they do come across like that: a great mind that has spent years observing how science (and the world outside science) works, jots down a few musings while en route to his next adventure. “Many scientific workers believe that they should confine their publications to learned journals,” Haldane says in the Preface. “I think, however, that the public has a right to know what is going on inside the laboratories.”
And that is exactly what he tells us, with a unique perspective. Of course, Possible Worlds is a reflection of its time: the chapter on eugenics certainly raised my eyebrows. But many of the topics are timeless: “What use is Astronomy?” is a witty summation of the value of apparently pointless pursuits.
“What makes a scientist?” is equally relevant. Haldane encourages amateur science with the claim that “any man possessed of the patience and leisure necessary to watch a cricket or baseball match, and sufficient intelligence to solve a crossword puzzle, can make quite definite contributions to scientific research.” Is that still true? I think it is. We do such big science these days that it can seem that the days of the amateur are long gone. Nonetheless, as Andre Geim showed in a Nobel-worthy experiment using an HB pencil and a roll of sellotape, small science can produce world-changing results too.
My favourite chapter in the book is entitled “The Duty of Doubt”. It is an overview of the value of taking a sceptical stance on everything – science included: “science has owed its wonderful progress very largely to the habit of doubting all theories,” Haldane points out. Haldane strides across some great moments of science in which doubt played a central role, then expands his theme to encompass religion and politics.
When a politician calmly goes back on a policy, “his enemies accuse him of broken pledges; his friends describe him as an inspired opportunist,” Haldane says. It is only a “pre-scientific” thought process in the electorate that create this dilemma for politicians, Haldane argues: if we were to allow politicians to use the scientific method, a politician could say, “I am inclined to think the tariff on imported glass should be raised. I am not sure this is a sound policy; however, I am going to try it. After two years, if I do not find its results satisfactory, I shall certainly press for its reduction or even removal.”
Perhaps this should be filed under “Impossible Worlds”. But in the current political climate, food for thought, nonetheless. And this from the era when Laurel and Hardy were just becoming popular, and the first Model A Fords were gracing the showrooms. Maybe we should spend more time reviewing old books, rather than just the new ones…