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Science is no quiet life.

Nobel Prize winner Max Perutz, whose eventful life has just drawn to an end, is best known as a brilliant scientist. But he was also a gifted and insightful writer and a keen observer -- of the natural world, the political landscape, and the very nature of creativity and reason. His wry sense of humour served him well when faced with life's absurdities -- as when he and other Jews of German and Austrian birth were interned in Canada as "enemy aliens," under guard "lest we should escape to aid our mortal enemies."


I owe the title to Max Perutz, one of the founders of molecular biology, who died earlier this year just three months short of his eighty-eighth birthday. Born in Vienna of well-to-do Jewish parents, he decided after a first degree in chemistry to go to Cambridge to work for a doctorate. With financial help from his father he enrolled as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory working under the direction of the formidable (and Marxist) J. D. Bernal, the discoverer of x-ray diffraction. Bernal was often called "the Sage" by his colleagues, and Perutz thought him the most brilliant talker he had ever known and one who "soaked up knowledge from an early age like blotting paper." Perutz himself was soon drawn to the analysis of the structure of proteins, about which virtually nothing was then known. It seemed to him that this had become "the central problem of biology" and that "x-ray crystallography was the only method in principle capable of solving it." His chosen protein for study was haemoglobin, many years of work on which led eventually to a Nobel Prize for Chemistry which was shared with his graduate student and then colleague, John Kendrew.

When Perutz arrived in Cambridge in 1936 the Cavendish Laboratory was still led by Ernest Rutherford and was thus best known for its physics. But Rutherford died in 1938, having been succeeded the previous year as director by Lawrence Bragg, an enthusiastic crystallographer and himself a Nobelist. With Bragg's arrival Bernal left Cambridge but did not take Perutz with him. It took a while for Perutz to approach Bragg. He has written: "I waited from day to day hoping for Bragg to come around.... After about six weeks of this I plucked up courage and called on him. When I showed him my haemoglobin X-ray pictures his face lit up." Rutherford's death and Bragg's arrival was, as Perutz said, "a blow to atomic physics but extremely lucky for me." Once established in Cambridge he was told he would have to join a college. Rejected by two colleges he sought the advice of a physics lecturer. "Try Peterhouse," he was told, "they serve the best food." He was admitted, becoming a Fellow of the college in 1947.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 Perutz's parents, stripped of their Austrian citizenship and all their possessions, fled into exile in Switzerland. (They were later to join him in Cambridge.) Perutz himself was now without financial support, but by the end of the year Bragg had succeeded in obtaining a grant for him from the Rockefeller Foundation. While these negotiations were going on Perutz, who was an expert skier and mountaineer, went to Switzerland to study glacier structure. The next year his report was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (August 1939). He had done some work on glaciology as an undergraduate, and he eventually published six papers on the subject, the last in 1953. There was an occasion, much later in his association with Bragg, when he burst into Bragg's office exclaiming, "I have received an honour which you cannot match. I have had a glacier named after me." "I have one that you can't match," Bragg retorted. "I have had a cuttlefish named after me." Perutz 's youthful interest in glaciology was to lead him to some war work of a distinctly swashbuckling kind, but not before he had been interned as an enemy alien.

With the fall of France in the summer of 1940, and the looming prospect of a German invasion of Britain, hundreds of German and Austrian refugees from Hitler became "enemy aliens." Rounded up by the police and guarded by the army, many were interned on the Isle of Man, later to be exported to Canada in ancient troopships. "After several moves," as Perutz wrote many years later in a brilliant piece for The New Yorker, "lest we should escape to help our mortal enemies," he was sent with a shipload of some 1,200 others on a long, slow and dangerous transatlantic voyage. Arriving in Canada, where they formally became prisoners of war, he was sent to a camp in Sherbrooke. There, he wrote, "As a Cambridge PhD of four month's standing I found myself the doyen of the camp's scholars and organised a camp university." Among his "faculty" was Hermann Bondi, later the originator with Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold of the steady state theory of the universe. "Theoretical physics," Perutz wrote, "was taught us lucidly by Klaus Fuchs." (1)

Perutz points out that it was not until the German invasion of Norway in April 1940 and of Holland and Belgium a month later, the month in which Churchill became prime minister, that wholesale internment became the norm. Those interned included Italians who had made their lives in Britain. Among the "most dangerous" of those selected for deportation included the banquet manager at the Savoy Hotel in London, who had worked there since 1905, the secretary of the anti-fascist Italian League for the Rights of Man, an engineer whose services were badly needed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and a Dante scholar who worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation. The latter's ship, on which he was to travel to Canada, was torpedoed shortly after it set sail, and he was nearly drowned.

AFTER about a year Perutz was returned in a convoy to Britain, this time "as a passenger, not a prisoner" as he puts it. On arrival in Liverpool he was formally released from internment; but, back in Cambridge, he still had to register with the local police as an enemy alien. This, however, did not stand in the way of his being called to help his adopted Country. In 1942 he was summoned to London on a highly secret mission. Lord Mountbatten, who was then Chief of Combined Operations, wanted his advice about the possibility of making water freeze faster and of making it shatterproof. It transpired (though at the time Perutz did not know it) that this was in aid of Project Habakkuk, the code name for a proposed series of huge ice rafts in the North Atlantic which would be used as staging posts -- floating runways -- for aircraft on convoy patrol. This project absorbed Churchill's personal attention, as all such daring enterprises tended to do. He called the idea "dazzling." Perutz set to work in a refrigerated basement in London's Smithfield Meat Market to produce an ice-fibre composite. When frozen, it became tougher than steel.

A visit by Perutz to America to brief the top brass about it was called off at the last moment when the FBI reported that he was "associated with a known communist." This of course was Bernal, the man who had first suggested Perutz for the Habakkuk project. In the end, like Mr Smith, Dr Perutz went to Washington, but his invention was never used because Habakkuk was cancelled. The visit had importance for his future however. In order to set foot on American soil he had to be a British citizen. This was accomplished in a matter of hours on orders from Mountbatten's Chief of Staff over the protests of Home Office officials fussing about the proper procedures. It was for them, as Perutz wrote later, an occasion like that of a parson who is asked to perform a shotgun wedding without calling the banns. Even then it was not quite over. On arriving in New York by air on 5 September 1943, Perutz found the immigration officer very suspicious about someone who carried a passport saying "British subject by naturalizatio n September 3rd 1943." There is perhaps something symbolic in the fact that this was the fourth anniversary of Britain's declaration of war.

His war effort concluded, Perutz returned to Cambridge and to his work on haemoglobin. In 1947 Bragg persuaded the Medical Research Council to fund a Molecular Biology Unit to be directed by Perutz with John Kendrew as his first staff member. It was to this laboratory that Francis Crick was drawn two years later, with James Watson following in 1951. The unit grew rapidly thereafter, and by 1956 it was firmly established. Many years later Watson was to describe it as the most productive centre for biology in the history of science. It was here that in 1959 Perutz finally solved the problem of the structure of the protein.

They were not easy years for him physically. He had suffered from his school days from a digestive problem. He was quite ill during his time in America in 1943 and on his return to Britain. In the autumn of 1954 he became much worse, hardly able to work. By the summer of 1955 he even thought of resigning his position. His doctors could find no cause for his illness. It was a colleague who traced his troubles to a highly debilitating disease of the digestive tract, an allergic response to the gluten in wheat flour.

Perutz retired officially in 1979 but continued to work on his science almost until his death this year. He also took to writing articles and book reviews, mainly on scientific topics, directed to an educated but often misinformed public. They are uniformly beautifully written. One representative collection called I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier opens with a little homily:

Every now and then I receive visits from earnest men and women armed with questionnaires and tape recorders who want to find out what made the Laboratory of Molecular Biology [as it had become] so remarkably creative. They come from the social sciences and seek their Holy Grail in interdisciplinary organisation. I feel tempted to draw their attention to 15th century Florence with a population of less than 50,000, from which emerged Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffael, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Alberti and other great artists. Had my questioners investigated whether the rulers of Florence had created an interdisciplinary organisation of painters, sculptors, architects and poets to bring to life this flowering of great art? ... Creativity in science, as in the arts, cannot be organised. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it but hierarchical organization ... can kill it.

He also wrote in his Is Science Necessary?: "True science thrives best in glass houses where everyone can look in. When the windows are blacked out the weeds take over; when secrecy muffles criticism charlatans and cranks flourish."

Perutz is a sharp observer of his fellow scientists. For example, of the Canadian-born American bacteriologist Oswald Avery, who established that DNA is responsible for the transmission of heritable characteristics, Perutz wrote: "It was a revoluntionary finding, but Avery was no revolutionary. He was a small, delicate, monkish bachelor who lived only for his science.... He wore pince-nez, was fastidious with his words [and] ever cautious in his public utterances, wrote no books and never travelled." And of Crick and Watson:

They shared the sublime arrogance of men who had rarely met their intellectual equals. Crick talked volubly, each phrase strongly accented and punctuated by eruptions of jovial laughter that reverberated through the laboratory. Watson went about like a tramp ... and dropped his sporadic nasal utterances in a low monotone that faded before the end of each sentence.... To say that they did not suffer fools gladly would be an understatement.

Crick himself has said that he and Watson had "a certain youthful arrogance, a ruthlessness, and an impatience with sloppy thinking." But Perutz also wrote: "Crick has a profound understanding of that hardest of the sciences, physics, without which the structure of DNA would never have been solved." And of Watson: "[He] had an intuitive knowledge of the features that DNA ought to have if it were to make genetic sense."

One of the most gripping of Perutz's many book reviews, originally called 'The Cabinet of Dr Haber" -- film buffs will get the reference -- concerns the tragedy of the German chemist Fritz Haber. He was the first person to synthesize ammonia, with its benign application to the production of fertilizer, but the first also to make the deadly chlorine gas that was used with devastating effect in the 1914-18 war. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in igi8 (though he did not receive it until 1920, and even then in the absence of the Swedish royal family) at the same time as he was publicly branded a war criminal. In the inter-war years he continued to advise the German government on its secret (and forbidden) production of chemical weapons. He also turned to the problem of pest control and helped develop a highly toxic pesticide containing hydrocyanic acid. In 1933, as a Jew, he was at risk and eventually fled to Britain and then to Switzerland. In a letter to a friend written that year he wrote of hi s awareness of "the grave mistakes" he had committed in his life. Had he lived, says Perutz, "he would have had to face the most gruesome of his mistakes." His pesticide was Zyklon B. The owner of the German firm that manufactured this product was sentenced to death in 1946 for delivering Zyklon B to Auschwitz.

Another scientist, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, is treated sympathetically by Perut although he must have been -- when not wearing his scientist's hat, and even sometimes when he was -- a very trying man. He published almost nothing, was a wanderer all his life, "invariably foresaw the worst, and was often proven right." Within days of Hitler's coming to power in January 1933 he visited his family in Budapest and urged them to emigrate before it was too late. He too left shortly thereafter and in future "always lived with two packed suitcases lest he had to flee from wherever he happened to be" (usually hotels and rented apartments). He did, in fact, flee during the Cuban Missile

Crisis -- but, oddly, to Geneva. Arriving there he declared, "I am the first refugee from the third world war.

He was, famously, the first to visualize the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction -- four years before the fission of uranium was achieved by Hahn and Strassmann. He was one of the initiators of the Manhattan Project and worked with Fermi at the University of Chicago. Although Szilard was a prolific source of original ideas he expected others to do the running with them. As Perutz puts it, he had "no stomach for the daily grind of science." In the event "his disdam for authority and his erratic and undisciplined ways" led to his virtual exclusion from any part in the race for the bomb. He lobbied against the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, and from 1945 onward "led a frantic life of public appearances and private negotiations aimed at saving the world from his own invention."

A well-authenticated story (not in Perutz's review) has the physicist Hans Bethe, who worked at Los Alamos, asking Szilard how things were going at the University of Chicago where Fermi was attempting to construct a nuclear reactor. "What is going on is so peculiar," said Szilard, "that I have just about decided to keep a diary. I don't intend to publish it; I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God." "But don't you think God knows the facts?" Bethe asked. "Yes," said Szilard. "He knows the facts, but He doesn't know this version of the facts."

Perutz has left us an admiring account of his first and only boss, Lawrence (Willie) Bragg. Born in Australia in 1890, he graduated in mathematics from the University of Adelaide at the age of 18. He then moved to Cambridge where he read mathematics and physics, completing that degree by the time he was 21. His discovery of the law concerning x-ray diffraction in crystals (Bragg's Law) four years later won him the Nobel Prize for Physics, an award he shared with his father William Henry Bragg. He was, and remains, the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize. Perutz claims that Bragg united Snow's two cultures "because his approach to science was an artistic, imaginative one ... his artistic gifts surfaced in his delicate sketches and in his limpid prose." Nowadays, "... cynics want to believe that scientists work only for fame and money, but Bragg slaved away at hard problems when he was a Nobel Laureate of comfortable means. He was driven by curiosity. He was not a public figure and he liked to do his work at home rather than in aeroplanes."

Writing about his friend Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, chemist, pioneer crystallographer, and political activist, Perutz says: "I felt embarrassed when I was awarded the Nobel Prize before Dorothy, whose great discoveries ... had preceded my own." In an obituary (she died in 1994) he said:

She pursued her crystallographic studies, not for the sake of honours, but because that was what she liked to do. There was magic about her person. She had no enemies, not even among those whose scientific theories she demolished or those whose political views she opposed. Just as her x-ray cameras bared the intrinsic beauty beneath the rough surface of things, so the warmth and gentleness of her approach to people uncovered in everyone, even the most hardened scientific crook, some hidden kernel of goodness.

THIS moving assessment tells us much about his own nature. The picture painted by his many friends is of an unassuming man, as modest as he was kind. One obituarist wrote: "A few minutes with him was enough to reveal a mind like a razor, an elegant command of language, and a quick-footed resilience that was driven by a sense of fun big enough to carry him through any adversity." Another described him as a gentle and tolerant lover of people, especially the young, who was passionately committed to social justice and intellectual honesty. He refused a knighthood (wisely, given the sorry state into which it has lately fallen) but accepted the far more prestigious Order of Merit. According to the journal Nature, "... he strenuously resisted all attempts to make him a subject for biographers." Needless to say, one is already projected. (2)


(1.) In later years, convicted of having passed atomic secrets to the Russians.

(2.) By Georgina Ferry, the author of a biography of Dorothy Hodgkin published in 1998.

J.W. GROVE writes regularly on science and public affairs for Queen's Quarterly.
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Title Annotation:Max Perutz, Nobel Prize winning scientist
Author:Grove, J.W.
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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