Like it or not, these are the people we need to save America

As I write, President Donald Trump has just accused former incumbent Barack Obama of having tapped his campaign phones during the 2016 election season. I doubt very much whether this will be a major issue by the time these words are read. Most likely it’ll have been overtaken by “FAKED” nuclear exchanges over the South China Sea.

Kleptocracy moves faster than ordinary politics. Across the media, opinion writers are having to learn how to think like crime reporters. It’s frightening, but undeniably exhilarating.

Old forms of civic engagement seem hardly relevant now. On April 22, scientists will gather across the world to protest the Trump administration’s de facto dismantling of the EPA, veiled threats directed at programs of vaccination, cuts in NASA’s climate-studies funding, and any number of other depredations. All very noble, to protest this outrage, and necessary in its way.  But the rest of us might just as easily marvel at the alacrity and efficiency with which groups of suddenly vulnerable people round themselves up. The spectacle of well-educated people congratulating themselves on their effortless (because sacrifice-free) “intersectionality”, while at the same time complaining about their job security, is unlikely to prove particularly edifying, least of all since the “cosmopolitanism” so necessary to science (I mean devotion to an idea or ideas bigger than the nation state) is rapidly becoming synonymous with disloyalty.     

The March for Science was conceived on a Reddit forum as recently as 20 January, yet  we already find ourselves operating at an entirely different level of discourse. Science illumines small, detailed corners of the world, but it’s the entire reality of that world that’s under threat now. We are dealing with an administration that, when not lost in the toils of its own mythomania, will quibble over what is even in plain sight.

Studying an existential crisis of this magnitude requires no scientific apparatus. Consider this classic bullet-through-the-foot statement from Trump aide Myron Ebell: “We will be ceding global leadership of climate policy to China,” Ebell said on 1 February. “I want to get rid of global climate policy, so why do I care who is in charge of it? I don’t care. They can take it as far as I’m concerned, and good luck to them.” [1]   

Well, really, who needs luck? Knowing what climate change is, what causes it, and what needs to be done about it is — among many other things — a recipe for printing money, which is why China, the world’s fastest-growing green economy, just invested $360 billion into renewable energy production. US industries either innovate to address the carbon problem, or they join the tobacco companies in the shadowlands of lobbying, litigation, and spin: not quite dead, but no longer really alive.

The default Trump position on America’s scientific institutions is that they have become blunt weapons in the service of an over-centralised state. We know what this would look like were it true (and how far it actually is from American reality) when we look at Stalin’s Russia. Genetics was banned in Russia in 1948 — its institutions destroyed, careers truncated, individuals sacked and internally exiled — because the findings of genetics flatly contradicted promising but badly flawed state-sponsored agricultural trials of new crop varieties. If new varieties could be generated at will (and genetics said they couldn’t), then the countryside could be industrialised overnight, speeding the development of the Soviet Union towards communism within a single generation. The state had ambitions for science and, centralising its efforts around a handful of top-heavy institutions, ensured that those ambitions drowned out the very findings it had paid to obtain.

When climate change-denying Republicans invoke the bogeyman of overpaid lackey climatologists working to a misguided, politically motivated programme, they’re not pointing at nothing. Indeed, they’re pointing at what happened to the largest and best-funded science base in history. The problem is that theirs is an argument from analogy. Which is to say, no argument at all. Flim-flam, if you prefer.

It hardly matters now. If exploited to the hilt by US industry (and let’s be honest, we all want to go out with a bang) Trump’s climate policies — his devotion to fossil fuels and rejection of the Paris protocols — are more than sufficient over four short years to set global temperatures on a course topping 2.5 degrees, at which point our much-maligned globalised civilisation will collapse from the sheer cost of its own insurance premiums.

Some more flim-flam while we await the End Times. So Obama was Stalin, was he? Knowledgeable in both science and in politics but unable to separate the one from the other? Then Donald Trump is Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia: reactionary, vain, deaf to the entreaties of his ever more carefully hand-picked advisors, until, at the last, only the Rasputin-like whispers of Steve Bannon catch his ear.

Let’s indulge this bad habit of arguing from analogy a little further, and ask this interesting question: how did Russia’s academics react against Nicholas II’s lame-duck regime? They held marches. They published pamphlets. They organised strikes. They pinned their liberal and cosmopolitan colours to their sleeves, and wrote angry letters to the papers. They achieved virtually nothing until, in 1905, they got canny. They became political. They stood up for an idea of civics rooted in the European enlightenment. They fomented a revolution. They even got the Tsar to convene a parliament, in which they were the ministers.

Ultimately, this “constitutional-democratic”  movement failed. It refused to cohere, it sought compromise where it should have fomented discord, collaborated where it should have opposed. It died from politeness. A dozen years later, its failure made Bolshevik extremism possible and the rest, as they say, is history.

History, yes. But not destiny. The people who march in the name of science on Saturday 22 are taking but the first step on what promises to be a long and frightening journey. We should not expect too much from them yet. But neither should we pull our punches. Like it or not, and certainly if Trump lasts into a second term, these people, thanks to their educations and well-thumbed passports, their urbane reflexes and all the advantages that leisure has bestowed on them, are best placed to be the champions of our by then virtually extinguished civic life.

We are going to have to teach these snowflakes how to fight.

Stalin in Bristol

The Bristol Festival of Ideas have invited me along to Waterstones, The Galleries, Bristol, to talk about Stalin’s scientists on 24 April at 7pm. “The Soviet Union’s sciences were the largest and best funded in history,” it says in this here programme, “and were at once the glory and laughing stock of the intellectual world” — a description that might well apply to me. Anyway, I’m going to be speaking. Come listen. Tickets are £6.

“Some only appear crazy. Others are as mad as a bag of cats”


Stalin’s more eccentric scientists are the subject of this blogpost for Faber & Faber.

Stalin and the Scientists describes what happened when, early in the twentieth century, a handful of impoverished and under-employed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans, bound themselves to a failing government to create a world superpower. Envied and obsessed over by Joseph Stalin — ‘the Great Scientist’ himself — scientists in disciplines from physics to psychology managed to steer his empire through famine, drought, soil exhaustion, war, rampant alcoholism, a huge orphan problem, epidemics and an average life expectancy of thirty years. Hardly any of them are well known outside Russia, yet their work shaped global progress for well over a century.

Cold War propaganda cast Soviet science as an eccentric, gimcrack, often sinister enterprise. And, to my secret delight, not every wild story proved to be a fabrication. Indeed, a heartening amount of the smoke shrouding Soviet scientific achievement can be traced back to intellectual arson attacks of one sort or another.

I’ll leave it to the book to explain why Stalin’s scientists deserve our admiration and respect. This is the internet, so let’s have some fun. Here, in no particular order, are my my top five scientific eccentrics. Some only appear crazy; others have had craziness thrust upon them by hostile commentators. Still others were as mad as a bag of cats.

1. Ilya Ivanov
Ilya Ivanov, the animal breeding expert who tried to mate humans with chimpanzees

By the time of the 1917 revolution, Ilya Ivanov was already an international celebrity. His pioneering artificial insemination techniques were transforming world agriculture. However, once he lost his Tsarist patrons, he had to find a research programme that would catch the eye of the new government’s Commissariat of Education. What he came up with was certainly compelling: a proposal to cross-breed humans and chimpanzees.

We now know there are immunological difficulties preventing such a cross, but the basic idea is not at all crazy, and Ivanov got funding from Paris and America to travel to Guinea to further the study.

Practically and ethically the venture was a disaster. Arriving at the primate centre in Kindia, Ivanov discovered that its staff were killing and maiming far more primates than they ever managed to capture. To make matters worse, after a series of gruesome and rapine attempts to impregnate chimpanzees with human sperm, Ivanov decided it might be easier to turn the experiment on its head and fertilise African women with primate sperm. Unfortunately, he failed to tell them what he was doing.

Ivanov was got rid of during the Purges of the late 1930s thanks to a denunciation by an ambitious colleague, but his legacy survives. The primate sanctuary he founded in Sukhumi by the Black Sea provided primates for the Soviet space programme. Meanwhile the local tourist industry makes the most of, and indeed maintains, persistent rumours that the local woods are haunted by seven-foot-tall Stalinist ape-men.

2. Alexander Bogdanov
whose Mars-set science fiction laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s first blood transfusion service — and who died of blood poisoning

Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov, co-founder of the Bolshevik movement, lost interest in politics, even as control came within his grasp, because he wanted more time for his writing.

In his novels Red Star and Engineer Menni, blood exchanges among his Martian protagonists level out their individual and sexual differences and extend their lifespan through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

These scientific fantasies took an experimental turn in 1921 during a trade junket to London when he happened across Blood Transfusion, a book by Geoffrey Keynes (younger brother of the economist). Two years of private experiments followed, culminating in an appointment with the Communist Party’s general secretary, Joseph Stalin. Bogdanov was quickly installed as head of a new ‘scientific research institute of blood transfusion’.

Blood, Bogdanov claimed, was a universal tissue that unified all other organs, tissues and cells. Transfusions offered the client better sleep, a fresher complexion, a change in eyeglass prescriptions, and greater resistance to fatigue. On 24 March 1928 he conducted a typically Martian experiment, mutually transfusing blood with a male student, suffered a massive transfusion reaction and died two weeks later at the age of fifty-four.

Bogdanov the scientist never offered up his studies to the review of his peers. In fact he never wrote any actual science at all, just propaganda for the popular press. In this, he resembled no-one so much as the notorious charlatan (and Stalin’s poster boy) Trofim Lysenko. I reckon it was his example made Trofim Lysenko politically possible.

3. Trofim Lysenko
Stalin’s poster-boy, who believed plants sacrifice themselves for their strongest neighbour — and was given the job of reforesting European Russia.

Practical, working-class, ambitious and working for the common good, the agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko was the very model of the new Soviet scientist. Rather than studying ‘the hairy legs of flies’, ran one Pravda profile in August 1927, this sober young man ‘went to the root of things,’ solving practical problems by a few calculations ‘on a little old piece of paper’.

As he studied how different varieties of the same crop responded to being planted at different times, he never actually touched any mathematics, relying instead on crude theories ‘proved’ by arbitrary examples.

Lysenko wanted, above all else, to be an original. An otherwise enthusiastic official report warned that he was an ‘extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological science.’ Unable to understand the new-fangled genetics, he did everything he could to banish it from biology. In its place he championed ‘vernalisation’, a planting technique that failed dismally to increase yields. Undeterred, he went on to theorise about species formation, and advised the government on everything, from how to plant oak trees across the entire Soviet Union to how to increase the butterfat content of milk. The practical results of his advices were uniformly disastrous and yet, through a combination of belligerence, working-class credentials, and a phenomenal amount of luck, he remained the poster-boy of Soviet agriculture right up until the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.

Nor is his ghost quite laid to rest. A couple of politically motivated historians are even now attempting to recast Lysenko as a cruelly sidelined pioneer of epigenetics (the study of how the environment regulates gene expression). This is a cruel irony, since Soviet Russia really was the birthplace of epigenetics! And it was Lysenko’s self-serving campaigns that saw that every single worker in that field was sacked and ruined.

4. Olga Lepeshinskaya
who screened in reverse films of rotting eggs to prove her theories about cell development — and won a Stalin Prize

Olga Lepeshinskaya, a personal friend of Lenin and his wife, was terrifyingly well-connected and not remotely intimidated by power. On a personal level, she was charming. She fiercely opposed anti-semitism, and had dedicated her personal life to the orphan problem, bringing up at least half a dozen children as her own.

As a scientist, however, she was a disaster. She once announced to the Academic Council of the Institute of Morphology that soda baths could rejuvenate the old and preserve the youth of the young. A couple of weeks later Moscow completely sold out of baking soda.

In her old age, Lepeshinskaya became entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any part of the seed could germinate. She even claimed to have filmed living cells emerge from noncellular materials. Lysenko hailed Lepeshinskaya’s discovery as the basis for a new theory of species formation, and in May 1950 Alexander Oparin, head of the Academy of Sciences’ biology department, invited Olga Lepeshinskaya to receive her Stalin Prize.

It was all a fraud, of course: she had been filming the death and decomposition of cells, then running her film backwards through the projector. Lepeshinskaya made a splendid myth. The subject of poetry. The heroine of countless plays. In school and university textbooks she was hailed as the author of the greatest biological discovery of all time.

5. Joseph Stalin
whose obsession with growing lemons in Siberia became his only hobby

Stalin, typically for his day, believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics – that a giraffe that has to stretch to reach high leaves will have long-necked children. He assumed that, given the right conditions, living things were malleable, and as the years went by this obsession grew. In 1946 he became especially keen on lemons, not only encouraging their growth in coastal Georgia, where they fared quite well, but also in the Crimea, where winter frosts destroyed them.

Changing the nature of lemons became Stalin’s sole hobby. At his dachas near Moscow and in the south, large greenhouses were erected so that he could enter them directly from the house, day or night. Pruning shrubs and plants was his only physical exercise.

Stalin shared with his fellow Bolsheviks the idea that they had to be philosophers in order to deserve their mandate. He schooled the USSR’s most prominent philosopher, Georgy Aleksandrov, on Hegel’s role in the history of Marxism. He told the composer Dmitry Shostakovich how to change the orchestration for the new national anthem. He commissioned the celebrated war poet Konstantin Simonov to write a play about a famous medical controversy, treated him to an hour of literary criticism, and then rewrote the closing scenes himself. Sergei Eisenstein and his scriptwriter on Ivan the Terrible Part Two were treated to a filmmaking masterclass. And in 1950, while he was negotiating a pact with the People’s Republic of China, and discussing how to invade South Korea with Kim Il Sung, Stalin was also writing a combative article about linguistics, and meeting with economists multiple times to discuss a textbook.

Stalin’s paranoia eventually pushed him into pronouncements that were more and more peculiar. Unable to trust even himself, it came to Joseph Stalin that people were, or ought to be, completely readable from first to last. All it needed was an entirely verbal theory of mind. ‘There is nothing in the human being which cannot be verbalised,’ he asserted, in 1949. ‘What a person hides from himself he hides from society. There is nothing in the Soviet society that is not expressed in words. There are no naked thoughts. There exists nothing at all except words.’

For Stalin, in the end, even a person’s most inner world was readable – because if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t possibly exist.



Achievement, naivety and dread


“A modest biography that should have taken me a bit less than a year became a five-year behemoth that burned through three editors and which takes in more or less every major scientific advance and controversy in the Soviet Union from Russia’s failed liberal revolution of 1905 to Khrushchev’s removal in a bloodless coup in 1964. A book that nearly killed me. A book that — since by then I had actually got myself an honest job — I had to write on the bus. (The 521, to be exact.)”
Talking Stalinist science with Tom Hunter of the Arthur C Clarke Award

Fitbitters of the world, unite!


Drunk as we are on the illusion of personal control, we should remember that data trickles uphill toward the powerful, because they are the ones who can afford to exploit it. Today, for every worried-yet-well twentysomething fiddling with his Fitbit, there is a worker being cajoled by their employer into taking a medical test.
for The Guardian, 2 November 2016