Stalin and the Scientists (2016)

Longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2016

“a dazzling, often astonishing prism through which to view the Soviet experiment”
—Peter Pomeranzev

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Scientists throughout history, from Galileo to today’s experts on climate change, have often had to contend with politics in their pursuit of knowledge. But in the Soviet Union, where the ruling elites embraced, patronized, and even fetishized science like never before, scientists lived their lives on a knife edge.

The Soviet Union had the best-funded scientific establishment in history. Scientists were elevated as popular heroes and lavished with awards and privileges. But if their ideas or their field of study lost favour with the elites, they could be exiled, imprisoned, or murdered. And yet they persisted, making major contributions to 20th century science.

Stalin and the Scientists tells the story of the many gifted scientists who worked in Russia from the years leading up to the Revolution through the death of the “Great Scientist” himself, Joseph Stalin. It weaves together the stories of scientists, politicians, and ideologues into an intimate and sometimes horrifying portrait of a state determined to remake the world.

 

“In Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings has produced one of the finest, most gripping surveys of the history of Russian science in the twentieth century. Deeply researched and written with a sense of burning importance, Ings’ book ranges widely from politics to philosophy, from economics to biography to recount the monumental successes of Russian scientists and the Soviet state’s Mephistophelean embrace of the scientific community. It is a fascinating work that both inspires and terrifies.”
Douglas Smith, author of Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

His storytelling skill is everywhere evident; the book — which was longlisted last week for the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction — is lively, dramatic, intriguing and often very funny. Ings also has a wonderful ability to explain complex notions.
Gerard DeGroot, The Times, 1 October 2016

His monumental chronicle follows hordes of brilliant scientific chancers who welded their talents to the fledgling union, only for many to ‘disappear’ into the gulags, or mentally atrophy under the leaden hand of bureaucracy. Ings ably tweezers the discoveries and disasters out of this political train-wreck.
Barbara Kiser, Nature, 29 September 2016

An artful synthesis of basic science and political infighting
Andrew Robinson, The Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2016

Ings has a gift for making complex scientific questions intelligible.
—Donald Rayfield, Literary Review, 1 October 2016

By bringing back to life the tragic careers of many a Soviet scientist – Vavilov, Michurin, Kapitsa, Korolev and Vernadsky, to name just a few – Ings shows clearly that although fear of the tyrant can trigger a certain degree of conformist creativity, it eventually backfires and becomes not just scientifically counterproductive, but perilous and even lethal… a 100 per cent brilliant book.
Vitali Vitaliev, Engineering & Technology, 18 October 2016

With fiction in mind, William Styron once said that a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. The same is true of the finest non-fiction, and Simon Ings’ Stalin And The Scientists is a great book. Titles can be misleading, and this is not another biographical perspective on the Soviet dictator, but rather a vast tapestry of Russian history from the mid-19th century, when many of the scientists who feature were born, to after Stalin’s death.
Vin Arthey, The Scotsman, 26 October 2016

‘[An] ambitious … thoroughly researched book … the discussion is well informed and lively, with clear explanations for the general reader of the scientific (and ideological) issues involved.’
Evan Mawdsley, BBC History Magazine

Ings takes the odd liberty with general Soviet history but he tells the sorry story of Soviet science with gusto and flair. Understanding the failure of the USSR to achieve a revolution in science is vital to understanding the failure and collapse of the Soviet system.
Neil Robinson, Irish Examiner, 19 November 2016

Ings conveys the tragedy and the triumph of science in the Soviet Union, though the tragedy outweighs the triumph in his account. A different choice, with more emphasis on physics and mathematics, would have tilted the balance more toward triumph. Ings is interested in people, their characters, choices and the positions they found themselves in, and he succeeds in bringing out their personalities. This is a fascinating story of brilliant scientists and charlatans, of visionaries and careerists, of civic courage and moral cowardice. The author explains the scientific issues in a clear and simple way, so that the reader is aware of the issues at stake. He does not use Russian-language sources, but he makes extensive use of the large English-language literature on the subject.
David Holloway, Guardian, 29 December 2016

This book was waiting to be written. In the mid-20th century the Soviets competed with, and frequently bettered, Western science. They put rockets into space, built nuclear weapons and pursued novel scientific research on an unprecedented scale, creating whole scientific disciplines in the process. By Stalin’s death in 1953 the Soviet Union was the largest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. Yet this is the first comprehensive survey in English.
Barnes Martin, The Oldie, December 2016

In Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings, culture editor at New Scientist (UK), very effectively relates a set of stories—compelling, often horrifying, sometimes both at once—of the most singular period in the history of Russian science. Singular, but nevertheless firmly anchored in pre-Stalinist Russian history and reaching into the future, too. To get full value from the book, readers would ideally take it together with Vucinich’s volumes and the mainly post-Stalinist Manipulated Science by the Russian scientific journalist Mark Popovsky, who observed at first hand much of what it reports.
Aileen M. Kelly, American Scholar, 5 December 2016

[Ings] is a gifted writer. Stalin and the Scientists is a good single source for anyone approaching Soviet science for the first time.
Loren Graham, Wall Street Journal, 20 February 2017

Ings is an entertaining storyteller who often captures the essence of things — Stalin was indeed “the last in a long line of European philosopher kings.” Filled with priceless nuggets and a cast of frauds, crackpots and tyrants, this is a lively and interesting book, and utterly relevant today when the Trump administration is challenging the scientific establishment on climate change. We in the West have long laughed at the “Coryphaeus of Science,” but has the United States now elected its own?
Simon Sebag Montefiore, New York Times, 27 February 2017

Ings’s finely crafted and informative book is a must read for understanding how the ideas of scientific knowledge and technology were distorted and subverted for decades across the Soviet Union, all in the service of the most ambitious experiment in social engineering the world has ever witnessed.
J.P. O’Malley. Washington Post, 17 March 2017

Here’s some occasional material associated with the book.

 

 

 

 

 

The Eye: A Natural History (2007)

This is a book about the nature of the eye. It is about all the eyes that are, and ever have been, and may yet be. It is about how we see the world, and how other eyes see it. It is about what happens to the world when it is looked at, and about what happens to us when we look at each other. It is about evolution, chemistry, optics, colour, psychology, anthropology, and consciousness. It is about what we know, and it is also about how we came to know it. So this is also a book about personal ambition, folly, failure, confusion, and language.

 

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Ings argues convincingly that the eye has had a profound effect on our language, perception, philosophy and even consciousness… Ings deals with these, as he does all parts of this thoroughly engaging book, with refreshing clarity, enthusiasm and vigour. It’s a real eye-opener, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Doug Johnstone, The Times, March 10, 2007

In The Eye: A Natural History, the novelist and science writer Simon Ings explores evolution’s alleged masterpiece from several perspectives, including optics, physiology, history, medicine and biochemistry. It is a rich and eclectic survey, with an intriguing nugget on almost every page. Ings has done his homework and is not afraid to find fault with new ideas that don’t pass muster.
Graham Farmelo, Sunday Telegraph, March 24

[Ings] rightly asserts that ‘the story of the eye is epic’, and this is an impressive attempt to summarise its 538-million-year history. There are times when the encyclopaedic scale of the endeavour rather overwhelms the reader, but it’s easy to share his genuine wonder at the sheer oddness of some of the mechanisms of sight.

P D Smith, the Guardian, June 2

In this ambitious work, Ings reaches into chemistry, evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, aesthetics and his own fertile imagination to produce an agglomeration of ideas and themes, aimed at neither the specialist nor the idiot, but somewhere tantalisingly in between. In many ways it’s the perfectly judged popular-science book: he assumes little or no prior knowledge, but he does take for granted an open mind and a certain curiosity. His book will bring out the intelligent 12-year-old in us all. You may even look on the world with new eyes.
Marcus Berkmann, The Spectator, March 31
(requires subscription; the review has been reprinted here)

Ings has succeeded in writing an elegant, entertaining and up-to-date overview of cutting-edge research. He tells the story “episodically”, in a “mix of history, science and anecdote” that is utterly compelling.
Gail Vines, the Independent, April 25

Ings has a good eye for memorable anecdotes and striking facts. More importantly, The Eye is always readable, and Ings is a very good explainer of scientific concepts.
Robert Hanks, the Telegraph, March 18

The evolution of the human eye sounds a potentially arid subject, but not as treated by Simon Ings, who seamlessly blends natural history with personal observation (the progress of his baby daughter), visual conundrums (illustrations punctuate the text), and a real sense of wonder.
There are fascinating facts galore: our eyes are never still, for example. As well as entertaining, it’s philosophically profound: showing how our eyes, far from simply absorbing the world, are tools with which we construct our own reality.
Katie Owen, the Sunday Telegraph, 27 January 2008

Voles communicate by leaving trails of urine that (happily for the hungry kestrel) reflect ultraviolet light. Simon Ings will cheerfully supply you with a whole feast of such tasty morsels in this expansive history of the eye. But while his book may satisfy a nerdy hunger for trivia, it is much more than just a compendium of information, ambitiously blending science with philosophy and drawing on history and anecdotes. The latter, which often focus on his daughter, are impressive for somehow avoiding mawkishness; in one of the book’s most moving sections, Ings considers their respective ageing and sight. It all makes for a surprisingly appealing and readable book, helped along by the odd judicious diagram. Read it and you will never see things in the same way.
Hermione Buckland-Hoby, the Observer, January 27

The mirror of the soul? In Homo sapiens, maybe. But in this account of that remarkable organ, the eye, Ings goes beyond the human… The more complex his material, the clearer his prose becomes. He is equally at ease with mathematics, philosophy, palaeontology and history in this cornucopia of facts and folklore about the eye… this far-ranging and wonderfully eclectic work is popular science at its best.
Ross Leckie, The Times, January 25

Charles Darwin wrote that thinking about the evolution of the eye gave him a “cold shudder”. The organ’s complexity tested his theory to the limits, yet so necessary has eyesight become to species’ survival that some scientists estimate the eye has evolved independently at least 40 times. As Ings puts it, “There are only a handful of really good ideas in nature”, and eyesight is one of them. There is a lot of science in Ings’s account, but it is leavened by engaging forays into history and biography. He relates such fascinating subjects as the ability of the Thai Moken tribe to see underwater, and Woody Allen’s rare skill in raising the inner corners of his eyebrows.
Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times, January 27

‘Popular science’ now too often refers to books about penguins’ feet and the like, so it is a relief to find a work that demonstrates genuine learning and intellectual passion. Simon Ings takes us elegantly through the 600-million-year history of the eye, explaining its differing functions in humans and animals, and discussing philosophical thoughts about vision. The result is a narrative as arresting and remarkable as any fiction, accessible but complete, with the reader assumed to be an intelligent adult on the lookout for something substantial. An excellent guide to one of the world’s true wonders.
the Telegraph, February 2