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Is science necessary? : essays on science and scientists

by Max F Perutz

  Print book : Biography  |  1st ed

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by wppalmer


Author: Max F. Perutz

Reviewer: William P. Palmer

In Is science necessary? Perutz writes on the necessity of science, eruditely and stylishly. He was born in Austria, received his Ph.D in 1940 from Cambridge University and worked at the Cavendish Laboratory Cambridge in various capacities over many years, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962. The book is a selection of Perutz's articles and book reviews previously published in a variety of scientific and popular journals and newspapers. The main article from which the collection takes its title encompasses a variety of applications of science for the solution of major world problems. This one essay occupies somewhat less than half the book (97 pages). The essay starts historically showing how science has influenced human views for the better. The great issues for humanity of food production, health, energy, nuclear power and population growth are then considered from a scientific viewpoint, with the problems and solutions clearly stated, and appropriate charts tables and references included to back up the argument. In the main article and in the other articles too, Perutz's training as a biochemist comes through very clearly. For him, most problems fundamentally seem to have causes that can be explained in chemical terms, and so the solutions to most of these problems are also chemical. The reader may or may not agree with the solutions that Perutz proposes, but they are always based on reasoned argument and generally fairly mainstream.

Perutz's reviews are interesting, because he often knows the people being described personally, sometimes as senior researchers and sometimes as friends and colleagues. His reviews usually refer to events at first hand, making them live through his personal descriptions of historical characters that most of us know only as names, describing laws or theories.

The section of the book that I enjoyed most was the section entitled "Science in War". It gives his experience as a British resident of Austrian descent, suddenly being arrested for no reason other than his ethnic origins. He was transported to prison camps, firstly in the Isle of Man and then in Canada. He was released and then by a strange quirk of fate was recruited to research into the possibility of making aircraft carriers and battleships out of specially treated ice. It was a crazy wartime scheme, which never reached any sort of fruition, but they spent some time on the project and were finally that able to harden ice considerably by including wood pulp prior to freezing. When the project was eventually abandoned Perutz went back to his research at Cambridge, pleased that his war efforts had not actually killed anyone.

Overall it is an excellent, informative book, which is somewhat 'bitty', but at the end one has the feeling that one may have absorbed some of one eminent biochemist's scholarly, humanitarian and liberal views.

(Originally reviewed as Review of 'Imagined Worlds' & Is Science Necessary?', The Journal of the Science Teacher Association of the Northern Territory, Volume 12, pp. 102-104.)

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