A Johnsonian Scientist

The lives of scientists, considered as Lives, almost always make dull reading. For one thing, the careers of the famous and the merely ordinary fall into much the same pattern, give or take an honorary degree or two, or (in European countries) an honorific Order. It could hardly be otherwise. Academics can only seldom lead lives that are spacious or exciting in a worldly sense. They need laboratories or libraries and the company of other academics. Their work is in no way made deeper or more cogent by privation, distress, or worldly buffetings. Their private lives may be unhappy, strangely mixed up or comic, but not in ways that tell us anything special about the nature or direction of their work. Academics lie outside the devastation area of the literary convention according to which the lives of artists and men of letters are intrinsically interesting, a source of cultural insight in themselves. If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility; if an historian were to fail (as Ruskin did) to consummate his marriage, we should not suppose that our understanding of historical scholarship had somehow been enriched.

The lives of writers, however, give out a low rumble of cultural portents. One day this summer The Times of London devoted a whole column on its front page to new discoveries about the circumstances under which Joseph Conrad came to be discharged by the captain of the Riversdale, in which he was serving as first mate—discoveries described as “extremely important” for the understanding of Conrad and his art, because traces of the incident are to be discerned in Conrad’s fiction. (But what are we to make of a scale of values in which such a discovery ranks as extremely important? Would it not have been of epoch-making significance—nay, downright interesting—if Conrad had not used his experience of shipboard life in writing his stories about the sea?)

YET J. B. S. Haldane’s life, as Ronald Clark recounts it, is fascinating from end to end. Unless one is in the know already, there is no foretelling at one moment what comes next. Haldane had a flying start in life. His father was a famous physiologist; his uncle translated Schopenhauer and became Lord Chancellor and Minister of War; his aunt was a distinguished social reformer, and his sister Naomi Mitchison (the dedicatee, incidentally, of The Double Helix) is a well-known writer and, among other things, an honorary member of the Bakgatla tribe. Even the house he was brought up in is being transformed into an Oxford College.

The Dragon School, Eton, and Oxford gave Haldane about the best education a man of his generation could have. At Oxford he was an authentic “Double First,” for having taken first class honors in Mathematical Moderations, he switched to philosophy and ancient history and took a first class degree in Greats, the most prestigious thing an Oxford undergraduate could do. Haldane …

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