HBO’s Chernobyl – making a drama out of a crisis

Chernobyl was a disaster – there is no doubt about that – but what lessons should we learn from it? 

[This article is also published in Solidarity 512 June 2019]

Though the catastrophic meltdown and explosion of the RBMK Reactor No 4 happened almost half a lifetime ago, when police states claiming to serve the workers ruled eastern Europe, the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl has brought that time back to life. Though partly fictionalised and sometimes wrong (according to survivors and experts), the basic facts are correct. 

During an ‘experiment’ aimed at improving safety procedures, Reactor No 4 responded erratically and attempts to bring it under control, including the extraction of virtually all control rods, were to increase the danger later. The experiment should have been aborted at this point but a bureaucratic adherence to a plan, coupled with a not-uncommon reticence to challenge one’s superiors, led to continuance until an unexpected rapid power surge demanded an emergency shutdown or SCRAM. This would normally involve rapidly inserting control rods which absorb the neutrons without which the chain reaction in the fuel rods cannot continue. 

In the RBMK, these were poorly designed, being only capable of slow insertion and having graphite tips which actually reflect neutrons back into the fuel rods (a moderator made of graphite, i.e. pure carbon, surrounded the reactor core to reflect neutrons back into the uranium fuel and drive the chain reaction). The result was to momentarily increase the overheating. This increased steam pressure from the coolant water and the fuel rods seem to have disintegrated, blocking the control rod channels before insertion could be completed. The chain reaction went further out of control, power output continuing to rise to about ten times normal levels, according to some estimates. 

The pressure build-up resulted in a steam explosion which caused further damage to the fuel rods and a loss of coolant…and more overheating. The graphite would have been burning by this time. Three seconds later, a second explosion blew the core apart, stopping the chain reaction but exposing highly-radioactive material, some of it burning, some of it flying through the air, to the environment. This second explosion may have been like an atomic bomb which has not detonated fully but ‘fizzled,’ supposedly impossible in properly-designed nuclear reactors.

This is covered well in Chernobyl, as is the heroism of many who lost their lives preventing a worse disaster, according to a highly-complimentary review by Hamish Johnston in Physics World.1 Johnston praises the courtroom scene where investigator Valery Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works and the way design flaws contributed to the disaster.


While Legasov is a real character, the investigative journalist Ulana Khomyuk is fictional. Curiously not mentioned in Chernobyl is a real investigative journalist, Lyubov Khovalevskaya, who, as editor of the Chernobyl atomic energy plant newspaper Tribuna Enerhetyky, obtained secret documents which enabled her to break the story of the Chernobyl reactor’s serious problems a month before the accident. 

According to the International Women’s Media Foundation2 (which awarded her its 1991 Courage in Journalism Award), Khovalevskaya “spent the next three years collecting official documents on the facility and entered the forbidden radioactive zone more than 30 times to interview workers and cooperative officials. Risking her own life, she reported the accident and aftermath extensively, pointing to its disastrous impact on the soil and water system and numerous victims and publishing documents the government was trying to keep secret.” Perhaps Khomyuk is based on Khovalevskaya but the latter could have appeared as a real character in Chernobyl.

Some reviews have made much of the inaccuracies in Chernobyl. These, under the heading of ‘artistic licence,’ are difficult to justify but detract little from the overall truth of its account of the causes and events of the accident. 

On health effects, speculation is general anyway and Chernobyl brings little clarity or perspective. The direct deaths are known (28) and an estimate exists for deaths from thyroid cancer, almost entirely due to children absorbing radioactive iodine (I-131) from their milk. Iodine is essential for the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone. This cancer is nearly always curable but leaves survivors on lifelong medication. There have been some 5000 cases in the region affected by fallout from Chernobyl with some 15 deaths. Though the initial cause of I-131 release was the accident at Chernobyl, the bureaucracy is blameworthy for not distributing iodide tablets in time: these work by swamping the thyroid gland with harmless I-127. 

Overall deaths definitely or most likely due to the accident number 43 at present. Illnesses and deaths among survivors do not seem much different from expected in unaffected populations and so there is at worst a slight increase in cancers. The total number of excess cancers may be as little as 4000, a tiny increase in risk given that about one third of people die from cancer. According to the WHO,3 any increase in cancers will be undetectable. This is particularly so, given the health decline in the former Soviet Union since its collapse in 1991.

Chernobyl was a disaster (except for local wildlife4); people died unnecessarily; people’s lives were disrupted by displacement from their communities and fear of the future; the ‘Soviet’ bureaucracy showed itself incapable of or uninterested in protecting its citizens, which may have accelerated its demise. The makers of Chernobyl have done a major service in informing or reminding us of this. However, many will conclude (as the Left did at the time and many still do today) that this means nuclear power is inherently unsafe. But, since that time, we have learnt much about the dangers of fossil fuel extraction and energy production. These are between 40 and 400 times as dangerous as nuclear power!


The review includes an embedded YouTube video (an episode of Going Nuclear with Scott Manley). This is particularly praising of the description of the science of the reactor ‘for the lay person’ in the final court scene but goes into more details.


3WHO: Health effects of Chernobyl: an overview



Picture caption: assemblage of SO articles on Chernobyl

AWL and Chernobyl: The predecessor paper to Solidarity, Socialist Organiser, covered Chernobyl extensively in 1986, including a four-page special a fortnight after the accident explaining what happened, how radioactivity works, how secrecy and bureaucracy work against safety, and making a realistic assessment of the health risks.


Marxists and science

Marxism does not provide a ready-made key for making judgements about scientific ideas. It cannot substitute for a detailed knowledge of the appropriate scientific material.1

Marx and Engels saw themselves applying a scientific method to economics and the dynamics of class societies. Their philosophical approach was derived from that of Hegel who used dialectics, a discussion between opposing points of view, to arrive at truths. Marx and Engels applied Hegel’s methods to the real world, in particular showing that the capitalist mode of production gave rise to a class whose interests lay in overthrowing it and replacing it with a socialist society. Marx and Engels’ methods were therefore historical and materialist but later came to be called dialectical materialism (DM), unfortunate because this jargon term masks its straightforwardness. 

Seeing their work as part of science in general, both were deeply interested in the natural sciences of their time. Indeed, Marx wrote of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that it “contains the basis in natural history for our view.”2 Eleanor Marx’s partner, Edward Aveling, was a populariser of Darwin’s theory. Simon Ings, in his recent Stalin and the Scientists,3 sees Marx as believing in scientific government, where science would be extended into politics until there was “no distinction between knowledge and policy.” Sadly, evidence-based government policies are just as elusive now as then.

Engels was particularly interested in modern science: he saw his philosophy of “new materialism” (i.e. DM) potentially uniting all disciplines. It was materialist, in that all phenomena arose from the physical world, and dialectical, in that all knowledge was obtained through reasoned argument and inquiry. As a philosophical method, DM was therefore a study of how all things change, whether these be species, chemical substances, or societies. Perhaps the most successful of Engels’ attempts to use DM in considering a scientific problem is contained in his unfinished 1876 essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.4


Modern natural science* has no choice but to be materialist and both Engels and Lenin sought to connect science to DM, seeing scientists as unconscious dialectical materialists: Engels likened the scientists of his day to Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who had been speaking prose all his life without realising it. These included natural scientists, such as the chemist Mendeleev, who pulled together the different chemical elements into a systematic periodic table, or the physiologist Pavlov, who with his dogs elucidated the conditioned reflex, found widely in the natural world. In practice, scientists are often “reductionist” in that they break up problems into smaller parts to work on. This has been criticised but is only wrong if one assumes that the whole is simply the sum of the parts, not recognising that higher forms of order may emerge from combinations of factors.

Engels criticised idealists who believed in a static universe since his dialectics, “conceived as the science of the most general laws of all motion,”5 did not admit of stasis in nature, any more than in human society. While he was correct in this, it is not generally helpful to try to apply DM in the natural sciences. Indeed, the attempt to force the natural sciences into the straitjacket of Stalin’s distorted idea of DM was counterproductive, to say the least. Where it came to Stalin’s influence on agricultural science in the Soviet Union (USSR) through Lysenko, it may rightly be said “It was worse than a crime – it was a blunder.”

Engels was particularly impressed with Mendeleev’s prediction of “eka-aluminium” from an anomaly in his Periodic Table of the Elements.** Mendeleev found that arranging elements into columns of those with similar properties led to some contradictions. Guessing that not all the elements had been discovered yet, Mendeleev left gaps (in order to preserve correspondences in behaviour) and predicted the properties of the ‘missing’ elements. He was resoundingly vindicated when eka-aluminium, since named gallium, was discovered in 1875, with the predicted properties, just as Engels was compiling his thoughts on science. Engels saw the periodic table and its resulting predictions as a manifestation of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality.

Lenin’s interest in science led him to take time out in 1908 to write a weighty tome demolishing the philosophy of Ernst Mach, a respected physicist and a fairly influential philosopher. Mach’s ideas had caught on with some Bolsheviks, such as their co-founder Bogdanov who was challenging Lenin for leadership, and Lenin thought this was a dangerous departure from materialism. Bogdanov was subsequently expelled.6 

Mach enumerated three principles for valid physical theories:

1 They should be based entirely on directly observable phenomena;

2 They should based on the principle of relative motion, rather than on absolute space and time;

3 Any properties apparently based on absolute space and time should instead be seen as arising from the large-scale distribution of matter in the universe.

Principle 1 led Mach into error when he refused to accept the existence of atoms, even after Einstein had showed how to prove their existence in his 1905 paper on Brownian motion (and Jean Perrin had actually done so in 1908). This was because no-one had directly observed them, a rather poor reason given that many small objects had been invisible to the human eye until the invention of the microscope and one might have allowed that other smaller objects might exist, particularly with the overwhelming indirect evidence for atoms. The atomic nature of matter is so fundamental that the great physicist Richard Feynman once said that the simple sentence “Everything is made of atoms” encapsulated the most important scientific knowledge we possess.

Principles 2 and 3 were rather more sound and Einstein praised them as important influences in his development of the theory of relativity. Nevertheless, Mach, with his habit of backing the wrong horse, rejected Einstein’s theories; indeed Mach’s name was included in a rather embarrassing tome entitled A hundred authors against Einstein (though he appears not to have contributed). Einstein remarked that, if he was wrong, one author would have been enough!

Aleksandr Bogdanov, an interesting character, is given quite a bit of attention by Ings. Bogdanov, a medical doctor, was very interested in science, seeing capitalism as fragmenting scientific progress into separate, non-communicating, disciplines. The “pursuit of ‘science for its own sake’ was a tragic error.” In a socialist society, “practice and theory would once again be fused, and science could at last be put to the service of society.” In other words, “there is no such thing as pure science.”3 This is a profoundly misleading approach as there is no way of knowing what there is to discover and you can’t just say “Let’s find the cure for cancer” (though of course you can try to find it). Unfortunately, this is close to the attitude of Stalin to science. As Lenin recognised, Bogdanov, a follower of Mach, had departed somewhat from Marxism some 10 years before the revolution. 

Bogdanov did not rejoin the Bolsheviks but did set up Proletkult, a “proletarian” art movement whose rather ultra-left aim was to completely replace the old bourgeois culture. He later became interested in the idea of rejuvenation through blood transfusions but seems not to have been aware of the painstaking work that had revealed the existence of blood groups and their role in death following blood transfusions…in 1901! He died in 1928 after receiving blood from a student with malaria, tuberculosis, and an incompatible blood group: the student recovered.

Lenin seems to have been widely read on nature and ecology and would go for long hikes in the wilderness and mountains while in exile in Switzerland.7 While desperate to find ways of increasing agricultural productivity and aware of the latest science on soil fertility (such as the discovery of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in leguminous plants in 1888), he understood that people could not simply ignore the forces of nature. It was essential to understand nature and work with it: “To replace the forces of nature with human labor … would be just as impossible as replacing the arshin with the pood***…man may merely avail himself of the actions of nature’s forces, if he knew these actions, enlisting machines and tools to make this process easier” ( from The Agrarian Question, quoted in7).

The other great leader of the October Revolution and leader of the triumphant Red Army, Trotsky, who is not really discussed by Ings, had an important though short-lived role in Soviet science. After being forced to resign as People’s Commissar of the Army in 1924, he was given two scientific posts in 1925, head of the Electro-Technical Board and chair of the Scientific-Technical Board of Industry, nominally in charge of science in the USSR. He clearly rejected the idea that politics could direct science, as he stated in a speech to the 1925 Mendeleev Congress (on the centenary of Mendeleev’s birth).

An individual scientist may not at all be concerned with the practical application of his research. The wider his scope, the bolder his flight, the greater his freedom from practical daily necessity in his mental operations, all the better.8 Clearly, Trotsky understood that science cannot simply be ordered to come up with the answers. Soon he was to resign over Stalinist political interference in science policy.

The history of science in the USSR from the revolution through Stalin’s counter-revolution to its collapse (and even to the present day) confirms Paul Mattick’s conclusion that Marxism has nothing to say about the physical sciences, beyond taking their results into consideration when considering the development of the class struggle and setting physical limits to what may achieved by a workers’ government.9 This history has been dealt with in more detail previously10 and articles on genetics and physics are planned. Suffice to say that the reverence for facts that characterised the early scientific policies of the Bolshevik government gave way to the idea of science as a tool to implement the plan. If scientific theory indicated the impossibility of the plan, so much the worse for scientific theory – and for the scientists who tried to explain this. All too frequently, the messenger was shot!

References and notes:

1In Marxism, Science and the Big Bang, by Peter Mason. This is a critique of Reason in Revolt, by Alan Woods and Ted Grant, which included an unhappy attempt to disprove the Big Bang theory from “Marxist” principles.

2Engels wrote of On the Origin of Species: “Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid,” while Marx replied “This is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.” (in Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen).

3Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953, by Simon Ings (Faber & Faber, 2016)

4Anteil der Arbeit an der Menschwerdung des Affen (published in The Dialectics of Nature)

5Dialectics of Nature, by Friedrich Engels (Marx-Engels Institute, Moscow, 1927).

6Materialism and Empiriocriticism, by Vl Ilyin [VI Lenin] Moscow, 1909.

7Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, by Douglas R Weiner, 1988.

8Dialectical Materialism and Science, by LD Trotsky, in Problems of Everyday Life (1925)

9Marxism and the New Physics, Philosophy of Science 1962;Vol 29(4):350-64.

10The Bolsheviks, Stalin and Science (

*Modern social science, however, has very little chance to be materialist, despite the efforts of those who see themselves as Marxists. The ruling ideas of a society are generally those of its ruling class and ideas that challenge these are stifled in a variety of ways. When Trotsky, for example, declared that the new, post-1917, society would take possession of the cultural heritage of the past (specifically including scientific), he explicitly excluded the social sciences which were “useless in acquiring knowledge of nature but only useful in justifying class inequality and all other kinds of historical untruth… The greater the trust of socialism in sciences devoted to direct study of nature, all the greater is its critical distrust in approaching those sciences and pseudo-sciences which are linked closely to the structure of human society, its economic institutions, its state, laws, ethics, etc.” He allowed that social science could approach the rigour of the natural sciences but held that they tended to justify “historically-arisen [i.e. bourgeois] society” and thus “their accomplishments were of little value.”8

**Fittingly, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of the Elements.

***Arshin (unit of length) = 28 inches; pood (unit of weight) = 36 lb. This would be like exchanging the foot for the pound.

Where Are The Women In Physics? Professor Strumia speaks…


Physics pervades our lives, not just in the experiences of gravity, momentum, heat and cold that our ancestors would have felt but with the engines, electricity, communications and computing that are now taken for granted. The laws of physics have been elucidated by a group of people unknown for much of human history – scientists – and this group has been largely, but not entirely, male, the balance changing slowly throughout the last century. Women are still under-represented in physics, research, teaching, and industry, relative to their proportion in the general population – that is beyond dispute. The proportion of girls taking Physics A-level is little more than 1/5th (2014), about the same as for women taking physics degrees, while the figure for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) jobs is about 1 in 8.

There is no reason apart from prejudice to assume that women could contribute any less than men to the development of physics and many universities, research facilities and physics organisations, as well as self-organised groups of women physicists, have been trying to tackle the popular misconception that physics is not for women.

CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research, home of the Large Hadron Collider)1 has been taking the promotion of gender equality and diversity seriously, with initiatives to encourage girls to study physics in schools and for women to enter physics study and research. One of these was a workshop on high energy physics (HEP) theory, and gender in the world of physics. The aim was to present up-to-date research into nuclear physics, including string theory, to improve the visibility of women in HEP, and to discuss how to support women and minorities in HEP.

Open to all, the workshop was attended mainly by early-career women physicists. The speakers were mainly young women HEP theorists, with a quarter of the sessions devoted to gender-related issues. These included the aspirations of young women, academic recruitment and retention, and unconscious bias. CERN reported that the workshop was a great success in promoting gender diversity, allowing young researchers to discuss with senior women theorists how they might progress their careers in a male-dominated area.

However, the success of the workshop was, in CERN’s words,2overshadowed by one speaker who made statements contrary to the ideals on which CERN is based.” This was Professor Alessandro Strumia who announced to a shocked and angered audience that men had “invented and built” physics. His arguments were a re-hash of pseudo-scientific justifications for gender imbalance in physics, and in science in general, asserting that women were just less capable than men.

Furthermore, said Strumia, with current attempts to promote inclusion and diversity in physics-based studies and research, it was men who were now being discriminated against, giving himself as the example – it appeared that a woman whom he regarded as less qualified had got a job that he had applied for. As CERN states, “worse, the same speaker used his presentation to make unacceptable personal allegations against individuals attending the workshop, which is why we have been obliged to take action.2 

This included suspending Professor Strumia from any work at CERN (he is employed elsewhere) while an alleged breach of CERN’s Code of Conduct was investigated. Referring to his comments as “highly offensive,”3 CERN removed his slides from the online repository [they were extremely poorly produced, in addition to being very poor science – LH]. He had after all accused a less-qualified (in his opinion) named woman of taking part in the appointment of another less-qualified (in his opinion) named woman to a job that he had applied for. The successful candidate was in the audience to hear his insulting attack.4

Strumia’s fellow physicists were quick to condemn his behaviour in a statement signed by over 200 particle physicists (PP) and endorsed by some 3000 other physicists.5 On the relative abilities of men and women, they observe that “Strumia is not an expert on these topics and is misusing his physics credentials to put himself forward as one.” There was already a perfectly plausible explanation for the observed gender imbalance as the result of discouragement and discrimination. They also took apart his claims to greater qualification. One piece of evidence is his greater citation rate than the named women [this is to do with how many times a scientist’s published papers have been referred to in other papers]. But citation rate is not by itself proof of anything. Scientists work in groups so one citation of a paper benefits all authors equally. Strumia got nearly 17000 citations, about a third of his total, from a single CERN paper (on the discovery of the Higgs boson) of which he was one of 2872 authors. And the cited work may be wrong, as occurred with nine of Strumia’s CERN papers about a blip in the data which disappeared when more data were collected: the nearly 700 citations all count! 

Strumia claims that the likes of Marie Curie were not discriminated against so the rarity of female Nobel prize-winners reflects the rarity of talented women physicists. The PP statement points out that Curie was discriminated against, suffering sexism and xenophobia for a large part of her career. It also names four other women physicists who arguably deserved Nobel prizes: Chien-Shiung Wu, Vera Rubin, Lise Meitner, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. I can think of at least two more – Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Emmy Noether. The PP statement ends “we would also like to underline how grossly unethical it is to misrepresent the topic of one’s talk to promote an agenda which is antithetical to the workshop itself. To personally attack one of the organizers during said talk is even worse.”5 

It is clear that Strumia has done himself no favours: in addition to CERN’s action, Strumia’s home institution, the University of Pisa, has opened an investigation into “reported violations of the University Community fundamental values” and “contravention of academics’ code of conduct.”

However, there are no doubt many other physicists who feel the same way without trumpeting it – they simply fail to support or actively hinder women or minority groups in their physics careers. One notably absent voice in the fight for inclusion and diversity has been that of the trade unions. Despite policies favouring equality, they seem to have spoken out little on combating sexism in science.

1I have covered the activities of CERN before, particularly the discovery of the Higgs boson.





Glyphosate guilty? Not proven!

Glyphosate is guilty of causing cancer! Or is it? A jury in California decided that it caused the terminal cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a type of white-blood-cell cancer) in Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper who used RoundUp, a glyphosate-containing herbicide, in his work. However, what a jury decides ain’t necessarily so.

Is glyphosate carcinogenic? Not according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). However, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic,” Category 2A in its classification of substances and circumstances according to their likelihood of causing cancer (see table).* But so, according to IARC, are red meat, wood smoke, drinks hotter than 65C, working as a hairdresser, and mobile phones.

Now at least some of these may be carcinogenic but what is needed is evidence. In the case of mobiles, which emit non-ionising radiation and might be thought unlikely to harm anyone, IARC cited the results of experiments where rats were exposed to heroic doses of mobile-type radiation, way above those experienced by people, throughout their 2-year lives. The IARC overstated the case in labelling mobiles “probably carcinogenic,” where the truth is that most likely the risk is zero.

The situation is similar with glyphosate. The IARC actually found little evidence from studies of humans exposed to glyphosate and equivocal evidence from rats and mice given high doses. IARC say that glyphosate may cause NHL in humans: nothing of the sort was found in animals where a few completely different tumours were found. 

I looked at some of the studies for myself. There were few and the sample sizes were small. This means the results cannot be accounted as anything but weak evidence for an association between glyphosate and NHL, particularly since other studies show no link. Some studies passed the test of “statistical significance” but it is not generally understood that such results may still be false – “false positives.”

The IARC also claims that studies show evidence of genotoxicity (damage to chromosomes that might lead to cancer): if true, this would provide a mechanism by which glyphosate might cause NHL. However, its strongest evidence (from five regions in Colombia where glyphosate was sprayed onto illegal coca plantations) was contradictory. The authors concluded that “genotoxic damage associated with glyphosate spraying for control of illicit crops … is small and appears to be transient.”  

Another study took white blood cells from three (3!) healthy volunteers and grew them with glyphosate. There was some evidence of changes to chromosomes and to the metabolism of the cells but at the very least such studies need repeating in realistic settings with larger numbers and longer time scales. And it is not clear that such changes could result in NHL.

Environmentalist Mark Lynas accuses the IARC of ignoring key evidence and mysteriously deciding to increase its level of the estimated danger posed by glyphosate. In evidence given in another case against Monsanto brought by people alleging that their NHL was caused by glyphosate, epidemiologist Dr Aaron Blair, a leading member of the IARC working group, seems to accept that unpublished data from two big studies (Agricultural Health Study (AHS) and North American Pooled Project (NAPP)) did not establish a link between NHL and glyphosate and that animal experiments only show a possible link with some cancers (but not NHL). 

The IARC’s terms preclude it from considering unpublished data but this introduces a problem. It is more difficult to get research published which shows no effect than that which shows some effect. This is called publication bias. And Dr Blair accepted in court that the IARC did not have that information when it made its decision…and neither did any other regulatory agency. By coincidence, Dr Blair was actually aware of the unpublished data (but was precluded from telling IARC about it).

Other experts and interested parties, by no means supporters of Monsanto/Bayer, are sceptical of the verdict. Cancer Research UK says that the highest levels of glyphosate might increase the cancer risk but not the low levels experienced during normal use. Cancer epidemiologist Professor Paul Pharoah (University of Cambridge) says that some cited studies have serious design flaws and, if there was an effect, it would be very small. Others point out that glyphosate targets biochemical pathways only found in plants, and that it is quickly eliminated from the body if ingested or absorbed. The EPA says (December, 2017) that “glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” and poses no other risks to humans if used according to the instructions. The European Chemicals Agency and the EFSA agree, leaving the IARC on its own. At most, glyphosate should be classified Group 2B, “possibly carcinogenic.”

Dewayne Johnson’s terminal illness is a tragedy for him and his family but it has not been proved to have resulted from glyphosate. As Mark Lynas says, the evidence shows that glyphosate is extraordinarily safe and he points out that using glyphosate to kill weeds before crop-sowing reduces the need for tilling the soil, preventing soil erosion and loss of plant nutrients. He sees the attacks on Monsanto as linked to the unscientific demonising of genetic modification. Otherwise, campaigners against cancer would be targeting IARC Group 1 substances and circumstances which are carcinogens and trying to ban…bacon?!


Group 1 Carcinogenic to humans
Group 2A Probably carcinogenic to humans
Group 2B Possibly carcinogenic to humans
Group 3 Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans
Group 4 Probably not carcinogenic to humans


Intelligence and race: an example of racist science?


A recent article by Gavin Evans in The Guardian has drawn attention to a resurgence in the idea that race and intelligence are linked.1 These terms, though commonly used, are quite difficult to define…and for good reason. (see separate boxes below)

In the 19th century, despite the religious tradition that “God…hath made of one blood all nations of men,” it was axiomatic that there were different races with different abilities. Since European powers were dominant, “Caucasoid” (white) peoples were held superior. Other races were divided into Mongoloid (yellow), Malay (brown), American (red), and Negroid (black), in a hierarchy linked with the darkness of their skin.

For Darwin, the races were too similar not to have descended from a common ancestor but others held that the races had evolved separately. White slave-owners held their African slaves to be of a different, inferior, species which justified their enslavement. This idea that inferior races were liable to enslavement was unaltered by the fact of millions of white slaves being held by the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to 19th centuries, captured by Barbary pirates from as far north as Iceland.

Despite Darwin, as late as 1939, the prominent anthropologist Carleton S Coon divided people into Caucasoid, Congoid/Capoid, Mongoloid (including native Americans), and Australoid, believing them to be descended from different populations of Homo erectus, a view which some hold even now. Coon’s views were certainly of interest to those who believed in a hierarchy of races. However, another prominent anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (father of Ursula K Le Guin) actively opposed racist interpretations of human differences throughout his long career.

It is now accepted that Homo sapiens is one species with superficial differences in facial features, hair, eye and skin colours, and so on. Genes2 for these are distributed according to environmental factors such as temperature or sunlight. Other genes seem equally distributed and equally variable, with some exceptions, such as genes for lactose tolerance in dairy farming societies, genes for sickle cell trait in areas where malaria is prevalent, and genes for cystic fibrosis where tuberculosis is common. These genes have survival value in these environments.

However, this doesn’t stop some people asserting that there are genetic differences between ethnic groups which affect characteristics such as intelligence and tendencies to violence (e.g. alt-right hero Steve Bannon, fan of the Front National). DNA structure discoverer James Watson also strayed out of his field to assert that melanin was linked to libido.

There are appreciable differences in habitats occupied by different groups of humans, and in their cultures, but there is no evidence that humans of particular groups are genetically any more or less able to adapt to, act on, or alter their environments. The differences in the state of “advancement” of various human cultures already have an adequate explanation, as Jared Diamond says.3

Diamond, an expert on the birds of Papua New Guinea, was talking to a local politician who asked him “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Diamond rejected the simplistic explanation that different “races” had different levels of ability and looked instead at their different environments. He argues that indigenous New Guineans and Australians are probably more intelligent than the white colonists, despite their “stone age” technology, since they easily master advanced industrial technology when given the opportunity. Caucasians were simply luckier: their civilisation arose in an area where metals could be obtained, plants and animals suitable for domestication existed, and the resulting denser populations encouraged the development of resistance to disease.

All this begs the question of what intelligence is. (see box) It is often assumed that the complex abilities humans have to share ideas and work with each other to gain their living can be measured, not in real life tasks, but with pencil and paper! This has given rise to IQ testing which inevitably reflects middle class Caucasian culture. Diamond speaks of how “stupid” he felt in the company of New Guineans who could follow faint jungle trails or erect a shelter but who would fail dismally in an IQ test!

Early IQ testing led to theories about the intelligence of immigrants to the USA. Robert Yerkes’ tests, used to evaluate draftees in WW1, showed that southern and eastern European immigrants had lower IQs than native-born Americans; that Americans from the northern states scored higher than those from southern states; and that African Americans scored lower than White Americans. Some began to talk about a “Nordic” race as being the most intelligent.

Partly driven by revulsion at the Nazis’ racist policies, scientists began to recognise the unscientific nature of IQ testing, ignoring as it did environmental and cultural factors. However, anti-immigration, eugenics, and segregation lobbies continued to use IQ tests to support their theories. Modern racist theories of intelligence emerged some 60 years ago with arguments that genetic differences made it necessary to segregate black and white children in school. In the 1960s, transistor inventor (!) William Shockley claimed that black children were innately unable to learn as well as white ones and psychologist Arthur Jensen argued that it was pointless trying to improve education for black children as their genes were to blame for their poor attainment (rather than poverty, discrimination, racist violence, unemployment, poor housing, and worse schools).

Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) refined the race and intelligence theory to argue that poor, especially poor black, people were inherently less intelligent than White or Asian Americans. They argued for reducing immigration, against welfare policies that “encouraged” poor people to have babies and against affirmative action. More recent opponents of affirmative action include Jordan B Peterson and James Damore (author of the Google memo opposing inclusion and diversity policies).4 Damore’s is an interesting case. He argues that women are inherently less likely to excel in software engineering for biological (i.e. genetic) reasons but then argues for dropping all diversity and inclusion initiatives, including those for Black and Hispanic people. Logically, he must feel that they are also genetically unfitted for software engineering…

Intelligence is not what intelligence tests measure. Practising intelligence tests can improve one’s attainment (as can having a good breakfast!) but doesn’t necessarily mean that one is more “intelligent.” But even if intelligence was simply determined by genes, it would still be the case that people should be encouraged to fulfil their potential. I don’t normally agree with the CBI but, when they said recently that thoughts, questions, creativity and team-working were just as desirable outcomes of education as academic achievement, they referenced a wider and more humanly relevant concept of intelligence.

What is intelligence?
In Latin, intelligens means understanding and comes from inter (between, among) and legere (to choose, select or pick out, and later to read). An excellent definition of intelligence is “the ability to use what you have got to get what you want.”5 Modern dictionaries have subtly changed this: “The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (such as tests).”6 [my emphasis]

Thus, a general ability to understand one’s environment and manipulate it has become reduced to skill with abstract tests of certain abilities which produce a number. Other tests that produce numbers are to found in the educational system but, as the CBI recently complained, success in “exam factories” (i.e. schools) does not necessarily lead to success in work and life.

Are there genes for it?
Yes – human genes! We all share the vast majority of our genes and those genes give us our large (but not so large as Neanderthal) brains and they give us the ability to learn, which is key to mastery of our environments. But are there genes for the narrowly-defined intelligence which is measured by intelligence tests? No doubt! A studypublished in 2017 analysed the genomes of 78,000 people of European descent and identified up to 52 genes associated with a general intelligence factor, g (a measure that various IQ tests seem to share).

What this means is that these genes, which all humans possess, occur as two or more slightly different alleles:2 some alleles are associated with higher values of g, others with lower. Most of these genes seem to be involved in brain development or nerve functioning. There is a massive correlation between educational attainment and certain alleles but this is hardly surprising since intelligence tests measure the sort of knowledge and abilities taught in schools and tested in exams.

There are also moderate positive associations with brain volume, autism spectrum disorder, giving up smoking(!?), longevity… and moderate negative associations with Alzheimer’s disease, depressive symptoms, ever having smoked, schizophrenia, “neuroticism”… Other factors, such as BMI, insomnia, ADHD, have weaker negative links. These are modest conclusions, given the size of the study.

It would seem that knowledge of an individual’s genes would allow little to be predicted apart from educational attainment…but this can be found out anyway through the education process. It is difficult to see why this research has been done and what lessons it has.

Is there such a thing as race?
According to scientists, no.8 Neither of the biological concepts of race, genetically distinct or geographically isolated groups of a species, apply to humans. Svante Pääbo, an eminent evolutionary anthropologist, says “What the study of complete genomes … has shown is that even between Africa and Europe … there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.”

1Gavin Evans The unwelcome revival of race science.

2Genes occur in different forms called alleles. All humans have the same genes but the different forms (alleles) are present in differing proportions in different populations. However, there is no general pattern to these differing proportions that would support the idea of separate races.

3Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond (1997)


5David Adam in The Genius Within (2018)

6Merriam-Webster online

7Sniekers et al. Nature Genetics 2017;49(7):1107-12

8See and Biological races in humans

We’re here because we’re here: A Brief History of Time

I wrote this review in 1989 for the left-wing newspaper, Socialist Organiser. Unlike most other left journals of the time (and indeed today), SO felt it was important to be aware of scientific developments, as did our inspirers Marx. Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. SO’s successor Solidarity maintains this aim. 

In 1963, when he was a student, Stephen Hawking was told he had motor neurone disease and had possibly two years to live. Now, confined to a wheelchair, unable to move, breathing through a hole in his windpipe, communicating by computer and voice synthesiser, he is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.

It cannot have been easy for Hawking to build his career, even with the devoted help of his family, colleagues and students. Luckily, theoretical physics requires little equipment and much thought. Like Newton before him, Hawking is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. His major work has been to describe the appearance and behaviour of black holes.

And – a rare achievement for any scientist – Hawking has written a readable book about the origin of the universe, tackling the age-old questions: “Why is the universe the way it is?” And “Why are we here?”

Over the last 300 years, science has banished humanity from the centre of the universe to the sidelines. We live on a speck of dust orbiting round an average star near the edge of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million stars, surrounded by a hundred thousand million other galaxies. Was all this created just so we could exist?

Through the 20th Century, reality has become more and more weird. Light can only travel at one speed, which nothing else can reach; absolute time and speed do not exist; there are no simultaneous events; space-time is distorted by gravity so that straight lines do not exist; gravity and acceleration make clocks run slower and let radio-active particles live longer; matter and energy can be converted into each other; the universe is expanding and has a definite age; it started when all matter was concentrated at one point (a singularity) and then exploded in a ‘big bang.’

The list of strange truths does not end there. Energy comes in little packets called quanta, rather as matter does as particles; but both energy and matter can behave as waves; and we can never predict exactly how something will behave because we can never accurately know both its position and momentum.

Bizarre and disturbing though these facts are, they have all been identified as true many times, even down to the discovery of the echo of the Big Bang still reverberating round the universe as microwaves.

Hawking takes his readers through all these discoveries, including his own work on black holes. These are formed by the collapse of a large dying star under its own gravity. An astronaut on the surface of the star would be stretched like spaghetti by the colossal gravitational pull of the new black hole. Luckily, time would stand still at that moment.

Hawking has calculated that black holes are not really black. Though they crush matter out of existence, black holes radiate energy and are really a sort of cosmic recycling plant. The only equation included in the book, E = mc^2, exemplifies this conversion.

The story is leavened by humorous anecdotes or scenes from Hawking’s life. For instance, he describes how he met the Pope in 1981 at a Jesuit conference on the origin of the universe.
The Catholic Church had already, some 30 years earlier, accepted the Big Bang as being the same as the biblical moment of creation. The Pope sanctioned research into the evolution of the universe but not into the Big Bang itself since that was God’s work! Hawking had just given a talk denying the idea of a precise moment when the Big Bang had occurred.

This is Hawking’s particular contribution. He argues that the universe has a finite size but no boundaries, just like the surface of a ball but including time. But with no start to space-time there is no creation.

Some other physicists are eager to see the hand of God in determining the fundamental values of things, like the strength of gravity, so that intelligent life could evolve. If things like the charge and size of the electron, or the rate of expansion of the universe, had been even slightly different, life would not have been able to develop.Hawking argues, however, that things are as they are because, given the number of possible universes, one like this was most likely to result. Even less role for a creator!

Hawking ends by saying that a complete theory of everything would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for “then we would know the mind of God.” Since, up to there in the book, he had argued that there was little or no place for a creator, I can only assume he put the phrase in to sound good to reviewers.

That apart, I can’t praise the book highly enough. Read it!

Why we are here – Stephen Hawking’s take

This book review was written in 2010 for the paper Solidarity (for Workers’ Liberty). With the recent death of Stephen Hawking, I thought it was worth reminding readers of some of his popular books that explain difficult topics in physics. It was previously published in this blog as M-theory and “The Grand Design.”

Stephen Hawking’s latest [2010] popular work (The Grand Design, written with physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow) seeks to answer questions that many have asked:

• Why is there something, rather than nothing?

• Why do we exist?

Hawking and Mlodinow (H&M) also pose a question which potentially answers the first two:

• Why this particular set of laws and not some other?

The answer, say H&M, is to be found in M-theory.

The trivial answer to the last question is that, if the laws were different, we would not exist and would not be asking any questions. But the observed laws seem to be very finely tuned to allow matter to exist in extended forms, like atoms, molecules and us. This has been called the anthropic principle and, in its strongest form, has often been given as circumstantial evidence in favour of design, allowing god to slip back in after being excluded from all other observed processes.

H&M controversially argue for a strong anthropic principle: “The fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves”. However, their argument does not rely on a grand designer but on the possibilities inherent in M-theory.

M-theory (where M stands for membrane) is an attempt to unify all of the forces of nature into one overarching explanation, encompassing the very large and the very small. The reason for trying to do this is not just a love of orderly explanations but that previous unifying theories, that which unified the electric and magnetic forces in the 19th century, that which included quantum mechanics (quantum electrodynamics — QED) and that which unified the weak force with the electromagnetic (EM) force (the Standard Model) in the 20th century, led to enormous benefits. Promising attempts to unify the strong force with the EM and weak forces have been made (Grand Unified Theories — GUTs). M-theory is an example of a Theory of Everything (ToE) which aims to include the gravitational force.

Why the urge to unify or to build more inclusive theories? This sounds like the sort of “blue skies” research that politicians scorn, in favour of research with commercial benefits. However, the work of James Clerk Maxwell in the 19th century to uncover the relation between electric and magnetic fields, curiosity-driven, showed that electromagnetic fields spread through space at the speed of… light! Thus, light was an electromagnetic wave, which led to the discovery of radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, gamma rays, and to untold benefits in medicine and communication. It is quite reasonable (though not guaranteed!) that future unifying theories will lead to useful outcomes.

H&M’s approach leans heavily on the work of my favourite scientist, Richard Feynman, a profound thinker but also an engaging and playful character. You would be rewarded if you looked into his life (and perhaps watched clips of interviews with him on the BBC website).

Feynman worked on the science of the very small, where quantum effects rule. One example concerns the behaviour of light when it shines on two vertical narrow slits very close together. This gives rise, not to two vertical bars on a screen, but to a wide horizontal band of dark and light bars.

This has classically been explained by Thomas “Phenomenon” Young (1773-1829), another fascinating character, as the interference of the peaks and troughs of waves, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes cancelling each other, much as ripples in water do. This fatally wounded the particle theory of light held by Newton.

This commonsense explanation was however shown to be inadequate, not least by Einstein’s proof that light could act as particles, photons, in the photoelectric effect. Newton’s theory rose again Lazarus-like. More oddly (and contrary to Newton and indeed to common sense), faint beams of light consisting of single photons when shone on a double slit gradually reproduced, spot by spot, the interference pattern supposedly explained by wave behaviour.

The “solution” was to associate a probability wave with each photon so that where it ended up was essentially random but over time a distinct pattern emerged. It was as if each photon passed through both slits and the probabilities interfered with each other resulting in the detection of the photon at a particular place.

Theory predicted that matter particles would also have a probability wave associated with them and, sure enough electrons (and larger particles) behave in a similar way with a double slit — even single electrons interfere with themselves (this experiment was voted the most beautiful experiment in physics in 2002)!

Feynman’s explanation is that the system, in this case the single electron/double slit/screen system, has not just one but every history. The particles take every possible path on their way from the source to the screen — simultaneously! Furthermore, our observations of the particles go back into their past and influence the paths they take.

If, like me, you’re going “What?”, you’re in distinguished company: Feynman himself said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. Nevertheless, the theory has passed every test.

Lots of people are unhappy with the implication that someone has to be looking before a quantum process is “forced” to arrive at a particular outcome — and yet this has been confirmed by many experiments. It actually is the case that the outcome is influenced by the process of measurement or detection (though this need not be a conscious process).

This sort of crazy quantum behaviour obeys strict laws. Laws of nature are not like human laws which seek to encourage certain preferred behaviours. They explain how things behave and how they can behave. The laws of modern physics, including the modern understanding of gravity, explain an incredible range of observations to incredible precision and have made amazing predictions which have almost entirely been borne out. H&M pose more fundamental questions, including “Is there only one set of possible laws?”

The laws are, needless to say, not entirely known. While three of the four forces of nature, the electromagnetic, weak and strong forces, have provisionally been united in the “standard model”, crucially gravity still needs to be integrated into the picture. This what M-theory, incorporating string theory and supergravity, seeks to do. One of its startling predictions is that there are 10 space dimensions and one time dimension, in contrast with our everyday experience of three space dimensions and one time. The unobserved dimensions are rolled up very small, so that particles are actually vibrating strings or membranes.

M-theory does not predict the exact laws observed. These depend on how the extra dimensions are “rolled up”. A great many universes are possible, some 10*500 or 1 followed by 500 zeroes, each with a different combination of fundamental constants, and it is not surprising that we exist in one where the constants are compatible with the evolution of life. The “apparent miracle” is explained.

H&M point out that the law of gravity is not incompatible with the emergence of a universe “from nothing”. In particular, the principle of conservation of energy is not violated (because, while matter energy is positive, gravitational energy is negative) and, at least in quantum mechanics, what is not forbidden is compulsory. Furthermore, with a wide range of possible sets of constants, some (at least one!) universes must come into existence in which life can evolve.

And here, without the need for a creator, we are!

The Bolsheviks, Stalin and Science

In the discussions prompted by centenary of the first workers’ government, little has been said about the Bolsheviks and their science policies. This series of blogs about Marxism, the Bolsheviks, Stalin, and science draws, amongst other sources, on Simon Ings’ recent book Stalin and the Scientists,1 Douglas R Weiner’s book Models of Nature,2 and Loren R Graham’s Lysenko’s Ghost.3

No previous government in history was so openly and energetically in favor of science. …[it] saw the natural sciences as the answer to both the spiritual and physical problems of Russia” (Graham quoted).1

An individual scientist may not at all be concerned with the practical application of his research. The wider his scope, the bolder his flight, the greater his freedom from practical daily necessity in his mental operations, all the better” (Trotsky).4

Russia before the Bolshevik revolution was an unpromising prospect for the anti-capitalist movement. Atop the underdeveloped mainly agrarian base, lately emerged from feudalism, and a small urban working class, sat a tiny superstructure of art and science. This included people of world renown (composers such as Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev; authors such as Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky, Mayakovsky; artists such as Repin, Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich; other creatives such as Diaghilev, Fokine, Nijinsky, Pavlova) but relatively few scientists (such as Borodin (the same!), Mendeleev, Pavlov, Tsiolkovsky, Kovalevskaya, Kropotkin). Quite a few of these were as avant garde as any foreign contemporaries: for example, Pavlov and Metchnikoff received Nobel Prizes for Medicine in 1904 and 1908 (and Mendeleev should have got it for Chemistry).

The problem facing the Bolsheviks was an economically and socially backward country: a tiny working class; a multitudinous peasantry; a legacy of Tsarist repression; colossal war losses (3 million deaths from all causes; 4 million wounded). Isolated, the Soviet state fought against the White counter-revolutionaries, aided by 170,000-plus foreign soldiers; agricultural and industrial production collapsed, as did civil society (millions of orphans left wandering); famine and disease were rife (5 million died in the Volga famine of 1921-2, after crop failures; 3 million died of typhus in 1920 alone).

This is the background for Ings’ history of post-revolution science,1 Weiner’s book about the conservation movement in the USSR,2 and Graham’s book about the notorious Lysenko chapter in genetics.3

As Marxists, the Bolsheviks were very pro-science.5 Looking back in 1925, Trotsky summed up the best aspects of the Bolsheviks’ attitude: “The new state, a new society based on the laws of the October Revolution, takes possession triumphantly – before the eyes of the whole world – of the cultural heritage of the past.” On the independence of science from imposed political goals, he said “Only classes that have outlived themselves need to give science a goal incompatible with its intrinsic nature. Toiling classes do not need an adaptation of scientific laws to previously formulated theses.”4 He had in mind capitalist societies but his words apply equally to the Stalinist reaction soon to destroy the gains of 1917.

Trotsky explicitly accepted the heritage of the natural sciences: “The need to know nature is imposed upon men by their need to subordinate nature to themselves. Any digressions in this sphere from objective relationships, which are determined by the properties of matter itself, are corrected by practical experience. This alone seriously guarantees natural sciences, chemical research in particular, from intentional, unintentional, or semi-deliberate distortions, misinterpretations, and falsifications.”4 Trotsky had not counted on the fraudulent exaggerations or falsifications of “practical experience” by such as Lysenko, whose theories had the endorsement of Stalin himself, and the persecution even unto death of those who stood for scientific knowledge.

The Bolsheviks acted quickly to protect the environment as an important resource to be used to build socialism, rather than to be squandered for short term needs.6 This approach was followed in other fields but the nature of the government changed with the privations of the civil war, the early death of Lenin, and increasing bureaucratisation, culminating in Stalin’s domination. As Ings observes, “Leaders, politicians and bureaucrats have their hobby horses, of course. The problems start only when these people assume for themselves an expertise they do not possess, when they impose their hobby horses on the state by fiat. The Bolshevik tragedy was that, in donning the mantle of scientific government, the Party’s leaders felt entitled [even obliged] to do this.”

Ultimately, it was Stalin alone who was in a position to impose his hobby horses, or rather of those scientists he favoured. This was most egregious in the area of agriculture and genetics.7 Immediately after the revolution, however, the Bolsheviks found that many of the existing scientific establishment were willing to work with them, exemplified by the (Imperial) Academy of Sciences which, as early as the end of 1917, offered to aid “state construction.” However, organised scientific work was fairly impossible until the civil war and the ensuing famine caused by drought and crop failures in 1921-2 were over.

Gradually, scientists began to organise and reorganise. Scientific supplies, and even food and fuel, were scarce and scientists used cunning and ingenuity to collect equipment. Pavlov, for example, grew his own vegetables but lacked food for his experimental dogs.

The All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation was founded in 1924 and the movement had much success in setting up and running nature reserves with scientific goals of understanding the ecology of the Soviet Union. With Stalin’s “Great Break,” the 1929 turn towards building “socialism in one country,” the attitude towards science and nature began to change. By the early ‘30s, and the claimed completion of the first Five-Year Plan, the author Gorky, an enthusiast for Stalin’s rapid industrialisation, could describe nature not as something to be understood but as an “enemy standing in our way…our main foe.” This meant that nature, in particular the nature reserves, had to yield to the exploitation and pollution that accompanied canal and dam building, the steel plant construction, and the expansion of agricultural land.6

The Russian Association of Physicists was set up in 1925, later to produce Nobel Prizewinners such as Landau and Kapitsa. Many physicists were mentored by Sergei I Vavilov, whose brother Nikolai would become the most prominent victim of Stalin’s meddling in genetics.7 The emigré Cambridge physicist Peter/Pyotr Kapitsa, who was virtually kidnapped during a family visit to Russia, was another leading mentor. Despite Stalin’s doctrinaire rejection of Einstein’s theories, Russian physicists were successful in catching up with the USA in developing first an atom bomb and then a hydrogen bomb from 1944 on.8

Stalin’s purges affected science greatly, particularly when scientists defended science against Stalin’s mistaken theories. Many dedicated scientists were imprisoned or shot (or died of maltreatment) as “wreckers”, “terrorists”, or “foreign agents”. Ideological commitment to socialism was not a defence. Three out of eight Soviet delegates to the Second International Congress of the History of Science, Bukharin, Hessen and Vavilov, were shot or died in prison, while a fourth, Ernst Kol’man, though a Stalin supporter, was imprisoned for non-science reasons.9

After the death of Stalin, the worst ideological influences were relaxed or removed, but the attitude towards science and nature as something to be directed did not entirely change. This led to the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea and nuclear contamination in the Urals, while Lysenko gained the ear of Khrushchov, suggesting one unsuccessful agricultural venture after another. The top-down approach essentially continued until the end of the USSR.

Stalin’s worst errors were also repeated in Mao’s China in the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958-62). One particular episode epitomises the contempt of the Chinese Stalinists for science. The Four Pests Campaign focused on killing sparrows which the bureaucrats blamed for eating grain. In fact, as any ecologist could have testified, they also ate a lot of insects. With the sparrows largely eradicated, locust populations burgeoned. The “backyard steel furnaces” fiasco resulted in deforestation for fuel with the production of worthless low-grade pig iron. Mao lacked any knowledge of metallurgy and the experts who might have advised him were either in labour camps or cowed by the experience of the “Hundred Flowers Campaign.” The environmental damage and disruption of rural life caused by the Great Leap resulted in upwards of 30 million famine and other deaths.

This series of articles will cover Marxists’ attitudes to the natural sciences, physics in Russia, nature conservation, and Stalin’s deformation of genetics.

1Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 2016.
2Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, 1988.
3Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia, 2016
4Trotsky, Dialectical Materialism and Science, in Problems of Everyday Life (1925)
5See forthcoming article on the attitudes of Marxists to science
6See forthcoming article on nature and environment
7See forthcoming article about agriculture and genetics
8See forthcoming article about Soviet physics
9Science at the Cross Roads (1931/1971) comprises the contributions of the Soviet delegates.

Taking back control (of our units)

As I was perusing Physics World1 earlier this year, I revisited an article by physicist John Powell2 (author of How Music Works and Why We Love Music) in which he proposed, in view of recent triumphs of populism, replacement populist units of measurement.

Of course, in the UK we could simply reinstate feet, pounds and hours (instead of the horrid European metres, kilograms and seconds), while in the US they have never gone away.
For Powell this would be too simple. He proposes furlongs, hundredweights and fortnights, on the rather contrived grounds that horse-racing is popular (measured in furlongs), as are holidays lasting a fortnight. He glosses over the choice of the hundredweight but, of course, this would reduce fat-shaming since nearly everyone’s weight would fall into the range of 1 to 3 cwt.

Elsewhere, a unit of the firkin (90lb) has been proposed, leading to the FFF system. Following the French revolution, times based on the day were proposed: the centi-jour would have been about 14 minutes.
Various constants of nature would have to be converted: Powell points out that the acceleration due to gravity, 9.8 metres per second squared, would be 71 gigafurlongs per fortnight squared. The speed of light in vacuo would be 1.8 terafurlongs per fortnight. Buying food would be awkward in hundredweights but I think this could be sorted with the division of the hundredweight into a hundred … weights! A weight of potatoes would be a bit over a pound or half a kilo.
Powell remarks that it would be popular for pi to have an exact value of, say, 3 as this would greatly simplify calculations of circular areas and so on. This reminds me that this value is implied in the Bible: I Kings 7:23-26 refers to a circular cauldron in Solomon’s temple with a diameter of 10 cubits and a circumference of 30 cubits. Now, as any fule kno, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle is pi (3.14 approx.) while 30/10 = 3. I am shocked (SHOCKED!) to find that the Bible literalists have almost entirely disregarded the word of God in this matter (though at least one person has addressed this problem and explained it away with a lot of assumptions that would have been unnecessary if the word “approximately” had been in the vocabulary of God).3

This reminds me of the sadly apocryphal stories of attempts to legislate more convenient values for pi in, of course, the USA. In one of these, in 19th Century Iowa, a legislator suggested that pi be defined as 3 to make things easier but the suggestion was quickly quashed in committee.
A more serious proposal originated with Edwin J Goodwin, an Indianan physician and amateur mathematician. In 1894, he believed that he had solved three ancient and unsolved problems in mathematics, namely squaring the circle, doubling the cube and trisecting the angle, using only a straightedge and compasses. His belief was not affected by the proof in 1882 that squaring the circle was impossible, confirming its proverbial meaning of attempting the impossible stretching back to at least 414BCE in The Birds by Aristophanes.
Goodwin persuaded the Indiana legislature to adopt his ideas in Engrossed Bill No. 246,4 generously allowing them to use his methods in state textbooks without charge, and it sailed through committee and the lower house before attracting criticism from a passing mathematics professor, who persuaded members of the Senate not to pass the bill. Section 2 of the bill states “the ratio of the diameter and circumference [of a circle] is as five-fourths to four.” This means that pi = 4/1.25 = 3.2 exactly, which it most definitely doesn’t (it’s about 2% less).

Monthly journal of the Institute of Physics and, together with Chemistry World (ditto of the Royal Society of Chemistry), my favourite reading.
Lateral Thoughts: Hail to the new, popular, units. (April 2017, p52)