M.F. Perutz

M.F. Perutz was a molecular biologist and Nobel Prizewinner, best known for his work on the structure and mechanism of haemoglobin, the protein of the red blood cells. He died in 2002.

Diary: Memories of J.D.Bernal

M.F. Perutz, 6 July 2000

In 1936, after four years of chemistry at Vienna University, I took the train to Cambridge to seek out the Great Sage, and asked him: ‘How can I solve the riddle of life?’ ‘The riddle of life is in the structure of proteins,’ he replied, ‘and it can be solved only by X-ray crystallography.’ The Great Sage was John Desmond Bernal, a flamboyant Irishman with a mane of fair hair, crumpled flannel trousers and a tweed jacket. We called him Sage, because he knew everything, from physics to the history of art. Knowledge poured from him as from a fountain, unselfconsciously, vividly, without showing off, on any subject under the sun. His enthusiasm for science was unbounded.‘

War on Heisenberg

M.F. Perutz, 18 November 1993

Did the German physicists make no atomic bombs during the Second World War because they wouldn’t or because they couldn’t? This is the question which Powers addresses in his extensive study of German atomic research: a question finally answered by the recent publication of the secretly recorded conversations between Heisenberg and the other German atomic physicists interned at Farm Hall, near Huntingdon, in the summer of 1945.

Dangerous Misprints

M.F. Perutz, 26 September 1991

We are now within reach of being able to map all the genes on the human chromosomes, some hundred thousand of them maybe, and to decipher all the genetic information that defines a human being. This will include its sex, the chemistry of its body and its predisposition to a variety of diseases, but not, at least not yet, its personality. All this information is laid down in the human germ cells. Each of them contains 46 chromosomes, worm-like objects only just visible under a good light microscope. Each chromosome is made up of two chains of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA for short, combined with protein. Along these chains, the genes are spread out in a linear order. A complete genetic map might tell us, for example, that the gene for little Johnny’s brown eyes is number 1349 on chromosome 23, but it would not explain why Johnny tells so many lies. So what use would that map be to you and me? Not much, as long as we keep in good health, but many serious scientists believe that such a map would be of signal benefit to medicine. On the other hand, it would also face us with formidable new moral, social, financial and legal problems. This book recounts some of the scientific adventures that brought the Genome Project into being and presents the cases for and against it, but without attempting any judgment about their relative merits.

Patriotic Work

M.F. Perutz, 27 September 1990

This book betrays two very different Sakharovs who hardly seem to have communicated with each other. The first was the cold-blooded inventor of the Russian hydrogen bombs; the second was the fearless leader of the Russian intelligentsia’s struggle for human rights. For twenty years, from 1948 until his dismissal in 1968, Sakharov masterminded the scientific groundwork for the development and perfection of ever more lethal atomic weapons, blindly and obsessively absorbed in work that he describes as a theoretician’s paradise. His inventive genius was rewarded by election to full membership of the Academy of Sciences at the unprecedented age of 32, and by being decorated three times with the gold medal of Hero of Socialist Labour. In 1962, he attended a banquet in the Kremlin, seated between Khrushchev and Brezhnev who hugged him in front of the entire Politburo and Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, to thank him for his patriotic work, ‘which was helping to prevent a new war’. This work was the design of a new ‘improved’ hydrogen bomb of unprecedented power. There is no sign that the second Sakharov, once he had realised the true nature of Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s regimes, ever asked whether it was wise to put these terrible weapons of mass destruction into their hands. Or what need there was to develop these weapons.

Spying made easy

M.F. Perutz, 25 June 1987

On 10 September 1949 Michael Perrin, one of the heads of the British Atomic Energy Programme, was woken up by an urgent telephone call asking him to come to the communications room at the US Embassy in London. There his opposite number in the Pentagon asked that an RAF plane be sent to the upper atmosphere to check radioactivity detected by the US Air Force that appeared to signal a Soviet atomic explosion. The public confirmation of this momentous event stunned us. We had believed that Stalin first heard about the American atomic bomb from President Truman at the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, and we could not understand how the Russians had been able to overcome the formidable scientific and technical hurdles involved in the construction of the bomb in no more time than that taken by the cream of European and American physicists who started in early 1941 and exploded the first bomb in July 1945.

German Scientist

M.F. Perutz, 8 January 1987

The dilemmas referred to in the title of this book were those faced by a leading German scientist who believed in his country right or wrong even when that country became the embodiment of evil. Max Planck is famous to this day for his introduction of the quantum theory. He was born in 1858 in Kiel, which was then part of Denmark. One of his formative memories was the triumphant entry in 1864 of Bismarck’s Prussian troops, which recovered the province of Schleswig-Holstein and united it with Prussia. His elder brother’s death in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 ‘made him feel at one with the heroes who sealed their true love for the fatherland with their own blood’. They were noble sentiments in those days. At school in Munich – his father was a professor of law at the University – he nearly always earned the annual prize for religion and good behaviour. His teachers described him as conscientious, open, cheerful, gifted in all subjects, especially mathematics, yet modest and popular with his classmates. He was also intensely musical and had absolute pitch. He wondered whether to study Classics, music or physics and finally opted for the latter, even though a leading physicist advised him that there was nothing significant left to be discovered in that subject. Planck found nothing to rebel against until he was over forty when the dogged pursuit of a vital physical problem led him, almost against his will, to make a revolutionary discovery.’

Science and the Stars

M.F. Perutz, 6 June 1985

Medawar presents an erudite and entertaining account of the limits of science, or mostly the lack of them, as perceived by great thinkers from Francis Bacon to Karl Popper and himself. His arguments are couched in largely epistemological terms which do not arouse my passions, but they stimulated me to think about those limits that affect laymen’s attitudes to science, about the practical limits scientists face in their everyday research, and laymen in their daily lives, and about the limits that affect industrial and public policy.

Lab Lib

M.F. Perutz, 19 April 1984

Rutherford was one of my early heroes, and Wilson’s biography of this great and lovable man has enlivened and enlarged, rather than debunked, my youthful image. Rutherford was the man who created the atomic age: a farmer’s boy from New Zealand whose brilliance and Herculean energy brought him the Presidency of the Royal Society, a peerage, and honours from all over the world. Wilson goes a long way to tracing the mental paths and the passionate curiosity that led Rutherford to his great discoveries. He paints a picture of a towering, boisterous, stunningly able, outgoing, cheerful, irascible, good-natured, generous and compassionate man who delights above all in the pursuit of experimental physics and feels sorry ‘for the poor chaps who haven’t got labs to work in’.

True Science

M.F. Perutz, 19 March 1981

This is a guide book to the scientific scene, full of urbane wisdom, happy phrases and entertaining examples. ‘How can I tell if I am cut out to be a scientist?’ Medawar asks. He dismisses curiosity (it killed the cat) and suggests that scientists need something for which ‘exploratory impulsion’ is not too grand a name. But what about delight and wonder at the works of nature? Without these you might as well join Scotland Yard instead. What else draws people into science? It seems to me that, just as the Church did in former times, science offers a safe niche where you can spend a quiet life classifying spiders, away from what E.M. Forster called the world of telegrams and anger. To the ambitious poor, science offers a way to fame or reasonable wealth that needs no starting capital other than good brains and prodigious energy.


Daniel Kevles, 17 August 1989

In 1944, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who had earned a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the invention of quantum mechanics, published What is life?, a remarkable book in which he...

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