This year I’ll be helping judge the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction. Radio 4 presenter Martha Kearney will chair the panel. Fellow judges are professor and author Shahidha Bari, New Statesmen writer Leo Robson, New York Times editor Max Strasser and journalist and author Bee Wilson. The winner will be announced on Thursday 19 November.
The Smoke went through the usual chaotic process of reinvention as I got more and more interested in why I wanted to do this project in the first place. And it can be best summed up by a WhatsApp message I sent to someone the other day as I came out of King’s Cross Station: IT’S THE FUTURE AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND…
Stereo recordings, Imax movies, Steam-generated games: for over a century we’ve relied on innovations in media to deliver us a taste of the sublime. As the pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”
But even if that was true in 1939, I’m not sure it’s true any longer — not now we live enmired in media, and, indeed, have to make special efforts to escape them.
For me, 2017 ended with a couple of little disappointments both involving virtual reality.
Having wandered disembodied around Amedeo Modigliani’s “Ochre Atelier“ (an international curatorial effort which took five months to construct) I left London’s Tate Modern feeling as though I’d been transported, not to Paris, but to some Pixar-driven studio circa 1995. Virtual environments can actually render grit, dirt and water stains to a high creepiness level — but not on the sort of budget the Tate can command. The Ochre Atelier was a cartoon.
Not long after, I was prevented from wandering around Yinka Shonibare’s reconfigured, virtual version of the “Townley Venus” at the Royal Academy. The invigilator had saved me from walking into a wall, but I stalked out of that overclean, over-smooth virtual interior convinced that current museum technology can only insulate us from the sublime and the beautiful.
The technologies of digital reproduction are doing to objects exactly what they have done for books and music. They’re are making everything simultaneously accessible and boring.
A misplaced compulsion to entertain is only part of this story, and not the most interesting part. For cultural institutions, the chief promise of digital is its ability to reproduce and preserve. The effort to copy and disseminate objects of antiquity is both venerable and important. Indeed Mari Lending’s new book, Plaster Monuments: Architecture and the Power of Reproduction, reveals the role of casting in preserving entire architectural epochs. She recounts how in 1857 and on a visit to the Paris International Exhibition, the V&A’s first director Henry Cole persuaded 15 European princes to sign up to an ‘International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art’.
In Cole’s day, the technologies of reproduction consisted of photography, electrotyping and plastercasting. Casting, alas, proved far more damaging than was at first realised. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the former circus strongman who conveyed the 7-ton bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II out of Luxor (it’s now in the British Museum) was no vandal, but he still managed to to take all the paint off when he cast the figure of Anubis in the tomb of Seti I, in the Valley of the Kings.
Worse followed: Belzoni’s facsimile of Seti’s tomb, shown at the Egyptian Halls in London in 1821, was one of several events that led Thomas Cook to form his travel agency. This in turn triggered arguably history’s greatest cultural catastrophe, since tourism is predicated on the idea that original objects, buildings and places can be made more or less universally accessible. Suddenly the traces of past ages were fixed in place, and people travelled to them. The damage Belzoni did to the tomb of Seti I pales in comparison to the wholesale dilapidation visitors have visited upon the entire complex at Luxor.
Many heritage sites are now permanently closed. Those wanting to explore Seti’s 3,300-year-old tomb will have to make do with a trip to Basel and a 100-micron-resolution facsimile of two chambers, courtesy of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative. This project, run by Factum Foundation in collaboration with the University of Basel and under contract to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, is embarked on nothing less than the wholesale recreation of the treasures of the Valley of the Kings.
Multi-spectral composite photography; 3D scanning; additive 3D printing; high-resolution CNC routing: the technologies employed and built from scratch by the technicians and artisans of “digital mediators” Factum Arte allow us to copy originals without ever touching them. But there is something kitschy about Seti’s immaculate new e-tomb: what it has gained in freshness, it has lost in dignity.
Similarly when I visited the RA, though I enjoyed the way Shonibare had repurposed the Roman Venus statue, I found its VR setting (based on a Gavin Hamilton painting) profoundly dispiriting. he hadn’t just brought an old painting to life. He’d done something far worse. He’d cleaned it up. He’d made it good as new.
The eighteenth-century culture in which Belzoni operated – doing an honest but far from perfect job of reproducing the treasures of his day — can, I think, point us in a healthier direction.
Belzoni’s was a world where no one worried much when a nose or a leg fell off an old statue. They simply patched them up. This honourable practice goes back at least as far as the 16th-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who argued that the ravaged sculptures of antiquity ”were screaming for his help”.
The poster-child of that era (at least for Londoners, who can visit the museum he made of his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) is the architect Sir John Soane. Soane, born 1753, once grubbed up the garden of Pitzhanger, his country manor, to plant imaginary ruins. This was not (or not entirely) a Romantic indulgence. He used them mostly to tease antiquarians. He would take shards and fashion them into whole items, not willy-nilly, but on the basis of diligent study and educated taste. He knew the past was gone, and approximations were necessary. Lacking today’s precision instruments and the over-weaning, millennial rhetoric that accompanies them, he never once imagined that the past could be entirely recouped, or that the present moment might be made to last forever. One design for his Bank of England (a masterpiece now largely destroyed) showed how it would look in ruins.
Soane was rather fond of imagining what posterity might make of his museum. In 1812, and in the voice of an archaeologist of the future, he wrote:
“It is difficult to determine for what purposes such a strange and mixed assemblage of ancient works or rather [plaster] copies of them, for many are not of stone or marble, have been brought together…”
Not every young man could afford a Grand Tour of Europe. Soane considered his collection of copies the next best thing. He was right.
It was the stubborn whiteness of plastercasts, perhaps, the lack of an accurate means of coloration, not to mention a growing awareness of the damage being done by even the most careful copying — that saved Soane and his generation from imagining that they could render objects as they had been at their moment of completion.
Today we are armed with technology that can copy the surface appearance and even some of the structural elements of originals to perfection, or as close to perfection as makes no odds. This inadvertently puts us in the position of Lord Duveen, the British art dealer who, believing that authenticity was but a bathtime away, saw to the scrubbing of the Elgin Marbles. Nor was he the first restorer to kill through kindness. Writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were already complaining about this sort of thing in 1851, after seeing a newly cleaned Rubens: “It is,” they wrote, “like a piece of music from which all the half-tones have been removed: everything screams and bellows like earthenware gone mad.”
Nothing material will be damaged by today’s digital scrubbing — indeed, much valuable information will be uncovered and saved. But if we think that returning objects to their pristine state brings us closer to an authentic view of the past, then we are seriously short-changing our imaginations.
Soane and his fellows knew what we affect to deny: that time is real, and that everything ages and crumbles and dies. That’s why they considered art even more important than artworks.
As he reflected on the potential of scanning and 3D printing, Tristram Hunt, the current director of the V&A, pointed out in a recent article that “the lost artefacts of the ancient past have never felt more tangible, and less controllable.” Factum Arte founder Adam Lowe goes further. In the future, he says, we will handle each object “like an interpretation of a musical score. There will be different performances of the same object. They can be compared, discussed and understood.”
I would like to think the future will be full of John Soanes as, with a clear conscience, we start patching together bits of the past into new objects: not at random, not out of mischief, but as Soane and his contemporaries did — out of an imaginative engagement with a past we accept is irretrievably lost.
Prince Hamlet of Denmark is out to revenge his father – at least, that’s the idea. But William Shakespeare has saddled him with a girlfriend, Ophelia, and her father Polonius, an interfering old fool. A Pantalone, in other words: a man (by tradition, but the gender’s immaterial) who is losing his grip on affairs of which he was once the master. With age, the Pantalone’s sphere of action and influence becomes comically reduced. What was once a voice of authority has become a bark of comic impotence.
I’m at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock) is playing the prince, but it’s Polonius has me fascinated. The British character actor Peter Wight isn’t playing him for a fool, but as someone suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s. His mood swings wildly about, his silences are painful, his recollections pathetic victories snatched against the coming dark.
Wight’s portrayal is meticulous, sincere, and timely. Old age may not be a disease but it’s certainly a genetic condition, and one by one, elements of that condition are succumbing to medical research. This has had the disconcerting effect of curing all the easy diseases in order that we may bankrupt ourselves treating the recalcitrant ones. Rates of terminal cancer have plummeted, only to expose us to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
It looks like we’re all going to live to 100 before we drop dead. This pleases me, because I want to become the character described by the Athenian lawyer Solon 2,600 years ago: “so wise that he no longer wastes time on useless things, and this enables him to formulate his profoundest insights most succinctly.”
The trouble is that only a couple of hundred years after Solon, Aristotle came up with this charming formula: the old, he said, live by memory rather than by hope. Sure they have a lot of experience, but this means they are sure about nothing and under-do everything. They are small-minded because they have been humbled by life. As a result, they are driven too much by the useful and not enough by the noble. They are cynical and distrustful and neither love warmly nor hate bitterly. They are not shy. On the contrary, they’re shameless, feeling only contempt for people’s opinion of them.
Aristotle knew what a pantalone was, and he knew that being a pantalone was nothing to do with disease or infirmity. It was, and is, to do with the passing of time.
By the time I’m a hale and hearty 100, what kind of monster will I have become? Always voting the way I’ve voted; always writing the same kind of novel about the same kind of people using the same kind of dialogue; always dating the same kinds of people and always messing them up in the same sorts of ways; bringing up the same kinds of children and saddling them with the same hang-ups.
Would I want to live for ever? Probably. I just wouldn’t want to remain human forever. I don’t want to be “better than human” or “superhuman” or any of that rubbish (what does that even mean?) What I want is simple and, thanks to the passage of time, quite impossible. I want to be not bored. I want to be not burdened by experience. I want to be unfazed by life.
I realise now that I don’t know nearly enough about how other animals think. I need to read more Sy Montgomery. I need to read Marc Bekoff and John Bradshaw. I need to know what my options are, just in case the triumphant effort to healthify old age tips suddenly towards affording us everlasting life.
My best bet right now is the cockatoo. If you treat a cockatoo properly, it’ll stay a three-year-old child forever – and that’s a long time: cockatoos live into their sixties.
Don’t let me be a pompous ass, a fussy, fond old fool. Don’t make me a gull, a mark, a slippered pantalone. Let me become something else, something less than human if needs be, but better adapted to forever.
Who’s a pretty boy then?
We imagine things before we make them, from spacecraft to smartphones – and designers often turn artists’ imaginings of the future into our everyday reality. So who’s in charge?
At least, I will be on 29 June when I herd Matt Smith (editor of 2000 AD) spaceflight expert Piers Bizony and architect Liam Young into London’s Barbican Centre for a session called The Dreamer’s Club. Fun and games begin at 7.30pm. Details and tickets here.
As I write, President Donald Trump has just accused former incumbent Barack Obama of having tapped his campaign phones during the 2016 election season. I doubt very much whether this will be a major issue by the time these words are read. Most likely it’ll have been overtaken by “FAKED” nuclear exchanges over the South China Sea.
Kleptocracy moves faster than ordinary politics. Across the media, opinion writers are having to learn how to think like crime reporters. It’s frightening, but undeniably exhilarating.
Old forms of civic engagement seem hardly relevant now. On April 22, scientists will gather across the world to protest the Trump administration’s de facto dismantling of the EPA, veiled threats directed at programs of vaccination, cuts in NASA’s climate-studies funding, and any number of other depredations. All very noble, to protest this outrage, and necessary in its way. But the rest of us might just as easily marvel at the alacrity and efficiency with which groups of suddenly vulnerable people round themselves up. The spectacle of well-educated people congratulating themselves on their effortless (because sacrifice-free) “intersectionality”, while at the same time complaining about their job security, is unlikely to prove particularly edifying, least of all since the “cosmopolitanism” so necessary to science (I mean devotion to an idea or ideas bigger than the nation state) is rapidly becoming synonymous with disloyalty.
The March for Science was conceived on a Reddit forum as recently as 20 January, yet we already find ourselves operating at an entirely different level of discourse. Science illumines small, detailed corners of the world, but it’s the entire reality of that world that’s under threat now. We are dealing with an administration that, when not lost in the toils of its own mythomania, will quibble over what is even in plain sight.
Studying an existential crisis of this magnitude requires no scientific apparatus. Consider this classic bullet-through-the-foot statement from Trump aide Myron Ebell: “We will be ceding global leadership of climate policy to China,” Ebell said on 1 February. “I want to get rid of global climate policy, so why do I care who is in charge of it? I don’t care. They can take it as far as I’m concerned, and good luck to them.” 
Well, really, who needs luck? Knowing what climate change is, what causes it, and what needs to be done about it is — among many other things — a recipe for printing money, which is why China, the world’s fastest-growing green economy, just invested $360 billion into renewable energy production. US industries either innovate to address the carbon problem, or they join the tobacco companies in the shadowlands of lobbying, litigation, and spin: not quite dead, but no longer really alive.
The default Trump position on America’s scientific institutions is that they have become blunt weapons in the service of an over-centralised state. We know what this would look like were it true (and how far it actually is from American reality) when we look at Stalin’s Russia. Genetics was banned in Russia in 1948 — its institutions destroyed, careers truncated, individuals sacked and internally exiled — because the findings of genetics flatly contradicted promising but badly flawed state-sponsored agricultural trials of new crop varieties. If new varieties could be generated at will (and genetics said they couldn’t), then the countryside could be industrialised overnight, speeding the development of the Soviet Union towards communism within a single generation. The state had ambitions for science and, centralising its efforts around a handful of top-heavy institutions, ensured that those ambitions drowned out the very findings it had paid to obtain.
When climate change-denying Republicans invoke the bogeyman of overpaid lackey climatologists working to a misguided, politically motivated programme, they’re not pointing at nothing. Indeed, they’re pointing at what happened to the largest and best-funded science base in history. The problem is that theirs is an argument from analogy. Which is to say, no argument at all. Flim-flam, if you prefer.
It hardly matters now. If exploited to the hilt by US industry (and let’s be honest, we all want to go out with a bang) Trump’s climate policies — his devotion to fossil fuels and rejection of the Paris protocols — are more than sufficient over four short years to set global temperatures on a course topping 2.5 degrees, at which point our much-maligned globalised civilisation will collapse from the sheer cost of its own insurance premiums.
Some more flim-flam while we await the End Times. So Obama was Stalin, was he? Knowledgeable in both science and in politics but unable to separate the one from the other? Then Donald Trump is Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia: reactionary, vain, deaf to the entreaties of his ever more carefully hand-picked advisors, until, at the last, only the Rasputin-like whispers of Steve Bannon catch his ear.
Let’s indulge this bad habit of arguing from analogy a little further, and ask this interesting question: how did Russia’s academics react against Nicholas II’s lame-duck regime? They held marches. They published pamphlets. They organised strikes. They pinned their liberal and cosmopolitan colours to their sleeves, and wrote angry letters to the papers. They achieved virtually nothing until, in 1905, they got canny. They became political. They stood up for an idea of civics rooted in the European enlightenment. They fomented a revolution. They even got the Tsar to convene a parliament, in which they were the ministers.
Ultimately, this “constitutional-democratic” movement failed. It refused to cohere, it sought compromise where it should have fomented discord, collaborated where it should have opposed. It died from politeness. A dozen years later, its failure made Bolshevik extremism possible and the rest, as they say, is history.
History, yes. But not destiny. The people who march in the name of science on Saturday 22 are taking but the first step on what promises to be a long and frightening journey. We should not expect too much from them yet. But neither should we pull our punches. Like it or not, and certainly if Trump lasts into a second term, these people, thanks to their educations and well-thumbed passports, their urbane reflexes and all the advantages that leisure has bestowed on them, are best placed to be the champions of our by then virtually extinguished civic life.
We are going to have to teach these snowflakes how to fight.
Stalin and the Scientists describes what happened when, early in the twentieth century, a handful of impoverished and under-employed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans, bound themselves to a failing government to create a world superpower. Envied and obsessed over by Joseph Stalin — ‘the Great Scientist’ himself — scientists in disciplines from physics to psychology managed to steer his empire through famine, drought, soil exhaustion, war, rampant alcoholism, a huge orphan problem, epidemics and an average life expectancy of thirty years. Hardly any of them are well known outside Russia, yet their work shaped global progress for well over a century.
Cold War propaganda cast Soviet science as an eccentric, gimcrack, often sinister enterprise. And, to my secret delight, not every wild story proved to be a fabrication. Indeed, a heartening amount of the smoke shrouding Soviet scientific achievement can be traced back to intellectual arson attacks of one sort or another.
I’ll leave it to the book to explain why Stalin’s scientists deserve our admiration and respect. This is the internet, so let’s have some fun. Here, in no particular order, are my my top five scientific eccentrics. Some only appear crazy; others have had craziness thrust upon them by hostile commentators. Still others were as mad as a bag of cats.
1. Ilya Ivanov
Ilya Ivanov, the animal breeding expert who tried to mate humans with chimpanzees
By the time of the 1917 revolution, Ilya Ivanov was already an international celebrity. His pioneering artificial insemination techniques were transforming world agriculture. However, once he lost his Tsarist patrons, he had to find a research programme that would catch the eye of the new government’s Commissariat of Education. What he came up with was certainly compelling: a proposal to cross-breed humans and chimpanzees.
We now know there are immunological difficulties preventing such a cross, but the basic idea is not at all crazy, and Ivanov got funding from Paris and America to travel to Guinea to further the study.
Practically and ethically the venture was a disaster. Arriving at the primate centre in Kindia, Ivanov discovered that its staff were killing and maiming far more primates than they ever managed to capture. To make matters worse, after a series of gruesome and rapine attempts to impregnate chimpanzees with human sperm, Ivanov decided it might be easier to turn the experiment on its head and fertilise African women with primate sperm. Unfortunately, he failed to tell them what he was doing.
Ivanov was got rid of during the Purges of the late 1930s thanks to a denunciation by an ambitious colleague, but his legacy survives. The primate sanctuary he founded in Sukhumi by the Black Sea provided primates for the Soviet space programme. Meanwhile the local tourist industry makes the most of, and indeed maintains, persistent rumours that the local woods are haunted by seven-foot-tall Stalinist ape-men.
2. Alexander Bogdanov
whose Mars-set science fiction laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s first blood transfusion service — and who died of blood poisoning
Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov, co-founder of the Bolshevik movement, lost interest in politics, even as control came within his grasp, because he wanted more time for his writing.
In his novels Red Star and Engineer Menni, blood exchanges among his Martian protagonists level out their individual and sexual differences and extend their lifespan through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
These scientific fantasies took an experimental turn in 1921 during a trade junket to London when he happened across Blood Transfusion, a book by Geoffrey Keynes (younger brother of the economist). Two years of private experiments followed, culminating in an appointment with the Communist Party’s general secretary, Joseph Stalin. Bogdanov was quickly installed as head of a new ‘scientific research institute of blood transfusion’.
Blood, Bogdanov claimed, was a universal tissue that unified all other organs, tissues and cells. Transfusions offered the client better sleep, a fresher complexion, a change in eyeglass prescriptions, and greater resistance to fatigue. On 24 March 1928 he conducted a typically Martian experiment, mutually transfusing blood with a male student, suffered a massive transfusion reaction and died two weeks later at the age of fifty-four.
Bogdanov the scientist never offered up his studies to the review of his peers. In fact he never wrote any actual science at all, just propaganda for the popular press. In this, he resembled no-one so much as the notorious charlatan (and Stalin’s poster boy) Trofim Lysenko. I reckon it was his example made Trofim Lysenko politically possible.
3. Trofim Lysenko
Stalin’s poster-boy, who believed plants sacrifice themselves for their strongest neighbour — and was given the job of reforesting European Russia.
Practical, working-class, ambitious and working for the common good, the agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko was the very model of the new Soviet scientist. Rather than studying ‘the hairy legs of flies’, ran one Pravda profile in August 1927, this sober young man ‘went to the root of things,’ solving practical problems by a few calculations ‘on a little old piece of paper’.
As he studied how different varieties of the same crop responded to being planted at different times, he never actually touched any mathematics, relying instead on crude theories ‘proved’ by arbitrary examples.
Lysenko wanted, above all else, to be an original. An otherwise enthusiastic official report warned that he was an ‘extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological science.’ Unable to understand the new-fangled genetics, he did everything he could to banish it from biology. In its place he championed ‘vernalisation’, a planting technique that failed dismally to increase yields. Undeterred, he went on to theorise about species formation, and advised the government on everything, from how to plant oak trees across the entire Soviet Union to how to increase the butterfat content of milk. The practical results of his advices were uniformly disastrous and yet, through a combination of belligerence, working-class credentials, and a phenomenal amount of luck, he remained the poster-boy of Soviet agriculture right up until the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.
Nor is his ghost quite laid to rest. A couple of politically motivated historians are even now attempting to recast Lysenko as a cruelly sidelined pioneer of epigenetics (the study of how the environment regulates gene expression). This is a cruel irony, since Soviet Russia really was the birthplace of epigenetics! And it was Lysenko’s self-serving campaigns that saw that every single worker in that field was sacked and ruined.
4. Olga Lepeshinskaya
who screened in reverse films of rotting eggs to prove her theories about cell development — and won a Stalin Prize
Olga Lepeshinskaya, a personal friend of Lenin and his wife, was terrifyingly well-connected and not remotely intimidated by power. On a personal level, she was charming. She fiercely opposed anti-semitism, and had dedicated her personal life to the orphan problem, bringing up at least half a dozen children as her own.
As a scientist, however, she was a disaster. She once announced to the Academic Council of the Institute of Morphology that soda baths could rejuvenate the old and preserve the youth of the young. A couple of weeks later Moscow completely sold out of baking soda.
In her old age, Lepeshinskaya became entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any part of the seed could germinate. She even claimed to have filmed living cells emerge from noncellular materials. Lysenko hailed Lepeshinskaya’s discovery as the basis for a new theory of species formation, and in May 1950 Alexander Oparin, head of the Academy of Sciences’ biology department, invited Olga Lepeshinskaya to receive her Stalin Prize.
It was all a fraud, of course: she had been filming the death and decomposition of cells, then running her film backwards through the projector. Lepeshinskaya made a splendid myth. The subject of poetry. The heroine of countless plays. In school and university textbooks she was hailed as the author of the greatest biological discovery of all time.
5. Joseph Stalin
whose obsession with growing lemons in Siberia became his only hobby
Stalin, typically for his day, believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics – that a giraffe that has to stretch to reach high leaves will have long-necked children. He assumed that, given the right conditions, living things were malleable, and as the years went by this obsession grew. In 1946 he became especially keen on lemons, not only encouraging their growth in coastal Georgia, where they fared quite well, but also in the Crimea, where winter frosts destroyed them.
Changing the nature of lemons became Stalin’s sole hobby. At his dachas near Moscow and in the south, large greenhouses were erected so that he could enter them directly from the house, day or night. Pruning shrubs and plants was his only physical exercise.
Stalin shared with his fellow Bolsheviks the idea that they had to be philosophers in order to deserve their mandate. He schooled the USSR’s most prominent philosopher, Georgy Aleksandrov, on Hegel’s role in the history of Marxism. He told the composer Dmitry Shostakovich how to change the orchestration for the new national anthem. He commissioned the celebrated war poet Konstantin Simonov to write a play about a famous medical controversy, treated him to an hour of literary criticism, and then rewrote the closing scenes himself. Sergei Eisenstein and his scriptwriter on Ivan the Terrible Part Two were treated to a filmmaking masterclass. And in 1950, while he was negotiating a pact with the People’s Republic of China, and discussing how to invade South Korea with Kim Il Sung, Stalin was also writing a combative article about linguistics, and meeting with economists multiple times to discuss a textbook.
Stalin’s paranoia eventually pushed him into pronouncements that were more and more peculiar. Unable to trust even himself, it came to Joseph Stalin that people were, or ought to be, completely readable from first to last. All it needed was an entirely verbal theory of mind. ‘There is nothing in the human being which cannot be verbalised,’ he asserted, in 1949. ‘What a person hides from himself he hides from society. There is nothing in the Soviet society that is not expressed in words. There are no naked thoughts. There exists nothing at all except words.’
For Stalin, in the end, even a person’s most inner world was readable – because if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t possibly exist.
Tom Hunter: At what point did you first realise the history of Soviet science would be the subject of your next book, why this subject and how long did you work on it?
Simon Ings: Stalin and the Scientists grew out of my love of popular science, and these odd, self-conscious, incredibly rigorous bits of our world we lump together as “the sciences”. But I had no real vehicle for that enthusiasm until I got talking to Will Hammond, an editor at Penguin and, like me, a fan of the writings of Alexander Luria. Luria, who was born in 1902, is the soviet psychologist who is generally considered the founder of modern neuroanatomy and, thanks to books like Mind of a Mnemonist, the godfather of the literary genre we call popular science.
Will and I talked about producing a new biography but the problem with Luria’s life is that, from a Western perspective, it looks absolutely normal. He had a successful international career, his work has never been out of print, he was loyal to his friends and his friends were loyal to him; he had a happy marriage. To have achieved all that under the regime of Joseph Stalin, while at the same time conducting cutting edge research with huge political implications, was extraordinary, but unless you know the context, the story is invisible.
Which is why a modest biography that should have taken me a bit less than a year became a five-year behemoth that burned through three editors and which takes in more or less every major scientific advance and controversy in the Soviet Union from Russia’s failed liberal revolution of 1905 to Khrushchev’s removal in a bloodless coup in 1964. A book that nearly killed me. A book that — since by then I had actually got myself an honest job — I had to write on the bus. (The 521, to be exact.)
Tom Hunter: You also write fiction as well as popular science. Are these completely different creative processes for you as a writer, or do you find at the end of the day it’s still all about getting in the keyboard hours?
Simon Ings: The processes are completely different. They have virtually nothing in common aside from the brute athletic business of smashing the words out. Fiction is, or should be, a pure experiment, a working hypothesis that gradually acquires an integrity all its own, however crazy it turns out. That’s true of certain kinds of non fiction as well, of course, but it most certainly is not true of popular science. Popular science is a more or less equal mixture of history and the kind of simplified, triumphalist whig-history you need to employ to make the science comprehensible. And whatever the proportions, that final mix can be tested against the world. In fiction, you ought to be drawing on your own resources, so far as you can, so far as you dare. When I write non-fiction I’m clambering about on the shoulders of giants.
Tom Hunter: Is there a single best or favourite example you can share with us that might best highlight the story of Stalin and the Scientists for us?
Simon Ings: Finding a reading from this book, I realised that the three key elements the extract had to somehow cover were achievement, naivety and dread. Soviet science, from genetics to ecology to psychology, and eventually extending to physics and space science, was extraordinarily accomplished. In so many fields at different times the Soviet Union led the scientific world. But most disciplines enjoyed their golden age when the government was weak, young, and driven by a sometimes clueless and often savage enthusiasm, and so many of the researches described here often ended in personal and professional disaster as the state’s enthusiasm for science turned dogmatic and overbearing. So the story of Ilya Ivanov, though a bit of an outlier, for me is a sort of emblem for the story of Soviet science as a whole. By the time of the 1917 revolution Ivanov was already an international celebrity — a pioneer of artificial insemination who had increased the breeding rate of horses at a time when horses provided most of the power available to agriculture. When he lost his Tsarist patrons, he looked for a research programme that would catch the eye of the new government’s Commissariat of Education. Which is why he came up with a proposal to cross-breed humans and chimpanzees. We now know there are immunological difficulties preventing the cross, but the cross itself is not at all a crazy idea, and Ivanov got funding from Paris and America to further the study. Ethically the venture was a disaster. It turned out that Ivanov had attempted to fertilise African women without their knowledge. The pre-revolutionary Academy of Sciences threw a fit and their upstart rivals the Communist Academy took advantage and seized control of the project, even as extreme negative eugenics was sweeping across Europe and making eugenics a poison chalice. Ivanov was got rid of during the Purges of the late 1930s thanks to a denunciation by an ambitious colleague; still the primate sanctuary he founded later provided primates for the Soviet space programme. So there you have it!
Tom Hunter: On the one hand it seems popular science is becoming ever more, well, popular with readers, but at the same time one can’t help noting the ‘Britain has had enough of experts’ mentally that seems to becoming equally popular/prevalent.
Simon Ings: Politically that’s certainly true. We’re doing this interview even as Donald Trump teeters on the brink of becoming President of the United States. But then, look at someone like Derren Brown: a hugely popular entertainer whose entire shtick is that he’s studied psychology enough to debunk charlatans. People are sick of *certain kinds* of authority, and that’s largely because the public’s always keen nose for hypocrisy has for the last couple of years been shoved repeatedly into a trough of social and immediate media. Quite frankly, we’re drunk on the stuff to the point of paranoia. A new balance will emerge fairly quickly. Authority will reacquire enough of its status to be useful, and will stand, please God, on a firmer footing. When it comes to the public perception of science I can’t summon much anxiety. I grew up in the heyday of Von Daniken and Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, not to mention the Hitler diaries. We survived.
Tom Hunter: Continuing on the same theme, in your view will it ever be possible to decouple science from political influence or, the reverse, how might we better put science at the heart of driving policy rather than being subservient to it?
Simon Ings: Scientific government is *exactly* what the Bolsheviks were about, and their sincere experiment destroyed the food base of an empire and set fields in which the Soviet Union was a world leader into mothballs for over thirty years. The last thing we should wish for is scientific government. Even talk of “evidence-based policy”, which we’re all supposed to be wildly enthusiastic about at the moment, makes my blood run cold, because at the back of it is the assumption that it is possible to gather reliable evidence from human society in real time. That’s a *really* big ask, and no amount of big data or surveillance is going to get around the formal difficulty of modelling an unpredictable system on the fly. In many cases, having more data makes the problem worse. So there’s always going to be this tension between politics, which is an historically contingent activity, and science, which as much as possible treats the world and everything in it as if it were a linear, symmetrical system. So, then, look at this the other way: can we ever actually *separate* science and politics? No. There’s no way citizens can be expected to simply hand money over to some scientific priesthood and expect *no* return for their investment. But the bitter truth is that any experimental activity is a hugely wasteful, and demanding rigid outcomes and takeaways is a sure-fire way to deaden and demoralise your science base. This is what the biologist Steve Jones is talking about when he talks about the “Sovietisation” of contemporary western science.
Tom Hunter: Back to the book, and for all its flaws and politically biased research and so forth, it seems this period in Russian history is, in many ways, as culturally influential as other great periods of human development — the Renaissance perhaps, or the Industrial Revolution or the first Space age — and is worthy of far more critical attention than it might perhaps have received?
Simon Ings: It’s true to say the Cold War has done historians no favours, and there is much about this place and this period that’s still to enter the public consciousness. I reckon Stalin and the Scientists might, with a following wind, make a chink in the wall. But it’s a bloody big wall. No sooner are the archives being opened up to international researchers than Putinist academics are asserting their own politically motivated versions of Stalinist “successes”, hence various recent attempts to recast the charlatan Trofim Lysenko as a pioneering epigeneticist. Which, while we’re on the subject, is rather like saying that someone who believes in mermaids is a marine biologist. The biggest difficulty for an outsider, and especially for a non-academic outsider like me, is to get enough perspective to be able to distinguish between scientific troubles and political ones, during a time when the two spheres were deliberately and sincerely run together in speech and practice. I’ve really just introduced the problem to a popular audience. There’s much more heavy lifting to do.
Tom Hunter: And finally, as Culture Editor for New Scientist is your job effectively to reconnect the arts and the sciences, and if you dare which side do you think has to do the most work to make that happen?
Simon Ings: I am a great believer in CP Snow’s Two Cultures and a firm champion of them both. Long may they continue, distinct and separate. What we want is not fusion or collaboration, but conversation. And for that conversation to be worthwhile, it’s necessary for both parties to be awake. We can no longer afford to indulge an arts base that remains wilfully disengaged from the great and besetting problems of our age. Science can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting and it really is time the humanities climbed out of their Deleuzian oubliette and read some Stanislaw Lem (anything, but especially the Summa), some Amitav Ghosh (The Great Derangement will do) even some object-orientated ontology (try Graham Harman’s Immaterialism). Intellectually, those of us who are not scientists need to toughen up and stand on our own two feet. We have a job to do. Culturally there’s a lot to play for in the next fifty years of human habitation on this planet — and everything to lose.