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.

Havens

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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