Tell us, Solly

Tim Radford

  • Solly Zuckerman: A Scientist out of the Ordinary by John Peyton
    Murray, 252 pp, £22.50, May 2001, ISBN 0 7195 6283 X

Solly Zuckerman was one of a group of clear thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic who helped make science a normal part of government policy. He began at floor level in 1940, when the Royal Navy asked him to find out the force at which a leg would break. When a ship hit a mine and blew up, the vertical displacement of the deck was enough to snap the ankles of a seaman standing on it. When a torpedoed ship tilted and began to sink, and a seaman tried to slide down the exposed hull, his feet were likely to hit the bilge rail, with the same consequences. Would boots save them? Zuckerman and a colleague began dropping a corpse from gradually increasing heights through a kind of hangman’s trap and X-raying the legs each time until an ankle broke. Then they did the same thing with a second corpse, this time fitted with a heavy rubber-soled boot. ‘We found that boots did to some exent protect the ankle, but that the fracture that it might have suffered now occurred higher up the leg,’ he wrote in his first volume of autobiography, From Apes to Warlords (1978).

The Second World War was the first fullscale experiment in terror bombing and Zuckerman had already sorted out one mystery for the Medical Research Council and the National Physical Laboratory. Doctrine had it that the blast wave from a bomb would collapse or explode the lungs of anyone in its path. Zuckerman placed a series of rabbits in steel cages – with only their heads sticking out – at varying distances from an epicentre and then detonated his bomb. According to doctrine, the pressure should have blown the animals to pieces. In fact, they all survived. None lost consciousness and the only injuries were ruptured eardrums. He went on to establish that the pressure at which a blast would wound or kill increased with the body weight of the victim, and was roughly proportional to the surface area of the body. The pressure at which a man had a 50-50 chance of being killed turned out to be 500 lb per square inch, ten times higher than previously thought.

Zuckerman and his unit then began to look at injuries from high-velocity weapons and shrapnel fragments. These, too, presented puzzles. One man was in hospital after being hit in the kidney by something no bigger than a metal pinhead. A forearm had been shattered by a minute metal splinter. Zuckerman continued to use rabbits – served up for dinner afterwards – but the best results came from photographing a blob of gelatine as a bullet went through it. The stricken jelly expanded to four times its original volume as a cavity formed inside. Then it went through a series of pulses and collapsed to its original size. This kind of deformation, as energy was transferred from bullet to tissue, explained why small ordnance could do disproportionate damage at the highest velocities. A tiny metal sphere could shatter a rabbit’s thighbone even if it missed the actual bone by half an inch.

Such questions were not, after the fall of France and the beginning of the Blitz, in the least academic. Ninety per cent of the casing of a bomb turned into fragments weighing less than a 25th of an ounce. How helpful would body armour be against this shower of shards? The Zuckerman unit began firing standard steel balls into London telephone directories. According to the page at which a ball had stopped they could calculate how much energy it had lost when penetrating the target. They went from telephone books to human flesh, borrowing what Zuckerman called ‘anatomical material taken from, and returned to, a hospital post-mortem room’. The next trick was to work out wounding power according to the part of the body vulnerable to a blast. Volunteers were photographed nude, from the front, the back, sideways, kneeling and lying down. The idea was to work out how much flesh on average – the mean projection area – was at risk from a grenade or explosive. The answer was four square feet, of which 10 to 15 per cent covered vital organs. Wooden panels of this size, used by army operational research groups to measure wounding power, instantly became known as ‘zuckermen’.

Zuckerman moved quite swiftly from the laboratory to the real thing. The Bomb Census was the first systematic study of air-raids – where, what, when and how much damage. Zuckerman and J.D. Bernal launched a casualty survey. On 3 October 1940, a lone German pilot, flying very low, casually bombed Banbury railway station. One 50 kg bomb went through the roof of a brick building measuring 15 ft by 20 ft at the end of the platform. There were eight men in it at the time. Zuckerman drove there immediately. The bomb exploded about two feet from the floor, shattering the walls and the roof. One man outside the door was killed instantly, and so were two of the eight men in the room. A third died on the way to hospital. Two more died the following day. But of the three survivors, two had not even lost consciousness. The last was out of hospital after 19 days. Zuckerman understood something that the Germans did not understand: that casualties varied inversely according to the size of the weapon. Ton for ton, 50 kg bombs claimed more victims than 250 kg bombs, or 1000 kg bombs. ‘The blast from an 800 lb bomb,’ he wrote after studying damage at Tripoli in North Africa, ‘will frequently not even kill a fully-exposed rabbit at 100 ft. It certainly would not kill men at this distance.’ A scientist was on the way to establishing something the military had not considered: that there were limits to the effectiveness of a bombing campaign. Air Ministry strategists had claimed that the industrial activity of a town could be ‘seriously affected’ by an attack of some seven tons of bombs per square mile. Zuckerman pointed out that Hull and Coventry had endured an average bombing intensity of twice that figure, but production had been affected by about 5 per cent. In other words, bombing might wipe out a target but not win a war – something the military always find it hard to accept. Many decades later, Zuckerman pointed out that between 1964 and 1973 seven million tons of bombs had been dropped on North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This was three times the tonnage of all British, American and German bombs dropped on Europe in the Second World War. ‘And the seven million tons brought no victory – only death and destruction,’ he wrote.

On Zuckerman’s advice, Allied planes bombed selected points in the railway networks of Northern France, thereby paralysing German forces. Rail movements in the first half of 1944 dropped to a mere 13 per cent of their former level. In November 1944 Albert Speer told Hitler that these attacks ‘throttled traffic and made transportation the greatest bottleneck in our war economy’. To Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Zuckerman and the Germans, it seemed as if the campaign gave the Allies the space they needed to establish a beachhead in Normandy and then push for Paris. There is of course no way of knowing what would have happened had Zuckerman’s advice been ignored. But he was not easily ignored, even though he was a mere zoologist with a medical degree and his research career began with the physiology of baboons.

Zuckerman was Jewish, although his Jewishness appeared not to interest him; he was born in South Africa in 1904. He became a scientist, moved to London, and then (for a while) lived in America. He made close and enduring friends with a number of celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic. These were not just any old fleeting celebrities: they included Charles Laughton, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ira Gershwin, e.e. cummings and Lord Mountbatten. He became conspicuously friendly with the Duke of Edinburgh. Science was not then, and has never been, a celebrity preoccupation, but war tends to move science rapidly up the agenda. Radar, the jet engine, nuclear energy, antibiotics, the atomic bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile were all outcomes of the Second World War that hugely influenced the peace, and the scientists who contributed such things themselves often became hugely influential, not just because they were clever, but because they were also persuasive and inspired confidence. In the First World War, Lloyd George – for a while minister of munitions – reports being instantly taken with a young Russian-Jewish scientist in Manchester who promised to find a new way of making acetone, the raw material for cordite, the explosive that drives guns and shells. Supplies in Britain were dangerously low: Lloyd George chose to believe the scientist, and back him. The hero of this story was Chaim Weizmann, who in fermenting industrial quantities of acetone from old maize husks founded a new industry called microbiology, and thereafter used his clout with Lloyd George, and the MP for Salford, Arthur Balfour, in securing Palestine as a homeland for the Jews. The Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb grew out of a letter from Albert Einstein. The space race began because the Russian rocket genius Sergei Korolev – suddenly in military uniform having been interned in a gulag and then in a work camp – arrived at the deserted German base at Peenemunde and saw instantly what the German scientist Wernher von Braun had been trying to do with the V2 rocket, and said so, persuasively. Like politicians, scientists are exponents of the art of the possible, and the ones who carry the day are endowed with the arts of the plausible as well. Zuckerman for a while was involved with a man called Geoffrey Pyke, who invented a material made out of ice and sawdust, called Pykrete. Mountbatten, then head of Combined Operations, dropped a lump of it in Churchill’s bath, to show how it resisted melting. He also fired a revolver at it (the bullet ricocheted and hit an American) to show how impermeable to a torpedo it might be. The plan was to make Pykrete ‘bergships’ 4000 feet long and 600 feet wide as unsinkable aircraft-carriers. A project codenamed Habbakuk was launched in Alberta, but eventually foundered, in part because the preposterously eccentric Pyke failed sufficiently to impress the Canadian and American allies.

Zuckerman had toured US weapons laboratories and seen what was being developed. He was not one of those scientists who argued that science itself was neutral. ‘When it comes to nuclear weapons . . . it is the man in the laboratory who at the start proposes that for this or that arcane reason it would be useful to improve an old or to devise a new nuclear warhead,’ he later observed. ‘It is he, the technician, not the commander in the field, who is at the heart of the arms race.’ He became a player in the bid for a Partial Test Ban Treaty.

In 1960, as a Ministry of Defence scientist, he set up a group to contemplate the effects both of a one-megaton nuclear weapon detonated over Birmingham, and of a 20 kiloton warhead exploded over Carlisle. The following year, he addressed the Nato annual conference on the subject of battlefield nuclear weapons, pointing out that as soon as such weapons were used, there would also be tactical strikes far behind the battle lines. Military commanders would rapidly lose the apparatus of command and control. ‘I knew of no nuclear war game that had ended in victory for the defenders, only in devastation and disaster,’ he later wrote. ‘Nuclear weapons, I insisted, could not be categorised as tactical or strategic . . . One could deter with nuclear weapons, but, I asked, could one defend?’ Afterwards, General Earle Wheeler, Commander-in-Chief of US Forces in Nato, invited Zuckerman for a drink, and said: ‘We have painted ourselves into a corner. How do we get out of it?’ It isn’t clear that Zuckerman had an answer, but his logic forced people to put the correct questions. In 1964, Harold Wilson asked Zuckerman to go to the House of Lords and become Minister for Disarmament. Zuckerman very sensibly calculated that he could be more use as a civil servant. In 1966, Wilson sent him to the Cabinet Office and made him head of the Scientific Civil Service, a very Wilsonian thing to do, as there wasn’t a scientific civil service to be head of.

In 1987, from retirement, Zuckerman was still pointing out the logical flaws in the defence thinking of Reagan’s Administration, the one that proposed Star Wars, also known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. ‘The brutal fact which our minds seem incapable of taking in is that, were the explosion to occur over New York or Washington, London or Moscow, one megaton would be equivalent to a million instantaneous deaths,’ he wrote in the New York Review of Books. ‘The President may protest that his SDI dream implies a protection of people and not of silos. But however many times he does so, the fact is that were the “unthinkable” ever to occur, a future American President would probably never know how his enemy had behaved. He could well have disappeared in the nuclear Armageddon.’

Zuckerman died in 1993, leaving more than a thousand pages of autobiography, and 900 boxes of letters, speeches and papers to the University of East Anglia. John Peyton, the author of this Life, was Transport Minister from 1970 to 1974. Most of the research work into bombing that I quoted at the beginning is taken from Zuckerman’s autobiography rather than Peyton’s. Neither man makes much sense of the big question: how did a backwoods colonial boy, with an okay degree and hardly any money apart from his stipend as pathologist at London Zoo, stroll so effortlessly into the role of genial toff and big power-player, big enough to be welcome at the tables of the great on either side of the Atlantic? There are people who derive bloom and musculature from contact with the powerful and Zuckerman was clearly one of them: that he seemed to puff up a little in their presence like a toad did not, however, make him toad-like or a toady. If anything, the great seemed to seek him out, and revel in his friendship and his ideas. In his memoirs, Zuckerman reports a telling exchange just before he flew to Algiers to prepare bombardment plans for the invasion of Sicily. Mountbatten advised him against accepting any (honorary) military rank. ‘The most they would make you,’ he said, ‘is an Air Vice-Marshal, and then you’d have to say “Yes, Sir” to an Air Marshal. And you don’t even call me “Sir”.’

Extraordinary reputations were made in the war, but Zuckerman had started inventing the character of Solly Zuckerman a decade earlier. In New York, Peyton writes, he fell in with the Gershwins. He met Dorothy Parker and got to know Tallulah Bankhead well enough to pick up the friendship again in London. During the Blitz, in between mapping the impact of bombs, he dined at the Savoy with Alfred Hitchcock. That friendship, too, continued for a lifetime.

As a lecturer at Oxford, he had acquired a house in Museum Road ‘to display his pictures by Ben Nicholson and John Armstrong and his Barbara Hepworth carvings and drawings’. He made friends both with Aneurin Bevan and with Gaitskell. During the war, a tall French officer paid a visit to his house. Years later, while working for Wilson, Zuckerman was presented to de Gaulle, who ‘remarked that we had met before, and recalled the visit he had paid us in Oxford in 1941’. That is: the great de Gaulle wanted to remind the relatively little known Solly Zuckerman that they knew each other. He married Joan Rufus Isaacs, the daughter of the Marquis of Reading, and introduced her to his old chums, Isaiah Berlin and Freddie Ayer. They remained married to the end, and he spoke and wrote of her fondly, when he mentioned her at all. He failed to tell her before he died, however, that he had left most of his money to the University of East Anglia. Zuckerman appears to have been one of those people who were warmer at a distance. He seems not to have missed his family when he left South Africa, or his friends there. Peyton’s book hints at difficulties with his son Paul. He was warm to his daughter Stella but not to her boyfriends, or her husband. People who worked with him reported that he could switch his charm on or off. When people say things like that, they are usually thinking about the off switch.

But Zuckerman certainly knew when to turn on the charm. He went with Harold Macmillan to Nassau in the Bahamas in 1962, to an uncomfortable meeting with the Americans to discuss the British nuclear deterrent. Halfway through a meal, he records in the second volume of autobiography, Monkeys, Men and Missiles (1988), ‘President Kennedy called across to me: “Solly, have you been up to see my nuclear rocket?’” Harold Macmillan asked innocently ‘What’s it for?’ and Kennedy replied ‘You tell him, Solly!’ So Zuckerman explained to the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the President of the United States just how America would propel a non-nuclear rocket and a lunar module to the moon’s gravitational orbit, and then to a landing, talking all the while to ground control. Zuckerman’s version goes on:

By now I was allowing my imagination full rein. ‘I suppose they’d look at each other, wait a while before opening the hatch, and then lower their landing steps. The leader would stick his head out and step down onto the moon’s surface, still talking to HQ. ‘Saying what?’ asked Macmillan. There was a laugh as I said ‘Oh, I suppose his first words would be “Momma, we’re here.”’ . . . ‘That sounds very easy,’ said the President ‘but I don’t understand how one of those small pocket radios works. Tell us, Solly.’

Zuckerman, who seems not to have known how a radio works either, told the President that it was the sort of thing a schoolboy understood. ‘But I don’t understand,’ said the President, and Zuckerman told him: ‘That’s not surprising. You’re not a schoolboy.’

Afterwards, he was congratulated by the Canadian Premier John Diefenbaker on the light-hearted way he had handled the exchanges. Peyton’s book – to get back to a work that answers so few questions that it sent me scurrying again and again for Zuckerman’s own version – presents a picture of a figure who knew when it paid to stop being effective and start clowning. The Nassau conference has usually been sold as a tour de force for Macmillan, but it’s beginning to look more and more like a near-calamity. The British, obsessed with the need for their own nuclear deterrent, had committed themselves to an increasingly costly air-launched nuclear warhead called Skybolt, which was to be built and supplied by the Americans. The Government had very high hopes of Skybolt: apart from anything else, it would give Britain’s V-bombers a reason to keep on flying. But these high hopes were not shared by the US Administration, which had pumped sickening quantities of dollars into the project and then realised that it would never work. The cancellation – just about coincident with de Gaulle’s veto on Britain entering the Common Market – left Macmillan urgently in need of a triumph. He demanded the submarine-launched Polaris missile instead. Kennedy wasn’t willing, but in the end gave way, although he nearly refused lunch with Macmillan, an abstinence that would have signalled loudly to the world the dissatisfaction each leader felt with the other. When he did stay, he chose to address Zuckerman, who defused some of the tension. Polaris became evidence of Britain’s independence as a nuclear power, though whether ‘when it came to the crunch, we would be allowed by the Americans to fire a Polaris missile without them agreeing,’ was, as Zuckerman observes, ‘never discussed’. Nor was there any discussion of what, in cash terms, Polaris would cost. The decision to hand the deterrent to the Navy of course outraged the RAF, and an angry former Chief of Air Staff wrote to the Times: it was ‘a really appalling thought that a couple of Ministers and a zoologist can slip off to the Bahamas, and without a single member of the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee present, commit us to a military monstrosity on the purely political issue of nuclear independence – which anyway is a myth’. Zuckerman loved the line ‘and a zoologist’. He couldn’t resist pointing out in his memoirs that, in 1944, at a Defence Committee meeting, he had heard Churchill approve his brief to disrupt the rail network of North-West Europe just before Operation Overlord. Churchill described the plan as ‘the brainchild of a biologist who happened to be passing through the Mediterranean’.

Zuckerman served as a key adviser to British decision-makers after the war. Some of the decisions now float weightlessly across the pages of Peyton’s book like thistledown. But the cancellations of Blue Streak and Black Arrow, Britain’s own attempts at space launchers, along with the TSR2 – an RAF tactical strike reconnaissance aircraft designed to carry nuclear bombs to a European battlefield – were weighty enough steps at the time. Zuckerman went to see the TSR2 being made, telling Christopher Soames, a former Tory Minister, that he didn’t want to miss the chance of touching an object that cost £400 million before it was torn up and thrown on the scrapheap. The decision to kill the project was taken by Denis Healey, who bitterly remarked later that Wilson had made him put off the announcement for nine weeks, to smuggle it into the Chancellor’s Budget speech: a delay which cost £1 million a week. (It might help to know that people then lived decently on £20 a week.) For much of this time, Zuckerman was secretary and fundraiser for London Zoo (and keeping that show on the road would have been for most people a full-time job) and commuting to the University of Birmingham.

He was certainly an effective man of science, though this is not the same as being a great scientist (he did research on baboon behaviour in London Zoo, and extended his findings to baboons in the wild. Scientists call this kind of false assumption ‘Zuckerman’s trap’). He threw himself, Peyton reports, into problems such as the mesh size of the Snowdon aviary, and how Cadbury Schweppes should preserve the bubbles in their tonic water. But he kept an eye on larger things. He was concerned increasingly with environmental problems: he didn’t care for terms like ‘the population explosion’ and saw how swiftly the planet’s burden of people was growing. He had been pushing for attention to atmospheric pollution since the 1950s. When asked in 1961 to suggest a role for the newly founded UEA, he proposed a school of environmental sciences: it became one of the big players in global climate research. He was involved in dealing with one of the first great oil pollution disasters: the wreck of the tanker Torrey Canyon off Land’s End in 1967. There wasn’t much that could be done, it turned out. Most of the decision-making during the Macmillan, Wilson and Heath years involved the slow surrender of military power and technological self-confidence, so even Zuckerman’s successes looked a bit like failures. They still do, but for different reasons. He warned forty years ago that humans were beginning to put their own planet at risk. Has anything changed, even now, when most people recognise that he was right? He warned twenty years ago that attempts to create new super-weapons to shoot down enemy missiles could only trigger a dangerous new round of the arms race. And has George Bush thought this through? Or Tony Blair?