- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a one-man Victorian think tank whose ideas and inventions live on today. Martin Brookes, a science writer and former biological researcher at the Galton Laboratory of University College, London, paints an appropriately colorful picture (Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton, Bloomsbury, $24.95, 320 pages) of the polymathic pioneer who was a notable “explorer, geographer, meteorologist, psychologist, anthropologist, biologist and statistician.”

Galton was an infant prodigy. Instructed by his invalid sister, 12 years his senior, by the time he was four he could read English and Greek, add and multiply. At 16, after a few miserable years in Dickensian boarding schools, he began medical school, then left to study mathematics at Cambridge. Unable to keep up the intense pace he set himself, despite his invention of a keep-awake device, he suffered the first of many breakdowns from overwork, scaled down his academic ambitions and threw himself into Cambridge’s social whirl.

Shortly after Galton’s graduation, his father died, leaving him a fortune. After an extended vacation, he decided to become a serious explorer. Using family contacts, he obtained letters of introduction to the appropriate authorities and set off for South Africa. Mr. Brookes deftly weaves together the complex story of his African exploits, which demonstrated an exceptional talent for surviving primitive and highly hazardous conditions, despite occasional diplomatic gaffes, including his rejection of the proffered favors of the nubile but butter-smeared niece of the powerful King Nangoro of the Ovampo tribe. On his return to England, Galton produced a map of Namibia that won him a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society, and in 1855 wrote “The Art of Travel,” a near-encyclopedic wilderness survival manual still in print today that is “small enough to fit into a jacket pocket but large enough to provide toilet paper in an emergency.” .

Galton firmly believed that “eminence” — his favored term for talent and character — was largely hereditary, and he acted accordingly. His autobiography, Mr. Brooke points out, includes a chapter on his marriage to Louisa Butler, which tells “nothing of Louisa’s appearance, age, or interests” or even her name, but does provide “dense detail…on her many eminent relatives.”

Galton founded the eugenics movement that advocated selective breeding of humans to improve the race. His book “Hereditary Genius” made a splash with its statistical approach to the study of human differences, but most contemporary readers dismissed its utopian advocacy of eugenics as inconsistent with actual human behavior. However, in the early 20th century these “dark visions”, as Mr. Brookes calls them, appealed to many influential people in Britain, to more in the United States, where some 35,000 people regarded as “inferior” were compulsorily sterilized by 1940 and, most pathologically, in Nazi Germany.

Mr. Brookes’s lively account of Galton’s activities is leavened by his descriptions of the original and often comical ways Galton found to measure whatever interested him, from tea-brewing to feminine beauty. If anyone has the impression that Victorian scientists were a boring bunch, this book will set him straight.

• • •

Unlike the case with Galton, there is no dearth of biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967). In J.RobertOppenheimerandtheAmericanCentury (Pi, $27.95, 458 pages), David C. Cassidy aims to mine new treasures from this well-explored territory by analyzing how it was that the hyper-cerebral physicist and aesthete transformed himself from an unworldly egghead to the inspirational leader of the Manhattan Project that built an atomic bomb from scratch in two years, became a public icon of science, then fell from grace when his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb led to the removal of his security clearance.

Mr. Cassidy places the Oppenheimer saga in the context of the evolution of the 20th century into the American Century, when the humanistic values of traditional science were subverted by the development of “militarized state science.” The cold warriors who were Oppenheimer’s foes, Mr. Cassidy tells us, shared the publisher Henry Luce’s imperialistic vision of spreading American ideals and values around the globe (whether or not the globe wanted them, he adds.)

Mr. Cassidy concludes, somewhat lamely, that Oppenheimer rose and then fell from grace because he so enjoyed the role of an insider in the corridors of power that he could not bear the thought of retreating to the world of pure science. He traces this flaw in Oppenheimer’s psyche to his early upbringing as a poor little rich boy on New York’s upper west side, isolated from normal social contact with other children in an elegant apartment decorated with original Van Goghs.

Despite his wide-ranging intellectual prowess, he was socially ill at ease until he returned from Europe, armed with a glowing reputation and a PhD, to inspire a generation of physics students in California. He did not feel truly accepted until he was selected to head the Manhattan Project and became a member of the highest councils of American science.

Even readers familiar with the Oppenheimer story are likely to learn something new from Mr. Cassidy’s discussion of the Ethical Culture movement, to which Oppenheimer’s parents belonged and whose school he attended. Ethical Culture was basically a German-Jewish group that broke away fromTemple Emanuel, the New York flagship of the reform movement, because they found it too ethnic.

The intensely progressive school, founded to serve underprivileged children, had such high academic standards that the Ethical Culturists soon sent their own children there instead. An interesting sidelight is that Admiral Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission who was Oppenheimer’s nemesis, and who took his religion seriously to the extent possible for a reform Jew, served for a decade as president of Temple Emanuel. Mr. Cassidy tells us that Strauss was deeply suspicious of Oppenheimer because Ethical Culture taught that morality need not be based on belief in a higher Being. This hollow concept, Strauss felt, was responsible for Oppenheimer’s moral lapses.

Mr. Cassidy believes than Oppenheimer’s downfall was part of the way the military industrial complex supposedly hijacked America by following an agenda of “exploitation of scientific research…in service to consumer prosperity and the nations continual quest for ‘security’ against…the Soviet Union (whose intentions were equally aggressive.)”

Fast forwarding, he attacks “the nation’s self-righteous response to the [September 11] attacks and continued insistence on pursuing its own interests and military ventures ‘as we see fit.’”

Instead of devoting their energies to do what the taxpayers who support them want, scientists should have been trying to fulfil “the traditional humanistic conception of science.” He does not specify what this means,and provides no evidence that scientific research is being neglected in esoteric areas with no obvious practical value. Mr. Cassidy is confident, though, that “the American Century is doomed.”

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide