Leave the Physicists in Peace – We can Always Shoot Them Later

In the 1940’s and 50’s, Russian science was heavily influenced by Stalin’s darling, Trofim Lysenko. Under Lysenko, not only was research directed towards areas that would advance the state, but even theories that were not politically correct were banned and dissenters eliminated. One of the key examples was the attitude taken towards Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, whose focus on the primacy of the genetic mechanism of inheriting characteristics were seen as promoting a class-based world-view. Lysenko and Stalin advocated the Lamarckian approach – inheritance of acquired characteristics, which was more in line with what they termed “proletarian” biology. In 1943 Nikolai Vavilov was sentenced to death for his work in genetics and died in prison of starvation. The 1948 Soviet Agricultural Science Conference unanimously adopted Lysenko’s views on inheritance and work on genetics was effectively halted in Russia until well into the 1960’s.

Having done away with the evils of genetics, the Russian thought police turned their attention towards the physics community and the ascension of that most pernicious of theories, quantum mechanics. Stalin and Lysenko were materialists and believed in what they could see. The ghostly, paradoxical, and unintuitive properties of quantum mechanics did not resonate well with them (and the underlying anti-Semitism against both the theoretical physicists and the geneticists no doubt played a part). But Stalin in the end did not accept the proposal to constrain nuclear and particle physics research. “Leave the physicists in peace,” he said. “We can always shoot them later.”

In graduate school, I had an eerie experience that I am reminded of every time I think of Stalin’s words. The course was in Plasma Physics and concentrated on how to measure the properties of very hot states of matter like those found in the interior of stars. During one lecture, my professor, who was the child of holocaust survivors, had what I can only describe as some sort of breakdown. He began to murmur, almost to himself, “They will always need energy and physicists hold the secrets to that. No matter who is in power, they will always need us. We will always be safe. No matter who takes over, we will always be safe.” Even now, 25 years later, that memory kind of creeps me out.

The latitude that Stalin gave to the physicists was eminently practical as the Russian group led by Igor Kurchatov were working on copying the American atomic bomb, and then on creating their own thermonuclear device. Clearly Stalin didn’t want to throw up any impediments to their progress. However, one might argue that the protective umbrella that Stalin held out emboldened those scientists who may have felt that they could get away with what others could not. Andrei Sakharov was on Kurchatov’s team and later became a most ardent advocate of human rights and outspoken critic of the communist regime. Natan Sharansky, Sakharov’s translator, followed in his mentor’s footsteps as a human rights activist to become the most famous refusenik and the symbol and rallying point for the Soviet Jewry movement which was a major factor in generating Western pressure on the Soviets to change their policies. One could propose that when Stalin balked at enforcing a clamp-down on the intellectual autonomy of his physicists, he created a tiny hairline fracture of freedom that eventually widened into the cracks and fissures that eventually brought down the Berlin wall.

Lysenko’s attempts to fetter scientific research and to constrain their exploration severely hampered the advance of Russian science. People searching for truth should never be told what is and what is not acceptable.

A major subplot of our book, The Rarest Blue, (Lyons Press, November 2012), recounts the dead-end thinking that shellfish dye could only produce purple. The revered Rabbi Isaac Herzog said so, and he based himself on the research of the great chemist Paul Friedlander and the sainted Rabbi Gershon Henokh Leiner, who in turn was influenced by Rabbi Israel Lifshitz. All were based on the words of the master, the renowned Christian Hebraicist and author of the Lexicon to the Old Testament, Wilhelm Gesenius. It would take the audacity (admittedly, greased by some corporate funding with a somewhat offbeat agenda) of someone willing to buck this chain of authority and look at the Emperor’s cloth (literally) in a radically different way to be able to find a solution to a problem that vexed scholars for 1,500 years.

Humans tend to rely on authority, and that is certainly an efficient course. If not, we would have to re-learn everything every day. But when faced with an intellectual, political, or moral premise or system that seems problematic, it often pays to open up the channels of creativity and to dismiss previously accepted notions and look at things afresh. Two examples come to mind. The iconoclastic physicist Lee Smolin is one of the few willing to take on the Sheldon Coopers who represent the overwhelming majority of physicists that believe in string theory as an article of faith. Another example is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his recent book, The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning, which offers an alternative to the narrow and constraining positions regarding Judaism and Science that typifies so many Orthodox thinkers.

My favorite quote is from Thomas Henry Huxley:

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.

This is great advice for people searching for truth, if only the thought police can tolerate their boldness, even temporarily. If not, they can always shoot them later.

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