Issues of Science and Society
When we started researching this history of structural virology we recognized that science is not carried out in a vacuum and that scientists would be influenced by the political and social events surrounding them. That idea had been distinct from our choice of J.D. Bernal as the originator of the study of viruses by X-ray crystallography. Bernal was chosen because he had seen the potential of using X-ray diffraction in determining virus structure and because he and Isadore Fankuchen had taken the first X-ray photographs of tobacco mosaic virus and tomato bushy stunt virus in the 1930s. Then as we learned more about Bernal we realized that, in many respects, he was even better known for his involvement in social and political problems than he was for his scientific contributions. When Bernal became an important part of our history so did issues of science and society.
Bernal's interest and involvement in social and political issues began about the same time he initiated his scientific studies at Cambridge and he became a committed Marxist and a member of the British Communist Party during the 1920's. The book he wrote The Social Function of Science published in 1939 was considered to be one of his major contributions of that period - the same period in which he was involved in groundbreaking research on crystals of sterols, proteins and viruses! Bernal proposed that government support and planning of scientific research would be the best means of improving the conditions of human life. In his essay "The Marxist Vision of J. D. Bernal", the historian and philosopher of science, Jerry Ravetz , wrote this about Bernal: "With a magnificent sweep, his surveys run through the history, sociology, political critique and the future of science. His was a coherent vision, one deriving from a great tradition of progressive thought about science which first matured in the mid-eighteenth century but was, I think, enriched and deepened by Bernal's own intense concern for science and democracy." And later in the essay "Bernal's Social Function of Science was perhaps the last of the great testaments of science in which a person of broad intelligence and philosophical depth could argue coherently that the social problems of the world, and of science itself, could be solved simply by the methods and approach of science".
Jerry Ravetz told us that he had met Bernal in the early 1960s at a British Society for the History of Science meeting in London. After the meeting he asked Bernal: "How do you feel now nearly 25 years after you published your great work on the social function of science? How do you feel about science especially now since the lessons have been absorbed?" The answer was unexpected. Bernal replied: "Oh, it 's all a racket. Back in the old days we all loved science we were in it just because we loved it and it was great fun. But now you have all these kids - it's just careers and they don't care. All they want is more money and more personnel. It's terrible."
Ravetz wrote that he came to see Bernal as a tragic figure in part because his life had been so compromised and corrupted in trying to maintain his vision of a socialist future. Bernal died in 1971 and although he remained a confirmed Marxist he would have been very aware of how few social benefits there actually were in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. Another point that Ravetz made, and one that resonates today, is that Bernal and his generation were unable to see the possibility of potential harm that could accompany scientific applications - effects on the environment now being cited as the classic example.
The introduction of Jerry Ravetz into this history is in itself an amusing story. It began during the taping of Steve Harrison's history. Steve told the following story (taken from his oral history):
SCH I think I told you a funny story about my return from Istanbul where I was sitting on a train opposite some historians of science. This was the days of the recombinant DNA issues and they were on the anti-side. One was an American at Leeds. (This was Jerry Ravetz!) The other was a woman who may have been at Michigan at that time. I didn't look like a scientist because there I was in a leather jacket having come back from Istanbul so I looked like a tourist - an American tourist in England. The train had seats facing each other - a little table between them - one of the old fashioned trains on the Kings Cross Line. They spent the entire trip, an hour and a half between London and Cambridge, basically doing a Marxist analysis of the recombinant DNA debate. Of course they were criticizing all my closest friends.
SS Did they ever find out who you were?
SCH I managed to avoid bursting out by trying to imagine very sad stories - I stared at cows. And finally - you had to hand in your ticket in England when you got off the train at a little turnstile - I ran just a little bit ahead of them so I was at the turnstile and they were right behind me. I turned around and said "by the way, I ought to let you know that your whole conversation has been overheard by a member of the East Coast scientific establishment". And they were absolutely flabbergasted. They were very good sports and they had a car and offered me a ride into town and I had a perfectly pleasant ride into town. They said "Oh my God, who are you?" I said I was a Professor at Harvard and colleague of Wally Gilbert and Mark Ptashne. They were completely mortified, really hilarious. It was the only time, for a whole two hours, that I managed to keep my cool. I couldn't believe I was doing it, because it was going on and on, it was really classic. I really wish I had a tape recording.
Steve agreed that we could include this anecdote if we got permission from the other participants. After some significant effort we were able to locate Jerry Ravetz who was greatly amused and amenable to having this incident remembered. Ravetz did have some interesting and useful things to say about the beginnings of recombinant DNA research, particularly about the differences between the United States and Great Britain. Some of his comments are discussed later. But we discovered that his interests are much broader and that he had written several essays about JD Bernal, and that brought us directly back to the history of structural virology.
The period covered in depth in this history is from the 1960s through the 1980s. The 1960s and 70s were a time of much upheaval in the world, much of that fueled by the Vietnam war. The Vietnam War was surely the most profound influence and one that did have an effect on many scientists. We decided, however, to begin this section on Science and Society with issues more directly associated with science. The two with which we start are recombinant DNA and the problems that arose with the attempt to vaccinate the public in the U.S. against a potential epidemic of influenza. The latter was selected not only because of our interest in influenza but also because the potential of epidemics is a continuous problem and past experiences and difficulties should be remembered.
Introduction | Some
historical highlights: structural virology and virology |
| Solving the Structure of Icosahedral Plant Viruses | Picornavirus Structure | Poliovirus | Polio
The Influenza Virus Hemagglutinin | The Influenza Virus Neuraminidase | Issues of Science and Society |
contributors| Home |