20 AUGUST 1988, Page 25


For whom is this vast book? Assuredly not for all of us. Assuredly not for those seeking something jolly to read in a shade- dappled hammock. It is too heavy, needs a desk. It is not for those baffled by military acronyms, SACEUR and the like, by aircraft and missile names or by the under- stated horrors of the nuclear debate.

It is no place to go for a laugh. There are jokes, to be sure, but mostly of that dire `chaffing' or 'joshing' sort which derive their humour from the dropped names of the eminent in scientific, royal, political, military or other much honoured and decorated circles. Lord Zuckerman seems to know few people not important or obviously useful to him. He records many splendid formal dinners, with white ties and decorations, and the accompanying inevitable lapses and embarrassments. Admiral Rickover, getting his honorary degree at Birmingham, has forgotten to bring his CBE to wear at the dinner. Lord Z finds him one before introducing him to the other diners, 'many bedecked with medals and orders'. 'Jesus,' Rickover com- ments loudly, 'a nation of heroes'. Dickie' (Mountbatten) announces that his brother- in-law has just been elected a FRS. 'What does your brother-in-law do?' asks Herb (York, an American nuclear physicist). `What's his science? Physics, botany or what?' Dickie hesitates a moment (unlike him?) before answering, 'Oh, he's King of Sweden'. The Americans are suitably amazed. (One laudable scientific accom- plishment of the King of Sweden, inciden- tally, was to make with his own hands crepes Suzette soused with half a bottle of Cointreau. Never otherwise did alcohol pass the Bernadotte lips.) For whom, then, this book? Undoubted- ly for Lord Z's friends, as numerous as the sands of the seashore, though far more influential, capable of mopping up a good- ly first edition on their own. They will find their names in the index, their views and doings, mostly highly respectable, except for George Brown's, recorded in the text. If any of them chance to be unknown to each other, they will derive from these Pages precious little idea of what sort of people the unknown are. Lord Zucker man's descriptions are brief, reach-me- down, unilluminating in the extreme. George Kistiakowski, President Eisenhow- er's scientific adviser, is characterised as 'a tall and impressive-looking man', Herb York was 'a much younger man, not quite as tall as George, but powerful-looking and stocky'. Lord Z's friendship with York, formed in 1959, continues unbroken to this day. Yet all he can find for him and other

Scientist at the top

Colin Welch

MONKEYS, MEN AND MISSILES: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, 1946-88 by Solly Zuckerman Collins, £19.50, pp.498 intimates are adjectives a hack journalist might apply to a man-of-distinction bit-part player in a Washington behind-the-scenes movie. Odd and disappointing, certainly, though no proof of insincerity.

Has Lord Z any counter-balancing ene- mies to add a bit of tabasco? Well, he fell out with Edward Teller, who continues `to spout dangerous political and military non- sense' and once said to Lord Z, 'I will never forgive you.' He wrote off Professor Bronowski as 'a great waster of time'. He quarrelled with Professor Bernal, who vainly tried to turn him into a Communist. Lord Z's own political views seem neutral- ly muted, not far away, I guess, from Pope's contention that whatever is best administered is best.

He found Cecil King 'an unsmiling giant and a forbidding host'. He attended the notorious and ludicrous meeting called by King or Mountbatten (the matter seems still in dispute) to destabilise Wilson. Lord Z accused King of proposing treason. As a servant of the Crown, he wouldn't listen to another word, and neither should Dickie. As he stalked angrily off, he advised Dickie to 'throw them out' — good advice, as you would expect from this famous scientific adviser to many governments.

Lord Z also, I fancy, found C.P. Snow a bit of an ass, more novelist than scientist. These artless pages reveal Lord Z to be more scientist than novelist. Their effect is of C.P. Snow's world incongruously chronicled by Jennifer of the Diary and extended to include even the Pope, 'a very elegant figure in white' who 'made a graceful exit ... elegantly and slowly wav- ing a hand ...' Lord Z quotes with relish Sir Richard (Otto) Clark's advice to note carefully what Snow was urging and smart- ly do the opposite. At that time Snow was urging more money for more universities (more means worse), basing his advocacy on forecasts of future needs for scientific manpower which wiser men like Lord Z and Sir Gilbert Flemming derided. Lord Z regards shortage of scientific manpower as a factor, but not as a sufficient reason for Britain's industrial decline. Produce more of it, and an economic resurrection may follow. Or, Lord Z adds shrewdly, it may not.

More good counsel, and proceeding, true, from a scientist. Yet we note that it is not strictly scientific advice, unless you regard economics as a science. It is based rather on common sense and experience, on a natural and untutored feel for econo- mic reality, on a modest recognition of problems which applied science cannot alone solve. Lord Z is a scientist, but not only a scientist. He is also a wise man, as numberless reflections reveal. Take this, for instance, on scientific research, which

is never as clearcut in practice as in theory. A true account of the history of an enquiry usually reads less like a detective story, with its orderly procession from clues to discover- ies and to the final leap of imagination which elucidates the whole problem, than like the accounts of early voyages of exploration ... A man might spend half his life beating up and down the coast of America in search of a Northwest Passage ... but never reaching his Indies. The research worker bent on advanc- ing some particular branch of biology might end in much the same way. His successes would depend partly on his skill in continually adjusting the direction of his enquiries, as well as their purpose, in relation to all and sundry of his observations ...

Jennifer had no hand in this passage. It was written by a man who knows and cares about what he has to say.

One of the main functions of a scientist in the popular mind is to create headlines by sensational predictions — that in a few decades the seas will be boiling or frozen solid, say, that death, misery and want will be conquered or will reign supreme over all. In this vulgar sense, Lord Z is hardly a scientist at all. Headlines he abhors. At a conference on the future of medical science he was irritated by the American anthro- pologist and 'publicist' — a nasty crack that! — Margaret Mead, accusing her of speak- ing only in headlines. As for forecasts, Lord Z treats them with the scepticism which is the mark of the true as opposed to the headline-seeking scientist. He points out that grim population forecasts have been made and falsified before. The con- cept of 'an optimum population' enthrals him not at all. If we approach environment and population problems in a hopeful scientific spirit, forswearing 'hysterical computerised gloom', he is confident that society (presumably a free and spon- taneously reacting society?) can adjust itself to new challenges as it did to old. A touch of scientific optimism here? Well, who consults a pessimistic doctor?

Lord Z doubts whether priorities can fruitfully be imposed on science, which is necessarily autonomous. He lays down a cynical 'inexorable law' of research and development in the defence field. It states that, because of the increasing complexity of modern weapons, each new generation which emerges in the arms race costs more than the last, both in money and in skilled manpower. He alerts us to the 'danger of technological developments forming strategies which may be incompatible with presumed national interest'. Like Dean Acheson, he is alarmed by the possibility that defence scientists are determining the direction of foreign policy. He reminds both politicians and his fellow scientists of their proper place and warns them both against assumptions of omnicompetence.

One — to me — curious preoccupation runs through Lord Z's thinking about nuclear weapons. Again and again we are told that tactical battlefield nuclear weapons are a military nonsense and will lead at once, if used, to all-out escalation and nuclear disaster. True enough so far, I don't doubt. Lord Z thinks it in consequ- ence Europe's role to rely on America's strategic nuclear armoury, and to concen- trate on improving our conventional forces (which is very expensive). Is this reasoning wholly valid?

For a start, can we indefinitely rely on America's nuclear shield? Might we not in certain dire circumstances become expend- able, as distant Czechoslovakia seemed expendable to Chamberlain? And, if tac- tical nukes lead at once, if used, to all-out escalation, why should not conventional weapons, if used with initial success, lead at once to exactly the same catastrophe? We can decide what weapons we ourselves have and use. We can't however determine what is used against us in reply. Did Japan's excellent conventional forces save Hiroshima? Moreover, doesn't the con- ditional phrase 'if used' beg a question? Tactical nuclear weapons would never be used unless they have failed to deter aggression, the sole purpose of all our nuclear armoury. The case against using tactical nukes is surely much stronger than that for retaining them as a threat.

Lord Z states the problem starkly: it is not to stop the bomb but to stop wars. This the bomb may help to do. It puts wars out of the calculations of all but peripheral madmen. This it does by making wars more horrible. If tactical nuclear weapons, with all their admittedly horrible consequ- ences, contribute to this end, might they not have their own place in our armoury? Madness to use them, perhaps; but in a mad world, might it not pay to seem mad? Among wolves, says the old Russian proverb, howl like a wolf.