SCIENCES

A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane

Norton. Jul. 2020. 400p. ISBN 9780393634242. $40. NAT HIST
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Attempting to encompass the entirety of the polymath that was J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964) is no easy task. Subramanian, an independent journalist, takes on the work admirably in representing how the political and social thought of the Eton- and Oxford-educated classicist was applied to his scientific pursuits in genetics, physiology, and other sciences. Obviously influenced by his father’s research for the betterment of safety in Britain’s working classes, Haldane’s own experiments were applied to preserving life in the trenches and submarines of the wars of the early 20th century (including his own). He believed that Marxist and communist principles were the most practical and rational way to apply science to the betterment of society, refusing to recant publicly, even after it was obvious that Soviet colleagues were suffering under Stalin’s regime. A break with communism was followed by a move to the newly independent India, where he again sought to make his research useful to his adopted nation. Krishna Dronamraju’s Popularizing Science is the only other modern biography.
VERDICT Social historians will appreciate the emphasis on the man and his politics, over an emphasis solely on the science, in this excellent biography.

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