On Free Radicals

NB: Also published on Truthout

With his Free Radicals, British physicist and journalist Michael Brooks seeks principally to provide a counter-narrative to popular interpretations of the scientific world which emphasize science’s predicability, blandness, and affinity with constituted power. He does this by considering a number of examples in the history of science and lives of particular scientists that demonstrate science’s practice often at its heart to be an “anarchic, creative, and radical endeavour.” Against the science of the Pentagon and transnational capital, Brooks in Free Radicals explores some of the important contributions science has granted to the human condition and imaginatively examines some of its current and future potentialities: the work as a whole is a celebration of anarchy and its possibilities as reflected in science as elsewhere—“a call for more scientific anarchy, and for the creation of a culture in which it can thrive.” Toward this end, Brooks recommends that practitioners of science break with the timidity and positivism long associated with the discipline and instead become free, radical scientists who engage publicly with social responsibility in mind, following the Enlightenment tradition of resistance to established irrationalities, one reflected in Immanuel Kant’s invitation for humanity to “have the courage to use [its] reason,” or mind—as in the note comprising Carl Sagan’s dedication to his nephew in The Demon-Haunted World, wishing as it does that the child be allowed the chance to live in a world “free of demons and full of light.”

For Brooks, the practice of science can be anarchically subversive, rejecting conventional methods and relations. This is seen clearly in Brooks’ examination of the case of Kary Mullis, recipient in 1993 of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who claims his use of LSD to have been seminal in his general understanding of the subject, and particularly for his breakthrough discovery of the polymerase chain reaction, a biotechnological method used to mass-reproduce given DNA strains. Such a revelation—shocking, perhaps, to those for whom science is a field marked by routineness and discipline—continues in Brooks’ investigation of the claim that famed biological investigator Francis Crick had been high on LSD when he and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA in 1953; as an adherent to the scientific method, though, Brooks ultimately concludes that he cannot know whether this was the case or not, due to contradictory reports and lack of evidence. The author does however relate that Crick was a proponent of the legalization of cannabis and an opponent of the British monarchy as an institution. Similar to Mullis and potentially Crick, mathematician Ralph Abraham is shown to claim LSD to have been central to the development of chaos theory, fractal geometry, and computer science. These three cases call to mind the psychological research of William James, who carried out experiments under the influence of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), following from his belief, as Brooks notes, that normal consciousness is “but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it […] there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different”—ones that should be accounted for in the quest for understanding the self and the world. Indeed, these examples correlate well with one of the projects engaged in by German critical theorist Walter Benjamin, for he sought through his drug protocols to observe the potential which he theorized intoxication by various narcotics could have for the development of non-conformist, anti-systemic sensibilities and consciousness.1

Apart from uncovering the role altered consciousness seemingly played in the progression of scientific discovery during the twentieth century, Brooks importantly situates scientific inquiry as generally relating to the anarchy of intellectual investigation. Brooks’ prime example in this sense is that of biologist Lynn Margulis, who famously generated the Endosymbiont theory, which stipulates that the rise of photosynthetic and nonphotosynthetic eukaryotic cellular life originated in the merging of a given host cell with prokaryotic cells that over time came to function as mitochondria and chloroplasts within their hosts—thus reminding us of the common ancestry of all complex life, a discovery that may well have significant implications for solidarity among humans with other life-forms. In this sense the Endosymbiont theory is similar to the lessons to be gleaned from genetics and phylogeny, which demonstrate the great similarities among humans and other non-human animals, particularly primates. Brooks finds the ultimate success of Margulis’ theory to have been intimately connected with her anarchical commitment to truth and her concomitant struggles against previously established approaches to the evolution of life, ones that resulted in her proposed revisions to evolutionary theory being rejected numerous times and her research funding continually threatened. As Brooks writes, Margulis “had to be an anarchist” to possess the tenacity and resolve to defy the scientific establishment and have her theory finally be accepted. As with Galileo and countless other critical thinkers, these anarchical results follow from the work of creative inquiry, the autonomous exercise of the human mind. Thought as the basis of mind underpins all progress in terms of human knowledge—from advances made by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in microbiology to that in politics and ethics by such figures as Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, and numerous other humanists.

In a sense betraying the intellectual spirit of the figures he investigates in Free Radicals, Brooks is at times lazy and disingenuous with his definitions of anarchy and anarchism. For example, it is questionable that Galileo’s extramarital sexual relations with his lover Marina Gamba foreshadowed the devastating conflicts he would have with the Church, as the author of Free Radicals half-jokingly claims. Brooks moreover is wrong to consider “anarchic” the myriad ways in which scientists have engaged in blatant fraud to advance results; the Machiavellian means he explores by which many researchers have manipulated data to promote their careers cannot be said to reflect anarchy, as Brooks suggests. The author would seem to confuse the aggressive, competitive, and egotistical impulses advanced by science’s embeddedness within capitalist social relations with anarchism, a philosophy based on mutual aid and rejection of domination. His worst lapse in this sense is his treatment of Werner Forssmann, a German medical researcher who came to invent the cardiac catherization procedure by means of rather unconventionally attempting it on himself: Brooks claims him to have “promulgat[ed]” anarchy of a “darker hue” in his subsequent role as Surgeon General of the Nazi regime, a position he infamously used to perform horrific medical experimentation on prisoners. There can be nothing remotely anarchic in such acts; anarchy is not simply scandal or the rejection of established limits, against Brooks’ implications. Not all expressions of the repressed should be considered rational or humane—that is to say, anarchic. The author’s own lack of commitent to an anarchist politics is seen well in his uncritical discussion of inventor Stanford Ovshinsky, who on the one hand is praised for his unorthodox entrance into the world of science and his rejection of material gain, yet is not questioned over his complicity with U.S. imperialism: the advantage his efficiency-improving lathe granted U.S. artillery in the Korean War is described as having “saved the lives of US soldiers in Korea,” and not as having dealt death to countless Koreans. Brooks’ formulation of the scientific discoveries that allowed for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—that is, humanity’s coming to “understand the interplay between mass and energy”—as having been used to “make the world a better place” is simply stunning. It is consonant with his more general omissions on militarism and racism—two projects with which science has self-evidently been noxiously intertwined.

These significant lapses on Brooks’ part notwithstanding, Free Radicals nonetheless importantly reminds us of the effective social anarchism engaged in by a number of notable dissident scientists throughout the history of science: Carl Sagan, for example, in his public research on nuclear weapons and his activism in favor of nuclear disarmament, in addition to his general public engagement as an advocate for science and lifetime education; Rachel Carson, through her denunciations of modernity’s devastation of the non-human world in Silent Spring, as elsewhere; and climatologist James Hansen, who famously has been arrested on multiple occasions protesting mountain-top removal coal-mining, as follows from his findings regarding the measures that must be taken if young people, future generations, and terrestrial nature generally considered are to enjoy climatic conditions amenable to high levels of biodiversity and generalized human flourishing—however distant or even “utopian” all the ends sought by such critical scientists are from presently dominant relations. In addition to contemplating these luminaries, Brooks could have explored the political commitments of a number of other scientist-activists who have researched and attempted to organize against world-destructive practices and hegemonic unreason: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chemist Linus Pauling, Albert Einstein, and mathematician Bertrand Russell, for example. It is unfortunate that Brooks fails to discuss or even mention the libertarian-socialist views of the latter two, seen in Russell’s denunciations of the Vietnam War and Einstein’s enthusiasm for ‘primitive’ organic societies and his advocacy of council communism, as in their joint 1955 Manifesto calling for nuclear disarmament.2 Indeed, in this sense Brooks could have done well to have reflected on the anti-capitalist response given by Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, to Edward R. Murrow’s question regarding whether the vaccine could be said to have an owner: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Reading Free Radicals and utilizing information about radical scientists not considered in it, we are confronted with a fine collection of agitational, oppositional intellectuals and thinkers who have employed their reason to warn humanity of the myriad dangers posed to its life—and that of much else that lives on Earth—by prevailing social forms, and who have in addition promoted collective political action as a means of resolving and averting such dangers. Through their example these investigators have dutifully observed Sagan’s call for scientists to “alert the public to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or foreseeable through the use of science.” It is in this sense that these critical thinkers continue in the example of the historical exercise of the Copernican theory against the constituted Church—in the anarchy Brooks rightly identifies as having been brought to light in Barcelona in 1936, when masses of subordinated workers, female and male, engaged in the “removal of the ruling classes.”

It is in Brooks’ passing mention of the experience of twentieth-century Spanish anarchism that he provides a compelling image of the end toward which reason strives. The progression of scientific knowledge, the exercise of mind, can serve anarchy, or revolutionary social change; science and anarchy can be seen to be metaphorically symbiotic, with the former helping to provide objective assessments of the dire need for socio-political transformation, and the latter seeking to institute socio-political action commensurate with these diagnoses. To turn to the perhaps most urgent such question, an understanding of the physics and chemistry behind climatology coupled with an awareness regarding the presently catastrophic carbon-emissions trajectory being impelled by global capitalism demonstrates the imperative for social revolution, as Professor Minqi Li claims3—one that follows from Theodor W. Adorno’s posited imperative to avert the recurrence of the Shoah or anything similar, as from Kant’s categorical imperative regarding the treatment of humanity as an end in itself. This demand for revolution is a call for the generalized exercise of thought and of solidarity, one inclusive of the multitudes of Southerners threatened by climate destruction, as of the millions of non-human species similarly imperiled. Such a politics of solidarity—one arising out of sympathy and love for that which is vulnerable to reigning social forms, which is all life—can rightly in the present only be anti-systemic, or anarchist. Capital and the state—the agents responsible for war, genocide, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and looming climate catastrophe—are self-evidently still ascendant; the past has not been overcome.

Still, there is a chance that it be overcome, as can be observed in the irruptions gripping Egypt, Mexico, the U.S., China, and beyond—as is reflected in the everyday utopian strivings of art and social life, as Ernst Bloch and others assert.4 One of the many tasks today would be to institute new forms of scientific investigation and application, ones that would be employed, as Aldous Huxley advocates, as though “they had been made for [humanity], not… as though [humanity] were to be adapted and enslaved to them.” This task is the work of the critical, radical social movements presently developing throughout the globe. Taking aim at social destructiveness, the revolutionary practitioners of this ‘new science’ should not seek solely to benefit humanity, as critical as that end itself is, but rather life as a whole—Eros, as Herbert Marcuse puts it.5 Brooks’ review of scientific anarchy shows us that this is an ongoing struggle, one at times hidden but always present as a potentiality for reason-bearing humanity. This struggle must be carried forward, its traditions advanced and continued.


1Walter Benjamin, On Hashish (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006).

2Albert Einstein,“Why Socialism?” Monthly Review, 1949.

3Minqi Li, “Climate Change and the Imperative for Social Revolution,” 7 March 2010.

4Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986 [1959]).

5Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).

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