The Scientist Who Studied Peace

Legume science seems like an area of research where one would be safe from politics. Yet the twentieth-century botanist and plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who worked on developing crop diversity in order to prevent famines, was sent to a Gulag, where he starved to death in 1943, because he would not denounce Mendelian genetics. Trofim Lysenko, the head of the Institute for Genetics at the prestigious state Academy of Sciences (though he didn’t believe in basic genetics), was responsible—he had the ear of Stalin. Lysenko had a crowd of pseudoscientific ideas. He insisted that seeds of the same “class” did not compete for resources but rather worked collectively. The forced implementation of this idea led to years of famine. He often had those who disagreed with him imprisoned or sentenced to death. Tyranny tends to like science for the weapons, but dislike it for its direct relationship to truth.

Within a day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany halted all bilateral science partnerships it had with Russia. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which emerged in a gesture of unity in postwar Europe, withdrew Russia’s observer status from the Large Hadron Collider; it also announced that it would open no new collaborations with Russia “until further notice.” Russia is threatening to leave the International Space Station, and the European Space Agency has suspended its ExoMars mission. The mission, scheduled for later this year, was to use a Russian rocket to launch a rover to Mars. The rover was designed to dig for signs of life. David Parker, the E.S.A.’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, called the decision “agonizing.”

More than twenty per cent of Russia’s internationally co-authored research papers are written in collaboration with U.S. scientists. Some U.S.-Russian research ties have remained and some have not, and the pattern of the ruptures is at times difficult to make out. On the eve of the invasion, physicians in the two countries made plans to spend fifty million dollars annually to collaboratively study heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19. Those plans have fallen apart. M.I.T. has ended its relationship with the Russian-based nonprofit Skolkovo Foundation, which focusses, broadly, on innovation. But other scientific collaborations—some on technologies, others on pharmaceuticals—have continued.

Is there an ethical approach to deciding what ties to scientists should be maintained? While Stalin was forming his pact with Hitler, should one have worked with Nikolai Vavilov? What about Vavilov’s brother Sergei Vavilov, a physicist who studied luminescence and contributed his expertise to Soviet nuclear physics? Many of the scientists who contributed to the Allied nuclear effort were German refugees; some of them were sympathetic to socialism and had seen the Communist Party in Germany stand up to the Nazis—or were Americans who had, on the other side of the Atlantic, grown up during the Great Depression. To what extent can a scientist, and a scientist’s work, be seen as separate from politics or separate from citizenship?

A highly contentious March meeting of the American Physical Society highlighted the unanswerability of such questions. At discussion was what the A.P.S. had already done in response to the war in Ukraine and what more should—or shouldn’t—be done. The A.P.S. has condemned the invasion and helped Ukrainian scientists find positions abroad. (In a small piece of non-depressing news, thousands of scientists worldwide have organized to host Ukrainian colleagues in their labs.) But it has not gone so far as, for example, to refuse to publish Russian scientific work in its journals. Is that right?

The meeting featured an open discussion with many scientists who were originally from Ukraine, and at least one from Belarus, sharing stories of the horrifying situations their colleagues and families back home have faced. One man countered the idea that Russian-born scientists are, for the most part, opposed to the war. A woman brought up a public letter supporting the war that was signed by hundreds of leaders at some of Russia’s most prominent universities. The signatories to the letter, however, are mostly deans and administrators. More than eight thousand Russian-based scientists have signed a different public letter, denouncing the war; they have done so at some risk to themselves. (Some have gone further, circulating a list of those who have supported the war and advocating that they be denied election to the Russian Academy of Sciences.) Leonid Rybnikov, a Moscow-based math professor, said that he was arrested on March 1st and imprisoned for two weeks for writing antiwar and anti-Putin slogans; he is now working in Paris. He observed to Physics Today that, for the same actions he took only a couple of months ago, a Russian could now expect to be imprisoned for several years.

One example of an effort to reflect the complexity of the situation is that of Canada’s science and health ministers, who asked agencies that provide research grants to “implement strict measures to prohibit funding for research collaborations that could further the interests of Vladimir Putin’s regime.” However, they stopped short of banning all collaborations with “individual Russian researchers,” in recognition of the “the historic role that scientists . . . have played in defending freedom from tyranny.” Still, in science, where the applications of basic research are often unknowable, and where accomplishment itself can be a form of P.R., how does one determine what furthers “the interests” of a tyrannical regime?

The moral quandary recalls that faced by a scientist a century ago, Lewis Fry Richardson. A devout Quaker and a pacifist, Richardson was a conscientious objector during the First World War. Instead of fighting, he served in the Friends Ambulance Unit in France. In his downtime, he stared up at the clouds and daydreamed—and developed algorithms for predicting the weather. This had never been done before.

Richardson was ineluctably scientific. Even on idle outings with his family, he would use an umbrella and a whistle to measure sound reflections. He was once filling out a questionnaire for his entry in a Who’s Who book and asked his family whether, for hobbies, it would be O.K. if he put down “solitude.” Richardson’s pacifism was of supreme importance to him, alongside his passion for science. Yet, seemingly every time Richardson turned his attention to research, his work proved useful to the military. When the war broke out, he had been working at an observatory. That observatory was later taken over by the Air Ministry. He resigned, refusing to work even indirectly for the military.

Richardson then went on to study the diffusion of gases through the atmosphere; his work was used to study the diffusion patterns of poison gases. He abandoned that work, too. He was a man of modest means, making these abnegations all the more remarkable.

In his late forties, he decided to get another degree, this time in psychology. He wanted to study human conflict—and to apply his mathematical reasoning to thinking of ways to avoid it. He pursued peace studies by himself, without institutional support. He had been teaching physics at Westminster Training College to cover his expenses and support his family, and did his science in the time remaining to him. He had even tried to isolate and study the variables involved in classroom conflicts.

As part of pursuing his peace research, he needed accurate measurements of national borders. Perhaps their variable lengths might be a factor in why nations do or don’t go to war against one another. In looking at different sources, Richardson found different values given for the same borders. A rigorous scientific thinker, he sought a way to measure borders more accurately. In doing so, he stumbled into something strange and sublime.

Richardson found that the shorter the device used to measure the border, the longer the measured border is. A hundred-mile straight ruler, for example, effaces the irregularities of a border. So does a ten-mile ruler, but to a lesser degree. As one uses shorter and shorter units of measurement, the length of, for example, the coast of England not only gets longer and longer—it approaches infinity. Another way to think about this odd result is that, in pursuing an understanding of how to maintain peace among nations, Richardson stumbled into the unfathomable.

Richardson wasn’t loopy. He acknowledged the limits of his mathematical method for understanding peace. But he also believed that his work was worthwhile. Not everything would yield to being quantified, but some variables could be assessed algorithmically, at least to some extent. In addition to border length, Richardson looked at religion, population, and economic indicators. He followed the data wherever it led him. He found that Christians were probably more likely to war among themselves than with Muslims. After Richardson had put together a pamphlet, “Mathematical Psychology of War,” he ended up printing three hundred copies at his own expense and giving most of them away. (“There was no learned society to which I dared to offer so unconventional a work,” he wrote.) He worried aloud to his family that he was considered odd and not taken seriously.

And that forecasting work he had done during the war—which was lost for some months before turning up again under a heap of coal? The equations could not effectively be used to compute the forecast until much later, because people solving them by hand would not be able to do the computations fast enough. (Richardson had envisioned a crowd of computers—computers, back then, were people who did computations—working collectively at a space like a large theatre, with a system of lights and pneumatic tubes to communicate results quickly from team to team. He also envisioned the computational workers having access to fresh air and lake-and-mountain-filled expanses of nature.) It was not until shortly after Richardson’s death, in 1953, that the first televised weather forecast was broadcast on the BBC. Richardson’s work is still used today, by militaries, and by all the rest of us, too, to tell what the weather will be tomorrow.