Sunday, November 21, 2010

Life Lines 42


Most scientists are not public figures. They do their work in their laboratories and find sufficient pleasure in adding to new knowledge. Some people would like it to be that way and feel that scientists, like shoemakers, should stick to their last. My mentor, Hermann Muller was not that way and Matthew Meselson’s mentor, Linus Pauling, was not that way. When I interviewed Meselson recently at Harvard, I learned that Pauling told him, as a graduate student, not to get involved in protests because his authority as a graduate student would be minimal and his real value to science (and society) was through his contributions and comments on those contributions in his later career. Muller said much the same to his students. He said we would find ourselves increasingly called upon in our careers to speak out on issues (like radiation protection) and we would find ourselves in the public eye not always in a happy way.

Meselson followed Pauling’s advice and for his dissertation he introduced a new technique, density gradient centrifugation, that turned out to be just the tool he (and a fellow graduate student, Frank Stahl) needed to test the then recently introduced double helix model of DNA that Watson and Crick had published. They proved the key predictions of how DNA replicated and their paper became an icon of science (it was the subject of a book by a historian of science who called it the most elegant experiment in the 20th century).

Meselson was recruited to Harvard and asked, a few years later to participate in seminars on nuclear arms disarmament (Kissinger was one of the participants). He shifted from nuclear arms to something he knew more effectively as a chemist and molecular biologist. He sought to ban chemical and biological warfare. He was asked by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to go to Vietnam in 1969 with a scientific team to evaluate the health hazards and ecological damage from spraying herbicides on crops and foliage (mostly with Agent Orange). He played a role in getting the program cut back and in getting President Nixon (via his friend and colleague, Henry Kissinger) to submit the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing chemical warfare agents (including herbicides and incapacitating agents) during war -- a policy abided by Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, but rejected by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (until Nixon changed his mind).

A decade later Meselson investigated an alleged use of poisonous toxins by the USSR in S. E. Asia called Yellow Rain. He went to Laos and other places where the attacks were alleged to have taken place and he showed that the Yellow Rain was not poison but was actually bee feces, mostly mixed local pollen that he was able to identify through his microscopic analysis. Meselson also went with his wife, Jeanne Guillemin (a sociologist at Boston College) to Sverdlovsk and they studied a Cold War episode of an anthrax epidemic that killed about 60 people that the USSR claimed was due to contaminated meat and not from a nearby germ warfare laboratory. Meselson used old weather reports and showed they fitted the distribution of the released cloud in the Sverdlovsk area proving that the outbreak was from the germ warfare facility and not contaminated meat.

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