A Polymath: J.B.S. Haldane

Aamir Khan stirred up a hornet’s nest when he shared the apprehensions of his wife in the present climate of intolerance in the ountry.That reminds me of the celebrated polymath J.B.S. Haldane. (A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.) Writing on education Dr.Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan says, "a person whose knowledge is limited to a particular branch of knowledge, cannot be said to be truly educated."

Haldane was an Englishman. From childhood he was known to have strong opposition towards any form of authoritarianism. In 1956 Britain invaded Suez canal. Haldane was outraged. It was this political dissent that made him leave England for good and become a "proud" citizen of India. He was particularly critical of Britain's role in the Suez Crisis for which he accused Britain of violating international law. He was not accused by his fellow countrymen of unpatriotic behaviour. 

    John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, (5 November 1892 – 1 December 1964) who used 'J. B. S.' in his printed works), was a British naturalised Indian scientist. He was a polymath well known for his works in physiology, genetics and evolutionary biology. He was also a mathematician making innovative contributions to statistics and biometry education in India. In addition, he was an avid politician and science populariser.[2] He was the recipient of National Order of the Legion of Honour (1937), Darwin Medal (1952), Feltrinelli Prize (1961), and Darwin–Wallace Medal (1958). Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, himself recognised as the "cleverest man", called Haldane "the cleverest man I ever knew".[4] Arthur C. Clarke credited him as "perhaps the most brilliant scientific populariser of his generation"

Complex reasons motivated Haldane to abandon his position at University College London and move to India in 1957. His professional reputation and prestige were at their maximum, yet Haldane chose to turn his back on Europe and other active centers of scientific research in the world. The most important reason was undoubtedly his increasing dissatisfaction with the politics of Great Britain at that time. He was not comfortable living in the east or west block during the cold war years. He was attracted to the neutralist policy of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. Several years earlier, he had abandoned Marxist politics and was not interested in living in any countries of the communist bloc.

Another important reason was his desire to pursue research on Indian plant and animal species and human populations. Ever since his first visit to India in 1917, when he was sent to a British Army Hospital to recuperate from wounds he received in Mesopotamia (Iraq), Haldane frequently mentioned his desire to return to India. Upon his arrival in 1957, he initiated at once several research projects of an ecological and biometrical nature. These are briefly described below. Furthermore, as a classical scholar, he was drawn to India's ancient civilizations, religions, languages, and cultures. He often enjoyed quoting passages and verse in several Indian languages during his scientific lectures, just as he used to quote from Latin and Greek classics in Europe.

J. B. S. Haldane was a great populariser of science, contributing numerous articles to newspapers and popular magazines in several countries. A selection of these essays has recently been published (DRONAMRAJU 2009). Many of these pieces were written in his “spare time” while traveling on trains and planes. Haldane's “popular” scientific essays are, in fact, much more than that; they often contained original ideas that remain of interest to scientists

Haldane's last years in India are of interest because he showed how an eminent scientist from the West can transplant himself to a less developed country and still lead a productive and creative life during his last years. He suggested research projects that could be undertaken by utilizing local resources, requiring no expensive laboratories or equipment, while much of his own research was of theoretical and mathematical nature and hence not dependent on external funding.

A renowned atheist, humanist, self-experimenter and prolific author, Haldane is remembered for his several extraordinary visions and witty remarks. He was the first to suggest the central idea of in vitro fertilisation (more popularly "test tube babies"), presented in his lecture/book Daedalus and fictionalized by Aldous Huxley inBrave New World. The concept of hydrogen economy for generating power originated from his Cambridge speech in 1923. Many scientific terms including cis, trans,coupling, repulsion, darwin (as a unit of evolution) were coined by him, as well as the term "clone" to describe the possibility of creating exact copies of humans. His imminent death due to colorectal cancer was lamented by himself in a poem Cancer's a Funny Thing. He willed his body for medical studies, as he wanted to remain useful even in death.

Haldane died on 1 December 1964. He willed that his body be used for study at the Rangaraya Medical College, Kakinada.India.


More by :  Ganganand Jha

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