Stuck on the secrets of life

Scientists are not what they were. Take J B S Haldane (1892-1964). From an ancient Scottish lineage and educated at Eton and Oxford, Haldane became professor of genetics at University College London in 1933. More recently, Steve Jones has held that post.

Like Haldane, Jones is brilliantly articulate, and both have been published widely. Jones has spent time in Spain looking into the shell patterns of snails. Haldane went to Spain, too.

In 1937, he raised funds for the International Brigades and fought in the civil war. He also fought in the First World War, wrote books, engaged publicly in a Cambridge (heterosexual) sex scandal and fist-fought Oswald Mosley's thugs. He conducted important scientific work during the Second World War (despite being a member of the Communist Party).

Haldane's main contributions to research were his mathematical descriptions of hereditary principles and how enzymes work. We still use his equations today. For 50 years, we have been deconstructing biology to its component parts. Unlike Haldane, we can read gene sequences and visualise enzyme structures. But the strides in science haven't brought us closer to an understanding of life. Abstract reasoning is fashionable again as we try to crack the secrets that convert chemical constituents into living forms. "JBS" would be smiling.

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India