Hermann Muller (1955) - The Effect of Radiation and other Present Day Influences Upon the Human Genetic Constitution

Hermann Muller (1955)

The Effect of Radiation and other Present Day Influences Upon the Human Genetic Constitution

Hermann Muller (1955)

The Effect of Radiation and other Present Day Influences Upon the Human Genetic Constitution

Comment

For he Lindau meeting on chemistry in 1955, the physicist Werner Heisenberg had proposed that invitations should go out to all Nobel Laureates working on nuclear problems, such as radioactivity and ionising radiation. As a result, the meeting attracted Laureates from physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine. Because of this particular circumstance, the American biologist and geneticist Hermann Muller attended a Lindau meeting for the first and only time and gave a long and brilliant lecture (in English with a short polite introduction in German). The first part of the lecture is a pedagogical introduction to classical genetics and mutations. Two years earlier, Francis Crick and James Watson had discovered the double helix molecular structure of the gene and remarked that it should have implications for genetics. It is interesting to hear that Muller, at least as far as I can hear, did not refer to this at all in his unusually long lecture. The reason may be that it probably took quite some time before the molecular approach had an impact on the more classical geneticists. Instead of thus giving the young researchers and students in the audience an early warning of the revolution in molecular biology that would soon follow, Muller spends time and effort on a different but very important problem, that of atomic weapons, test explosions and radioactive fallout. As it is today, this was a topical question in 1955, the same year that the Russell-Einstein manifesto was made public in London (about one week before the Lindau meeting) and representatives of the four nuclear weapon carrying countries met at Lake Geneva to discuss disarmament (a few days after the Lindau meeting). Hermann Muller was one of the signatories of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which through dedicated work by Joseph Rotblat evolved into the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (both jointly rewarded with the Peace Prize in 1995). Also Max Born, present at the Lindau meeting in 1955 (even though he didn’t give a lecture), was one of the signatories. So it is maybe not so surprising that the Nobel Laureates at the meeting wrote a statement of their own: The Lindau Manifesto. This was signed by 18 Nobel Laureates, two of whom were not present but were in telegraphic contact with Lindau. The manifesto was read to the meeting participants by Count Lennart Bernadotte at the closing ceremony on the island of Mainau. It is a short statement which not only asks for an abolishment of nuclear weapons, it also asks for an abolishment of war as a political instrument. It met with wide interest from news media and even though both nuclear weapons and wars are still around, the manifesto certainly helped put Lindau on the international map of the 1950’s!

Anders Bárány

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