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Memoir exposes perils of Soviet science

It is unlikely that there are many MIT professors who have climbed out of windows to escape a "friendly" lunch with a team of KGB agents, but Loren Graham, professor of the history of science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), is one of them.

The story of that lunch and many other gripping episodes from his long, distinguished career of studying Soviet science appear in his new memoir, "Moscow Stories" (Indiana University Press, $29.95).

Almost any memoir dealing with the Soviet era in Russia includes its share of surreal scenes, and "Moscow Stories" is no exception. Graham was courted by intelligence services on both sides and had to get used to the omnipresence of "minders," even on his long jogging route through the Moscow neighborhoods. (His minders were always outfitted in identical blue tracksuits.)

The contents, categorization and availability of materials in the libraries where he did his work shifted with the political winds, sometimes from one day to the next. In the august halls of Soviet academe, he writes, "Standard equipment for the most distinguished scholar in the library was a small roll of toilet paper tucked away in a pocket, for the toilets contained none."

Government meddling

More substantively, Graham's memoir charts his years of research, much of it in Moscow and St. Petersburg, into the successes, failures and cultural meanings of Russian science. His studies revealed the perils, both to science and to scientists, of government meddling in science.

In the USSR, the self-dealing and ambitious biologist Trofim Lysenko, "the most infamous scientist of the 20th century," falsified results in the field of livestock breeding, setting the country on a disastrous path of denying (and persecuting those who insisted on) the significance of DNA in genetics.

Lysenko's sway over official science not only had tragic consequences for the country's agriculture, including ruining the country's breeding stock, but also sent dozens of reputable geneticists to exile and death in Siberia. One of the most riveting chapters in "Moscow Stories" tells the tale of this sorry figure, and Graham's dogged and ultimately successful attempt to interview him.

In an e-mail from Moscow, Graham commented that the lessons learned from the Soviet experience with Lysenko are applicable to other countries: "When the president of the country, as George Bush has done, makes his own comments on the validity of certain scientific views -- such as biological evolution, global warming, etc. -- this is a very dangerous precedent."

Soviet science has a lot to teach engineering students as well. "Much social damage can be done by keeping engineering education too restricted, without adequate attention to subjects like political economy, the humanities and the social sciences," Graham writes.

Neglect of these areas in Russian education led to notorious industrial planning failures, which Graham outlined in his previous book, "The Ghost of the Executed Engineer" (1993). He adds, "After studying these mistakes, one can draw conclusions that are important for engineering education everywhere, including in the United States and at MIT."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 10, 2006 (download PDF).

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