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A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  113 ratings  ·  20 reviews
J. B. S. Haldane’s life was rich and strange, never short on genius or drama—from his boyhood apprenticeship to his scientist father, who first instilled in him a devotion to the scientific method; to his time in the trenches during the First World War, where he wrote his first scientific paper; to his numerous experiments on himself, including inhaling dangerous levels of ...more
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published July 28th 2020 by W. W. Norton Company
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Brian Clegg
Jul 10, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life.

Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics
Omar Ali
Aug 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
n his day, J.B.S. Haldane was one of the most famous scientists (and popularisers of science) in the world. A colourful character, he was a lifelong rebel who became a committed Marxist and, near the end of his life, renounced his British citizenship and moved to India to live and work there. Seeing that there is clearly a great story to be told here, Samanth Subramanian has written a well-researched biography that can help revive interest in one of 20th century's most fascinating characters.

Jan 17, 2021 rated it really liked it
How is it possible that J. B. S. Haldane, one of the central figures of 20th century biology and scientific research, was such a staunch defender of Stalinism/Lysenkoism? That's the central question of this great biography of J. B. S.

As a biologist myself I knew a bit about Haldane, mostly his central role in the New Synthesis, the early 20th century set of research that merged Darwin's and Mendel's ideas with modern research, his communism, and I had some vague ideas about his crazy antics duri
Feb 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book needs a wider audience. Scholarly research and erudite rendition of the biography of a complex character. Extraordinary brilliance and extremely irritable disposition marks the subject matter of the book. Haldane is at once a generalist who dabbles across all subjects (including politics) as well as a focussed biologist shining light on Darwin’s theory.

The last chapter dedicated to his life in India brings out the bureaucratic troubles he faced at Kolkata and Bhubaneswar. Overall an e
Aashish Satyajith
2/5 it was ok

What I liked about the book is that it discusses both virtues and vices of J. B. S. Haldane. It does a good job of conveying the extraordinary persona of J. B. S. and how he was who he was.

However, I was not so comfortable while reading the book; it was locally incoherent in places but the author somehow manages to make it globally coherent.

Overall a decent read.
Achyuth Sanjay
Jun 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
I have always been a fan of Samanth Subramanian’s writing after having discovered him through the Indian quizzing scene. I picked this up having read the delightfully written Following Fish and the very poignant and moving This Divided Island, curious to see why JBS Haldane’s life could be so interesting. It didn’t disappoint - it’s a riveting account of not just JBS Haldane’s life, but also a fascinating narrative of the embryonic stages of evolutionary biology and genetics. If there is any fie ...more
Cormac Healy
Jan 07, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting and unusual look at one of the most influential scientists of the Twentieth Century.

The book is ostensibly about the life of JBS Haldane, a scientist reminiscent of an earlier age, a polymath and enthusiastic scholar who did not even possess a scientific degree, but came to be a key figure in the field of genetics. But the book is also about the political climate of the time, particularly relating to communism, as for many years Haldane was a card-carrying member of the British Co
Sep 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an absolutely wonderful book about an absolutely fascinating man.

Subramanian does a great job of capturing Haldane's early influences, especially that of his father, and how they led him to the life of science and politics that he led. His curmugdeonly traits are here, of course, but they're presented kindly. Most of all, Haldane's relentless restless curiosity comes through.

The science in the book is very well reported -- clear for a lay audience, and accurate in the details of those f
The Inquisitive Biologist
May 12, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Effortlessly switching back and forth between JBS Haldane's personal life and his academic achievements, A Dominant Character is an incredibly enjoyable biography that never seeks to downplay the complicated character of this British polymath. See my full review at ...more
Anushka Mukherjee
Feb 19, 2021 rated it liked it
I enjoyed reading Samanth Subramanian's writing. Partly because it was almost poetic in all its metaphors (maybe slightly excessively so at some points), but mostly because it made the science that anchored this book easy to understand and super interesting. I did think the central idea, Haldane's science x politics got a little all-over-the-place along the way. But overall, I think Haldane himself would've enjoyed this book, and that's saying something. ...more
Feb 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
Amazing book about one of the less acclaimed titans of genetics - J B S Haldane. Extensively researched and wonderfully written by Samanth Subramanian. Haldane's membership in the British Communist Party probably ensured he was always caught in a total eclipse, but that never deterred him! His 'radical' science often included offering himself as a volunteer to be tested upon - to check the tolerance levels of CO2 and CO in the blood for instance. Evidently, this ran in the family, his father hav ...more
Jan 01, 2021 rated it really liked it
Really a marvelous biography, and so well written, with vivid imagery and the occasional short declarative sentence to highlight a point. Plainly Haldane had talents, intelligence, acumen, and personal bravery that were all off the charts. I wish he were alive today to advise on the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

I would have ended the book at the penultimate chapter and avoided brief but strong editorializations about ongoing controversies in evolutionary biology in the final chapter. It seems like an aft
[my reviews are generally notes for myself - key facts, references, new revelations, etc, and also things I found doubtful, inconsistent, or wrong]
The book is an easy 5 star for me. A quick look at other 4-5 star reviews tells me that I would simply be repeating what has already been (well in most cases) said.
Overall notes
Haldane's life spans WWI to post WWII. Unless one understands the awkward, violent, painful, and incomplete transition from pre WWI European power bases to a new worl
Richard Thompson
Jan 17, 2021 rated it really liked it
I have read a number of science books about genetics and evolution written for a broad audience, and the name of JBS Haldane frequently comes up as an important figure who was responsible for a lot of the advances in evolution and genetics after Darwin and Mendel and before the discovery of the double helix. But I knew little of Haldane as a person, so I was interested to learn more. It was not surprising that he was a socially maladroit curmudgeon, a ceaseless campaigner for high quality scient ...more
Dec 03, 2020 rated it liked it

The problematic polymath that was J.B.S. Haldane
By Samanth Subramanian on Late Night Live with Phillip Adams

Download The problematic polymath that was J.B.S. Haldane (19.58 MB)
Download 19.58 MB

J.B.S. Haldane was a brilliant and eccentric British scientist, as famous in his day as Albert Einstein, whose predictions inspired Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. But his passion for science was matched by his passion for politics, and his inability to separate the
Jan 12, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A magnificent biography of a Renaissance man. At first I thought the wonderful first chapter would spoil the rest of the tale, but the author skilfully lays out his facts and then concludes the book by considering the relevance of some of the themes to today and to the future. You don't need more than a hand-waving knowledge of science to follow the book.

Not only did Haldane understand that science, ethics and politics were ''shackled together'', but so did the author.

I know exactly when the la
David Felson
Dec 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
I liked this book a lot. It’s a biography of one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century, j b s haldane who was a biologist and geneticist and made major contributions to our understanding of linkage of two traits on the same chromosome. He was also a communist and defender in the early 20th century of the Soviet Union. I found the book to be slow at first but I enjoyed it more and more. The ultimate discussions about whether scientists should get politically engaged is timely given ...more
Leonard Singer
Jan 16, 2021 rated it liked it
Haldane thought that Stalin “was a very great man who did a very good job” p. 271. Haldane should have used some of his reputed intelligence to read the predecessors of Solzhenitsyn, although, in fact, Haldane didn’t have to because he knew the facts of the horror Stalin imposed on the USSR.
Keerthi Kiran
Oct 25, 2020 rated it liked it
A colourful character with multitude of interests and eccentricities. The narration on audible was not great but the story was interesting and fast paced.
Mar 31, 2021 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography-read
An interesting person and absolutely worthy of a book. But unfortunately this book was simply boring at times.
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Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for The National and the author of two books of reportage, "Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast" and "This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War." His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Intelligent Life, Aeon, Mint, Travel + Leisure, and Caravan, am

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