Britain’s proud history of helping scientists threatened by oppression
The Royal Institution supported scientists fleeing 1930s authoritarianism. Now, thanks to our Arnold Fellowships, history repeats itself.
In June 1940, the Nazis compiled a list of who to arrest when they invaded Britain. Among the 2,820 names on the Sonderfahndungsliste (“special manhunt list”), later dubbed the Black Book, were those of Winston Churchill and Sigmund Freud. Churchill’s occupation was listed as Prime Minister. For the founder of psychoanalysis, it simply said, “Jew”.
Also on the list were three German scientists, who were working at the Royal Institution in Mayfair. The Academic Assistance Council, which had been set up to rescue scientists under threat, had the humanitarian instinct, and the foresight, to help Robert Eisenschitz, Adolf Schallamach and Gunter Nagelschmidt move to London to continue their research.
Now the aggression of another authoritarian is damaging the climate of freedom in which discovery thrives. In response to this, at the G7 Summit this week, Boris Johnson declared that Russian scientists should “feel free” to come to the UK and “work in a country that values openness, freedom and the pursuit of knowledge”. But the trouble is, Russian scientists don’t feel free.
That’s why the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where I work, has done more than just issue an invitation. We have created five three-year Fellowships, which are ring-fenced for theoretical physicists and mathematicians affected by the war in Ukraine. This means not only Ukrainian researchers, but also those from Russia, and its ally Belarus.
Our Arnold Fellowships are named after Vladimir Arnold, a Ukrainian-born Russian scientist. One of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century, Arnold made contributions to geometry, topology, mechanics and singularity theory. Above all, he believed mathematics should be fun. He liked to call it a branch of physics in which, involving only pencil and paper, “experiments are cheap”. When he was stuck on a problem, he would ski in a swimsuit, which invariably provided inspiration. Outspoken and suspicious of authority, Arnold is said to have failed to win mathematics’ highest honour, the Fields Medal, only because the resentful Soviet authorities blocked his nomination.
Owing to the urgency of the situation, we moved fast to set up these new posts, with only two thirds of the funding in place. So we’re still raising money. If anyone inside government, or outside it, wishes to transform the lives of scientists, empower British science, and make the world a better place, they should get in touch by emailing email@example.com.
Make no mistake, helping Russian scientists will transform their lives. We’ve had applications from researchers who, having protested against aggression towards Ukraine, left Russia the morning after the invasion. One told us how, that day, he realised that his previous life and ambitions were “no longer relevant”. Another, after the police came to his home, switched off his phone and hid with a friend before fleeing the country. “Our future is dark,” he says.
Our Arnold Fellows will work with us in our rooms at the Royal Institution, where Eisenschitz, Schallamach and Nagelschmidt did their research 80 years ago. Boris Johnson has himself drawn parallels between the run-up to the Second World War and the situation we now face. This makes it particularly fitting that the halls of the Royal Institution will once again welcome refugee scientists and give them the freedom to devote themselves to making fundamental discoveries.
Eisenschitz worked on crystallography and later became a professor at Queen Mary College, London. Nagelschmidt pioneered the use of X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy to study lung disease. Intriguingly, I unearthed a letter in the Royal Institution archives, in which the editor of Nature writes that he believes the work being done by Schallamach into the structure of the chemical compound isoprene should be concealed from “the enemy”, which is to say, Germany.
For the Nazis, the fact that these three scientists, along with many others, fled Germany to live and work in Britain was proof enough of their treachery. Their resilience in the face of oppression provides a stark lesson in how to respond to oppression today, and reminds us to support those who are threatened by it.
In a rare lighter moment, while I was reading about the Nazis’ Black Book, I discovered that, in addition to Bertrand Russell and Noel Coward, it included the political cartoonist David Low. At the end of the war, when Low learned he had been on the Nazi hit-list, he had a riposte ready. “That is all right”, he remarked. “I had them on my list too.”
Dr Thomas Fink is the Director of the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences.