Today's Reading

Five days after Dieppe, not yet knowing of its horror, Haldane and Spurway were already unwittingly working on the next amphibious assault plan. The tan leather breathing apparatus Spurway wore on her chest was called a Salvus, and in a world before the invention of the now ubiquitous SCUBA, she was trying to figure out how long it could be used safely by swimmers and submariners beneath the surface of the ocean.

After precisely thirty-three minutes of sitting in the chamber calmly, patiently sucking down oxygen, Spurway yanked the rubber mouthpiece from her lips. She vomited. She vomited repeatedly. Later, she reported that she had been having visual disturbances beforehand: brilliant flashes of dancing purple lights she referred to as "dazzle." She gulped down chamber air, no longer on oxygen, and recovered slowly. Thankfully, today's symptoms were mild. Watching her gulping, gasping face, Haldane again noted the time.

Professor Haldane, Dr. Spurway, and the other members of their small clan of scientists had spent the last three years grinding away within the close confines of these hyperbaric metal tubes at the myriad questions surrounding underwater survival, with the initial goal of enabling sailors to escape from submarines. Their leader, Haldane, believed firmly that human beings provided better feedback than research animals.

Shortly before the disaster at Dieppe, but not in time to stop it, the scientists had been asked to pivot this work to focus on a new, more specific goal. The Admiralty had called. To help their countrymen and the Allies defeat Hitler, to help end the war, the Allies needed the scientists to use this same work to prepare for beach-scouting missions. There would be another beach landing. And the next one could not fail.

* * *

Decades before the experiment, a thirteen-year-old boy peered out of the tiny reinforced window cut into the side of a metal chamber, gazing at the small crowd of adults watching him back through the clear, hefty panel. This small hyperbaric chamber sat on the deck of a Royal Navy ship rolling with the waves off the coast of Scotland. As the hiss of gas filled his chamber, the towheaded boy practiced moving his jaw and swallowing to allow the air to enter the spaces inside his ears. He succeeded, proving he could clear his ears. He reached the maximum pressure safely, and was returned to the surface pressure without harm. After the circular chamber door swung open, the boy clambered carefully out onto the deck in the hot, late-summer weather. His father began to strap him into a sturdy canvas suit sized for an adult while the sailors and other researchers watched. It was time for the boy to have his first dive.

The boy, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, was born in 1892 into the sort of Scottish family whose summer homes have turrets. Stately portraits of ancestors with facial-hair topiaries or dresses with miles of pleated fabric grimaced down from the high walls of their multiple estates, and manicured lawns and gardens buttressed the elaborate stonework buildings. But John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, called "Jack" in his youth and later "JBS" as an adult, had no patience for such pomp. He insisted on keeping an old bathtub full of tadpoles beneath the arcing branches of one majestic apple tree, within which he was determined to breed water spiders.

His immediate Haldane family's little team of four—himself; younger sister, Naomi; mother, Louisa Kathleen; and father, John Scott—formed one branch of a venerable lineage that stretched its documented pedigree back to the 1200s. As children, Naomi and Jack were bred into science the way some are bred into royalty.

Their parents, Louisa Kathleen and John Scott, seem to have gravitated toward each other because of the same fiercely independent, socially irreverent genius they would pass on to their children. She was a brilliant young woman with golden hair, classical beauty, an affinity for small dogs, and an outspoken confidence that, along with her propensity for the occasional cigarette, marked her as a rebel within the prim upper crust of 1800s Britain.

She stumbled across John Scott for the first time when he was asleep on the floor. He was a lanky young man with deep, kind eyes and a dark, full mustache, and she walked in on him sprawled on a rug in front of a fireplace, drooling into a scattered mountain of books. She and her mother were thinking about renting the Edinburgh home from the Haldanes for the winter, and John Scott was supposed to show them around.

He couldn't convince her that he had been awake, but he did convince her to marry him. Born stubborn enough to be independent and wealthy enough to stay independent, she relented only after negotiations. After rejecting him twice, Kathleen finally accepted Haldane's third proposal on the condition that he would not try to dictate her personal political views.

It stormed on their wedding day, and John Scott showed up late to his own ceremony in her parents' Edinburgh drawing room because he had gone back home to grab a forgotten umbrella. The bride, however, being equally utilitarian, did not mind. The ceremony was already planned to be short because Kathleen had tracked a blue pencil line through most of the dumbfounded minister's boilerplate script. She and John Scott were both firm agnostics and unafraid to buck convention, so she refused to wear lace, and she "strongly objected to the farce of being 'given away.'"

After the wedding Kathleen promptly moved in to John Scott's home in Oxford, England. He was a physician and professor of physiology at Oxford University, and the infamously eccentric researcher had already converted the basement and attic of the house into makeshift laboratories. There he could play with fire and air currents and gas mixtures. So could his children.

Eleven months later, it was into this kind of world that infant Jack was born. At one point as a baby, he screamed so forcefully that he gave himself a hernia, which unofficial scientist Kathleen calmly reduced herself. Sister Naomi was born five years later. A few years after Naomi's birth, the finished quartet moved along with Kathleen's mother to a larger, "comfortable and ugly" custom-built thirty-room mansion christened Cherwell. This building's entire design revolved around the pursuit of science, no longer limiting it to the attic and basement.


This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Silk: A World History by Aarathi Prasad.
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