Margaret Thatcher’s funeral earlier this week gave British newspapers the chance to delve into her early life. She was the only scientist to become Prime Minister in Britain (and any other country?), and stayed on at Oxford after her first degree in Chemistry to study Crystallography.
For some reason, that subject has interested several scientists who went on to become well-known politicians. One was CP Snow, who began the debate on what he called The Two Cultures back in 1959. Like Thatcher, he didn’t have much success in the laboratory looking at the structure of protein molecules, and he was soon making more money from writing novels. Snow didn’t let go of science altogether and in Harold Wilson’s government of the 1960s he was Minister of Technology, responsible for Wilson’s “White Heat”.
One of Snow’s friends at Cambridge was another crystallographer, JD Bernal, the so-called “Sage of Science” and also a prominent Marxist and womaniser. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, Bernal’s work in politics foundered, but his science prospered. His research group included Rosalind Franklin and helped elucidate the structure of DNA.
Mrs Thatcher’s explorations of crystals didn’t lead to quick results and she soon changed her interests to Law, the universal intermediate to politics.