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1/2 idea No. 25: Colin McClare

By Jon Agar, on 3 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The Colin McClare story is extraordinary and tragic.

The bare bones can be gleaned from the biographical introduction to his archives at King’s College London:

McClare was born in 1937 and educated at Felsted School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences, specialising in chemistry. He undertook research at Cambridge on the chemistry of free radicals in biology as a Medical Research Council student, 1958-1961, and on energy transfer in nucleic acids as a Beit Fellow, 1961-1963, and was awarded a PhD in 1962. He was Lecturer in Biophysics at King’s College, London, 1963-1977. From his growing interest in bioenergetics and the problems of muscle contraction he concluded that classical thermodynamics was inadequate for the description of biological processes, and that the application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to biological machines required the introduction of time scales. His ideas were not generally accepted and although he wrote extensively on the subject his papers were not accepted for publication until four controversial papers appeared in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and Nature , 1971-1972. These generated a vigorous correspondence with scientists all over the world. McClare’s unorthodox views failed to gain the approval of established scientific opinion. He took his own life at the age of thirty-nine, 1977.

A sympathetic tribute to McClare, which gives some detail about the vicious scientific controversy that followed McClare’s publications of his ideas on the bioenergetics of proteins in muscles, has been written by Luca Turin, published in 2009. McClare, he tells us, had been ‘a hero to me since my student days’. (Turin, too, is a fascinating figure, a perfumer-scientist with radical theories of smell.) Turin regards McClare’s work as flawed but profound, and having opened further research avenues: ‘Thirty years later, we can see that McClare had got one fundamental thing right: vibrational energy can be stored and transmitted in proteins. Two other questions he asked remain complete enigmas: how are these excitations generated and how are they used at the receiving end?’

From a history of twentieth-century science perspective, there are several intriguing aspects of the case of Colin McClare.

First, McClare was not alone in the early 1970s to propose that fundamental laws in physics might need to be challenged. McClare questioned aspects of thermodynamics, while the electrical engineer Eric Laithwaite, for example, sparked outrage when he argued (including demonstrations in a televised lecture at the Royal Institution) that gyroscopes broke free from Newton’s laws of motion. I wonder if these radical, critical, anti-traditional views can be understood within the wider context of science in the long 1960s, which I have discussed here.

Second, there is the task of placing McClare into a broader history of biomedical, molecular-level scientific understandings of the body.

Third, as he waded deeper into controversy, McClare sought, and received, advice from Karl Popper. The philosopher had retired from the London School of Economics in 1969 but was still at the peak of his powers. McClare’s bold yet falsifiable knowledge claims were clearly of a kind that Popper would approve, and he did. Again, McClare was by no means the only scientist in post-war Britain to appeal for support from philosophers, especially Popper. Many of these scientists came from the field and life sciences, as Charlotte Sleigh has noted, wondering if there was an element of ‘physics envy’ at work. Neil Calver has argued that scientists’ embrace of Popper was a response to hostility during the Two Cultures debate – the boldness prized in hypothesis-making could be presented as culturally high status emblems of imagination and creativity.

So you might be wondering why I haven’t already written up this one.

A few years ago I went to King’s College archives and spent an excellent day amongst the McClare papers. I made copious notes. The notes I put in my bag, and the next day went to see my parents. While I was there, my parents’ car was broken into, and the thieves nicked my bag, notes and all. Disappointingly, the thieves have published nothing.

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