A Dominant Character

Book of the Year in The Economist, Guardian, New Statesman, Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

Shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize &
the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography.

‘A wonderful book about one of the most important, brilliant and flawed scientists of the 20th century.’ Peter Frankopan

‘Superb’ Matt Ridley, The Times

‘Fascinating… The best Haldane biography yet.’ New York Times

J.B.S. Haldane’s life was rich and strange, never short on genius, never lacking for drama. He is best remembered as a geneticist who revolutionized our understanding of evolution, but his peers thought him a polymath; one student called him ‘the last man who knew all there was to be known’.

Beginning in the 1930s, Haldane was also a staunch Communist – a stance that enhanced his public profile, led him into trouble, and even drew suspicions that he was spying for the Soviets. He wrote copiously on science and politics for the layman, in newspapers and magazines, and he gave speeches in town halls and on the radio, all of which made him, in his day, as famous in Britain as Einstein. Arthur C. Clarke called Haldane ‘the most brilliant science popularizer of his generation’. He frequently narrated aspects of his life: of his childhood, as the son of a famous scientist; of his time in the trenches in the First World War and in Spain during the Civil War; of his experiments upon himself; of his secret research for the British Admiralty; of his final move to India, in 1957.

A Dominant Character unpacks Haldane’s boisterous life in detail, and it examines the questions he raised about the intersections of genetics and politics – questions that resonate all the more strongly today.

Charles Ulm

Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith were the original pioneers of Australian aviation. Together they succeeded in a number of record-breaking flights that made them instant celebrities in Australia and around the world: the first east-to-west crossing of the Pacific, the first trans-Tasman flight, Australia to New Zealand, the first flight from New Zealand to Australia. Business ventures followed for them, as they set up Australian National Airways in late 1928. Smithy was the face of the airline, happier in the cockpit or in front of an audience than in the boardroom. Ulm on the other hand was in his element as managing director. Ulm had the tenacity and organisational skills, yet Smithy had the charisma and the public acclaim. In 1932, Kingsford Smith received a knighthood for his services to flying, Ulm did not.

Business setbacks and dramas followed, as Ulm tried to develop the embryonic Australian airline industry. ANA fought hard against the young Qantas, already an establishment favourite, but a catastrophic crash on the airline’s regular route from Sydney to Melbourne and the increasing bite of the Great Depression forced ANA’s bankruptcy in 1933. Desperate to drum up publicity for a new airline venture, Ulm’s final flight was meant to demonstrate the potential for a regular trans-Pacific passenger service. Somewhere between San Francisco and Hawaii his plane, Stella Australis, disappeared. No trace of the plane or crew were ever found.

In the years since his death, attention has focused more and more on Smithy, leaving Ulm neglected and overshadowed. This biography will attempt to rectify that, showing that Ulm was at least Smithy’s equal as a flyer, and in many ways his superior as a visionary, as an organiser and as a businessman. His untimely death robbed Australia of a huge talent.