The Building Blocks of Peace: Pioneering X-Ray Crystallographer and Activist Kathleen Lonsdale’s Quiet Masterpiece on Moral Courage and Our Personal Power

“Those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking must themselves undertake the discipline of thinking in new ways and must persuade others to do so.”

The Building Blocks of Peace: Pioneering X-Ray Crystallographer and Activist Kathleen Lonsdale’s Quiet Masterpiece on Moral Courage and Our Personal Power

Never has the thrill of childhoodlike wonder ceased to amaze you Kathleen Lonsdale (January 28, 1903–April 1, 1971), who often ran the last few yards to her laboratory and took her mathematical calculations into the maternity ward where her children were born.

The tenth child in a Quaker household without electricity, she was born in Ireland the year the Wright brothers built and flew the world’s first successful flying machine heavier than air. Her home was still lit by gas when she first began studying science — in a school for boys, because no such subjects figured into the curriculum of the local girls’ school. She was an adolescent living in London and saw gas-laden Zeppelins drop bombs from the sky. They were shot down with British weapons, and she watched their flames. Her mother wept with relief when she realized that the pilots were German boys, not too old to be Kathleen.

Kathleen Lonsdale was trained as a physicist. In fact, she became the pioneering Xray crystallographer. This helped to illuminate the shapes, dimensions, and the atomic structure that made up the benzene-benzene circle. It had been a mystery for chemists after Michael Faraday discovered it a century before. Her twenties were still hers. It would be the chemistry ofbenzene that would fuel the 20th century. J.D. Bernal — the visionary scientist who first applied X-ray crystallography to the molecules of life and whose laboratory group she joined — came to see how beneath Lonsdale’s quiet, unassuming manner lay “such an underlying strength of character that she became from the outset the presiding genius of the place.”

Kathleen Lonsdale, Dame. (Photograph by Walter Stoneman. National Portrait Gallery.)

Lonsdale became the first woman tenured at London’s most venerated research university and the first female president of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Union of Crystallography.

She also became one of the twentieth century’s most lucid, impassioned, and indefatigable activists against our civilizational cult of war and the military industrial complex funding its planet-sized house of worship. When the next World Ward broke out, Lonsdale — by then one of the world’s most preeminent scientist — was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to military conscription. She went on to become one of Europe’s most influential prison reformers, having seen how the prison industrial complex — a term then yet to be coined — is the price societies governed by the military industrial complex pay for the inequalities and injustices stemming from that foundational cult.

Lonsdale’s 1957 book, Is Peace Possible?, was a concise and well thought-out work. Now out of print. She writes:

The history of reconciliation teaches us how time can lead to reconciliations that seem impossible in another time. However, only after violence ceases, by agreement, or through exhaustion.

Rockwell Kent, an American pacifist from Wilderness painted and wrote this art in the last months of WWI. Available as both a printed copy and stationery card.

A quarter century after Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence about war, human nature, why we fight, and how to stop, Lonsdale challenges the misconception of pacifism as the simplistic idea that a perfect and peaceful world is merely a matter of individuals refusing to fight. “Truism based on Utopias are poor arguments,” she observes, instead invoking the style of pacifism native to the Quaker tradition and its original formulation in 1660 as the refusal to partake of “all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatever.” Bridging the spiritual ethos of her upbringing with the scientific worldview of her calling and training, she writes:

A man or woman knows, through either the Spirit of Christ’s guidance or their reasoning powers, that war is spiritually destructive, that it is not the right way to resolve disputes between nations or classes, or to confront aggression or oppression and that it is detrimental to personal or national ideals. CertainThese people must clearly refuse to take part in any war or actively resist it. Many civilized countries are realizing that it is possible to have a genuine conscientious objection against personal involvement in war.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s century-old illustrations for classic French fairy tales. This illustration is also available as a printed copy.

Her empathic sense of the inconsistencies and intuitions that cause otherwise well-informed people to consider some war applications as legitimate, she says:

Most people, however, are not sure of anything… They are not sure that it is wrong to fight, if by fighting one can alter intolerable conditions, or prevent large-scale communal crime, or get rid of a dangerous dictator before he gains too much power, or stand up to international blackmail, or ward off an armed attack. In terms of reason, they find it arguable — as it is — to say that although every possible way to avoid war must be sought, yet until men are perfect there will always be some who want to grab more than their share. If it is prevented with limited military force, they see no reason to allow this. They believe it. IsMany times, force can stop them from doing their jobs. Although men may not be perfect, they can also make mistakes. [with exceptions]They can even rob or murder on a large scale if they realize they will be caught and punished.

Citing a prominent politician who had once said to her that “pacifism is not practical politics” but “to be spiritually healthy every nation needs to have a spear-point of idealist opinion,” she dismantles the convenient illusion that pacifism is a purely ideological stance with no practical responsibilities of political participation:

The pacifist that claims that he cares only about principles and not politics is usually trying to avoid the discipline of thinking clearly. He is only rational if he doesn’t either expect nor desire that the politician puts pacifist principle into practice. He won’t expect it, but if he does desire it then it is incumbent on him to study the world situation and try to decide for himself how it might be done, in general at least, if not in particular.

The interleaving between lives is illustrated by her reflections on the 1947 Cholera epidemic in Egypt. It quickly claimed 5100 lives per day and was quickly stopped after 20 nations joined together to provide vaccines. In a sentiment of staggering timeliness in the wake of the twenty-first century’s deadliest pandemic — which Mary Shelley anticipated two centuries ago — Lonsdale observes that “plagues are no respecters of sovereignty,” nor are the far-reaching economic, moral, spiritual, and radioactive consequences of war.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Almost Nothing, yet Everything: A Book about Water by Hiroshi Osada

In another sentiment of staggering timeliness in the aftermath of a twenty-first-century despot masquerading as a democratic ruler while erecting a physical wall on his nation’s border, and half a century before Toni Morrison lamented that in our time “walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times,” Lonsdale adds:

Military defense and alliances seem to have as their primary objective the stopping of people moving around, or the freezing of them. status quo.

The ability to freeze is impossible status quoYou can do so nationally and internationally. You could also freeze the Indian Ocean.

This was shortly after nuclear weapons were tested in the Pacific Ocean. Rachel Carson had made the same statement shortly before. Ecology a household a century after it was coined with her epochal exposé on the ecosystem devastation pesticides inflict far beyond their intended locus of use, Lonsdale observes:

It is impossible for any nation to claim it does everything it wants, not even its own. It will allow air to move around the globe. Water around it will gradually be exchanged with water elsewhere on the surface and also with waters deeper in the ocean.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Almost Nothing, yet Everything by Hiroshi Osada

At the heart of Lonsdale’s case against war is a clarity about the dangers of relativism and transactionalism, the dangers of mistaking self-interest for moral courage:

TotalIt would be a form of partial disarmament, but not disarmament. [but] something quite different… At present our attitude is “If you eat my grandmother, I’ll eat yours. But if you will agree not to eat my grandmother, I’ll agree not to eat yours either, but I will jolly well look out to see that you are not beginning to boil the water in the saucepan.” What we need to do is to develop a horror of cannibalism, a horror of the crime of war.

Total disarmament means not only the abolition of military organization, of armament factories, of armies, of the naval and air forces, but the re-education of men and women everywhere to abhor the idea of war… abhor war and all preparations for war, not only in one country — although some country must set an example — but in every country… abhor it so much that they were willing to accept the readjustments that the absence of war and of the sanction of force might mean. This point must be made clear in all large-scale adult education efforts.

Edward Gorey’s art for an exclusive edition Little Red Riding Hood

This point is of immense subtlety, and profound import. It speaks both to the ever-present threat of war over the globe as well as to the impending ecological apocalypse that will be more certain if we don’t retrain ourselves. In the near-century since Lonsdale’s time, we have cannibalized our climate for the exact same reason we have failed, as a civilization and a species, to eradicate war: Most people, whatever their loftiest moral standards may be, are simply too unwilling to inconvenience themselves with the not terribly demanding readjustments of habit that a personal stance against fossil fuel or the tendrils of the military industrial complex would demand of their daily lives. It is not how the candidates’ tax policy will impact our finances that we weigh them, but rather their potential military spending. We toss our soda cans — made of the same metal as the military aircraft of WWII — into the recycling bin when we remember, and we continue to fly across the increasingly carbonic sky we share.

Art from The Three Astronauts — Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s book about world peace

Lonsdale then reveals the true reasons why war is necessary. International treaties and military alliances do not cover the deep wounds that capitalism and colonialism have caused in our world. She observes, in a thought that is epoch-prescient:

Only a world that is free from the injustices and arms of today can provide real security.

Lonsdale considers what it might take to make such a world possible.

Two ways such change might occur are: There is one way. That’s the way of the compulsion, which can be described as the whip, spur, or historical certainty, and the coercion to facts. It is the bitter and hard way. Other options include the path of foresight, preparation and imagination. It’s also the route of moral compulsion. While it might be more challenging than others, it isn’t bitter.

Lonsdale wrote: “Fifty years before Jacqueline Novogratz bridged moral imagination and leadership in her elevating manifesto to a moral revolution,” she laments that the majority of people aren’t naturally able to think for themselves. They are too familiar with being led by morally ignorant and unimaginative leaders. She writes:

Most people… can rise to great heights of courage and sacrifice, but not usually without leadership. There are two types of leadership. Leadership from the top is one type. Another is from within. Sometimes, the second has to be preceded by the first. People who recognize the need for change must be able to see the benefits of it and encourage others.

Rockwell Kent, Art from Wilderness 1919. Available as both a print or as stationary cards.

Anticipating the world-changing power of Greta Thunberg’s generation, Lonsdale considers the members of our species best poised to think in new ways:

It is more than just coexistence that the world of tomorrow needs. The new world needs peaceful and cooperative ways to live together, which young people who are educated in peace principles could assist with finding.


What is essential in the future is that every member of the family, even little children, should learn at whatever cost not to give way to wrong or to co-operate in it… It would mean also that if another nation was invaded, and not our own, the support that we could give them would be limited to moral support… unless we intend to destroy the world to prevent aggression. Moral support can only be as strong as the country that provides it.

Four years before Eleanor Roosevelt — who shared Lonsdale’s condemnation of nuclear weapons and spearheaded the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that set out to lay “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” — made her impassioned case for our personal power in world change, Lonsdale observes that creating a world WithoutPlanning would not be possible without cultural dedication and resources. ForIn the past, war was common. But such planning, she observes, is not the unreachable work of governments — it is the work of the people, each and every one of us, for we ourselves are the primary resource of the possible future:

There would be no problem finding the mechanism if the will was there to work internationally in the interest of peace. The will to plan internationally for peace is the will of us, ordinary citizens of the globe. It is urgent enough that those in power are not able to ignore this, even though they might.

Art from Trees at Night, Art Young 1920s Prints available.

Is Peace Possible! It is worth looking for a copy of Is Peace Possible? You humanistic publishers should take note that it is worth returning to the public’s imagination. Complement it with Albert Camus on the antidote to violence and the great Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel — who endured multiple imprisonments by the communist government for his values of justice, humanism, and ecological consciousness, before becoming president of his liberated country — on living up to our interconnected humanity in a globalized yet divided world, then revisit E.B. White writes in the same period as Lonsdale from the Atlantic about nuclear weapons, and what it means to live peacefully in a world.

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