This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the 2017-18 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.
By the time Leon Kamin was summoned to explain himself to his boss’s bosses, he knew exactly why he had been singled out and what he would be asked. He had known from the moment he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights during his interrogation by the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security that he would answer for it when he returned to his teaching position at Harvard. And as for the questions, there was really only one: Tell us the names of the other Communists you know.
“And of course he wouldn’t,” Ehsan Masood tells me nearly 70 years later, at a coffee shop just one Red Line stop from the site of Kamin’s interrogation. “He said, ‘That’s none of your business. You found me and I’m declared, I’ve put my hand up, but actually all the others are absolutely none of your business.’” Of course Kamin (who died at 89 on December 22, a few months after his interview with Masood) wouldn’t have delivered these lines in an impeccable British accent, but I’m not about to interrupt Masood to tell him so. The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT has brought him here from London, where he was editor of Research Fortnight until August 2017. During his nine-month fellowship, he intends to track down every living Harvard and MIT scientist persecuted under McCarthyism; many have never publicly told their stories.
Masood didn’t originally intend to be a journalist — growing up, he was fascinated by physics. He thinks this early interest may have had something to do with his parents, an author and an actuarial scientist, both of them deeply religious. “Physics is all about the big questions,” he explains. “…It was very interesting to me as a young person growing up in a devout environment to think, ‘Oh, here’s a science that can perhaps lead us to God.’”
Once he reached the university level, however, Masood realized that the mathematics required of a physicist were beyond his abilities or interests. He started teaching physics and writing, eventually taking a low-level job with a news agency in London. It was toward the end of the Cold War: the Soviets invading Afghanistan, the Taliban hunting Communists, and the Americans funding the Taliban on the sly. There was so much news coming in that Masood occasionally got to write a short piece between photocopying clips and making tea. That was the start of a journalism career that has now led him to Cambridge and the task of tracking down Leon Kamin and the others like him.
Masood hopes meeting them will give him a realistic idea of what might happen if there is a modern crackdown on academics. These insights couldn’t come at a better time. “Right now, university campuses all over the world are in great ferment,” he tells me. Teachers and students may have been in open rebellion when Kamin’s story took place, but the story unfolding now still leaves Masood excited, unsettled. “There’s a resurgence of activism there that, to be honest, I’ve never seen.”