J.D.Bernal A life in science and politics

Title: J.D.Bernal A life in science and politics
Editors: Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian
Publisher: Verso, London 1 June 1999 price £25 hardback 322 pages
ISBN1-85984-854-0 8 pages of photographs

There are 2 reviews here one by Kate Crennell printed in the Sept 2000 issue of 'Crystallography News' the other contributed by Alan Mackay.

John Desmond Bernal, crystallographer, molecular physicist, social scientist, Communist visionary and peace campaigner was born in Ireland on 10 May 1901. Although he lived most of his life in England, apparently he always regarded himself as an Irishman, despite the Bernal family being Sephardic Jews who had reached Ireland only in 1840 from Spain via Amsterdam and London. His life was affected by many notable events of the twentieth century, including the Russian Revolution of 1917, which inspired many Cambridge intellectuals of the 1930s, including Bernal, to become Communists and the Second World War, which came at a time when he must have been at the peak of his intellectual powers. This volume consists of 13 separate essays on various aspects of his life written by those who knew him personally, many of whom have died in the years since this book was first planned. As Eric Hobsbawm remarks in the preface, "Bernal was fascinating, memorable and extraordinarily impressive". He inspired others; several of his pupils became Nobel Laureates, but he himself did not, perhaps because his wide interests prevented him from the single minded devotion to science which is characteristic of most great scientists.

Although it is almost 30 years since he died, no-one has yet written the major biography which Hobsbawm thinks is undoubtedly Bernal's due, and this volume is not it. These essays do not form a complete life story, some aspects are not covered at all, such as his sexual affairs, and science is only covered in one chapter. There is a Calendar of Events in his life, including the dates of birth of his four children. The authors are such diverse people as Anne Synge (Early Years and Influences), Peter Trent (The Scientist), Chris Freeman (The Social Function of Science), Ritchie Calder (Bernal at War), Lord Mountbatten of Burma (Memories of Desmond Bernal), and Ivor Montagu (The Peacemonger). A useful page of 'Initials and Acronyms' at the beginning gives the meaning of abbreviations in common use during the 1940s up to the 1970s. At the end, the 'Biographical notes on the Editors and Contributors' is essential for those who have not heard of the authors. There are extensive 'Notes' on most chapters, but the quality of the writing is variable; I found Bernal's own description of the D-Day Landings fascinating but some of the more political essays much harder to read. He was a prolific writer; only his non-scientific books are listed here, the first was 'The World, the Flesh and the Devil' published in 1929, the last 'The Extension of Man' published posthumously in 1972.

Notes on the dust jacket of the book record that "in a field notorious for its mysogynism, Bernal's laboratories at Birkbeck were a haven for many of the leading women scientists of the day including Rosalind Franklin". The back of the dust jacket shows his interest in Art; it has a reproduction of the 'Bernal Picasso', which was painted on the wall of Bernal's flat on the upper floor of the houses at 21/22 Torrington Square, the first home of the Birkbeck Crystallography Department which he founded.

Should you rush out and buy this book? Not if you expect to learn a lot about his science; only if you are interested in how one scientist was concerned for the social consequences of his research and despite his war time efforts, later spent much energy on promoting peace throughout the world.

Kate Crennell
July 2000

Review by Alan Mackay

Desmond Bernal was a visionary scientist, one of the principal creators of molecular biology and the author of a key book "The Social Function of Science". He died in 1971, and thus memories are fading, so why should we still be vitally concerned with his work? With this Collection of a dozen essays about his life by people who actually knew him, we get a last chance to hear what he was like.

We should be concerned because, due to the activities of states and companies, science is now presented as dangerous in itself and scientists are stigmatised for the results of the policies of politicians and businessmen The very nature of science in our Societies has been questioned by post-modernists as, for example, physics and genetics have become so difficult that few can be educated to sufficient standards. The quantum world of the microcosmos and the giant-scale world of cosmology are not like the limited world of the tables and chairs of the philosophers. Common sense derived at the scale of our everyday lives is not good enough. Bernal showed, at many levels, what science could do for society. Science itself is neutral: its applications are social and political.

Bernal spent himself on the political struggle against nuclear war and we should still be concerned with his efforts and arguments because this danger increases and, for example, George W. Bush, the main Republican contender for the US Presidency, has "made an anti-ballistic system the centrepiece of a plan 'to redefine war on our terms'" using new technologies yet to be developed. Enemies of the USA will be restrained by force rather than by being made fat through prosperity. Just as the common land was enclosed during the l8th and l9th centuries and became private property, so now the information generated by scientific research, about the genes which determine the properties of all living matter. is becoming private property. The "terminator gene" affair has alerted public concern. Although since 1945 democracy has perceptibly increased in nation states, power has slipped away from nation states to multi-national companies, which are not democratically guided at all and which try to push nation states about. The command economy, which modern economists of the Chicago school so deride in the fallen USSR, is just the way in which companies operate. Technology based on science has irreversibly changed the world at great speed.

We live on the hinge of world history and in the next generation civilisation may turn up or down. Bernal was also concerned with the use of science in war. His activities in the 1930s in the Cambridge Scientists' Anti-War group are described here in more detail than before and his expertise became so notable that, despite Bernal's communist position, he was taken into the government war effort, first for assessing air-raid precautions and later, as a direct scientific advisor to Mountbatten, to the planning for the invasion of France. To see what science could do when applied, almost cost-regardless, for war, led Bernal to push tirelessly for its application to a world without war.

We should be concerned because the role of science and of scientists in our present-day society is still equivocal. As never before people are ignorant of the technology which Supports them. In the Victorian period, sustained by such treatises as the "Catechism of the Steam Engine" published by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, basic technology was within reach of most people, but now it has receded as science has become more complicated. Bernal's post-war book "Science in History" presented a broad perspective of how various societies had dealt with science.

Bernal's own career broadened the very word "crystallographer" to come to indicate the profession of a scientist who, although primarily skilled in the discovery of the arrangements of atoms in crystals, concerned himself or notably herself, for his student, Dorothy Hodgkin, winner of a Nobel prize, most clearly exemplified the calling, with the application of science to improving the human condition. In the historical development of science Bernal has a leading place, not so much for what he actually did, as for pointing out what could and should be done. For example, he found that, if treated correctly, a protein crystal could retain its order during irradiation by X-rays and that the information in the scattered beams of X-rays meant that the protein molecules had exact structures, with every atom in a proper place. His students went on to solve the key structures of haemoglobin and other key materials. Proteins were no longer to be regarded as part of the formless protoplasm and molecular biology could begin in earnest. This application of physical methods would revolutionise our understanding of biology and the origin of life on Earth. Bernal himself had so many concerns that he could not devote himself totally to a single key problem with the intensity necessary for a Nobel prize.

In 1937, on the eve of the second world war Bernal was elected in to Fellowship of the Royal Society, a formal recognition of his scientific work, but at much the same time (l939) his book "The Social Function of Science", subtitled "What science does and what science could do" appeared, just in time for many continental scientists to read it in captivity or under the occupation. He was also in l937 appointed to the professorial chair in physics at Birkbeck College (University of London) which he occupied for the remainder of his life.

Thus, by the outbreak of the war Bernal had established reputations, both in actual science and in the economics, politics and consequences ofscience. In a way he followed the programme of Lucretius, to explain how atoms as primeval particles could explain the "nature of things", and who sought "to loose the mind from the knots of religion". As a child he had been imprinted with the Catholic religion and with difficulty, described in this book, managed to free himself from that incubus.

Already by l939, Bernal had concerned himself with some of the main issues of our time: the creation of molecular biology; the origin of life; armaments and science for war; the flow of scientific information (the latter as evinced, for example, in his central role in the Royal Society meeting on scientific information held in 1948). He had also made significant contributions to the arts, literature and history. Since he was attached to Mountbatten's staff as scientific advisor he played a key part in the application of science to military operations and, in particular, was able to learn what science and technology could actually do when supported whole heartedly by the state.

This book, some 25 years in the making, has eventually appeared, bringing a great deal of fascinating material relating mainly to the socio-political activities and to biography. There is much new material relating to his background in Ireland, to his education and to his political development. Eric Hobsbawm in the preface explains why this book "can help to rescue an astonishing figure from the mist of semi-oblivion" and in a separate chapter describes the struggle in Birkbeck College which eventually precipitated Bernal's first disabling stroke in July 1963 at the age of only 62. In the most critical period of our lifetime, the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Bernal had also to deal with a local attempt to close down the crystallographic laboratory. Bernal never had lavish facilities and had to struggle to maintain those which he possessed. For example, his most quoted work, on the fundamentals of the structure of liquids, especially water, was done with very few people and poor resources, but is now altogether incorporated in the general understanding of the liquid state.

30 years on, Bernal's scientific contributions are now deeply embedded into the very fabric of science, and thus it is those who stand on his shoulders who are now cited, just as few people read or quote the original papers of Einstein. His political activities now fall more into perspective as taking place at a time where communist society could be seen as a viable alternative to global capitalism. Now no alternative economic system is in sight and the only possibility is amelioration of the existing system. Bernal was very conscious of what could be called "the laser effect". A laser and a candle may consume the same energy but in a laser all the waves add in synchronism. If many people moved simultaneously in the same direction they could accomplish anything (as football crowds realise to their cost).

The book informs us more fully about Bernal's relationships with the Soviet Union, the planned application of science in society and the conflicts. For example, having met N. I. Bukharin in the l930s, Bernal was in a position, after Bukharin's execution, gradually to feed the constructive ideas of the immediate post-revolutionary Russia back into Soviet discussion. On a more domestic scale there is a fascinating account of Bernal's work in the world of architecture, art and building with much new information.

At the memorial meeting, Shortly after Bernal's death, C.P.Snow said that a full biography should not be written for some decade until things had fallen into perspective. Unwittingly this has happened and these contributions to a biography will stand for the next decade or so when, with the passage of time nobody will remain who had the pleasure and excitement of contact with this most engaging and complex personality, as did the contributors to the present volume.

Above all, Bernal was a seer, perhaps with selective vision of Utopia, but with vision none the less.

Professor Alan L. Mackay, FRS,
School of Crystallography,
Birkbeck College, University of London,
Malet Street, London WCIE 7HX

email: a.mackay@mai1.cryst.bbk.ac.uk

Editor's Note: further details about J.D.bernal were published in the March 1999 issue of 'Crystallography News' Meeting report: 50th Anniversary of the biomolecular Laboratory at Birkbeck College which also lists some biographical material.

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