A seer who waged war on violent science

J. D. Bernal
December 21, 2000

Desmond Bernal was 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. With this collection of a dozen essays about his life by people who knew him, we get a chance to hear what he was like. Why should we be concerned with his work?

First, because his most-quoted scientific work, on the fundamentals of the structure of liquids, has been incorporated in our general understanding of the liquid state. Thirty years on, Bernal's scientific contributions are embedded in the very fabric of science, and thus it is those who stand on his shoulders who are now cited.

Second, because science is now presented as dangerous in itself and scientists are stigmatised for the results of the policies of politicians and businessmen. Science is neutral: its applications are social and political. Bernal spent himself on the political struggle against nuclear war and this danger increases. We live on the hinge of world history and for the next generation, civilisation may turn up or down. Bernal was concerned with the use of science in war. His activities in the 1930s in the Cambridge scientists' anti-war group are described in detail. Bernal's expertise became so notable that, despite his communist position, he was taken into the government war effort, first for assessing air-raid precautions and later as a scientific adviser to Mountbatten. To see what science could do when applied, almost regardless of cost, to war, led Bernal to push tirelessly for its application to a world without war. As never before, people are ignorant of the technology that supports them. Bernal's postwar book, Science in History , presented a broad perspective of how various societies had dealt with science.

His own career broadened the very word crystallographer to indicate the profession of a scientist who, although primarily skilled in the discovery of the arrangements of atoms in crystals, concerns himself - as did his most gifted student, Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin - 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 did, as for pointing out what could and should be done.

In 1937, Bernal was elected to fellowship of the Royal Society, as a formal recognition of his scientific work. In 1937 he was also appointed to the professorial chair in physics at Birkbeck College, London, which he occupied for the remainder of his life. At the same time, The Social Function of Science (1939), subtitled "What Science Does and What Science Could Do", appeared, just in time for many continental scientists in captivity or in countries under occupation to read.

This new collection has been some 25 years in the making. It includes fascinating material relating to Bernal's socio-political activities. There is also new material relating to his background in Ireland, to his education and to his political development.

In the preface, Eric Hobsbawm explains why this book "can help to rescue an astonishing figure from the mist of semi-oblivion", and in a separate chapter he describes the struggle within Birkbeck that eventually precipitated Bernal's first disabling stroke in July 1963 at the age of 62. During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Bernal had to deal with an attempt to close the crystallographic laboratory. He never had lavish facilities and had to struggle to maintain those he possessed. His political activities now fall more into perspective as taking place at a time when communist society was seen as a viable alternative to global capitalism. In the present time, 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 1930s, 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 decades until things had fallen into perspective. Unintentionally, 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.

Alan L. Mackay is emeritus professor of crystallography, Birkbeck College, University of London.

J. D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics

Editor - Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian
ISBN - 1 85984 854 0
Publisher - Verso
Price - £25.00
Pages - 300

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments