Ubiquitous thinker with a soft spot for Stalinism

J. D. Bernal
February 3, 2006

Jon Turney is impressed by a polymath who won notoriety as a scientist, a socialite and as an indefatigable ladies' man

J. D. Bernal, described even by an admirer as "a sink of ubiquity", seems like a character invented for a panoramic novel of the 20th century. But the creator of a fictional Bernal, one feels, would be accused of overdoing things. It is all very well depicting pioneering science, encounters with the leaders of America, Russia and China, friendship with the great artists and poets of the day, secret war work for the D-Day landings and peace activism in the Cold War, interleaved with an indefatigably varied sex life. But surely it is hard to believe they were all part of one person's story.

Yet the real Bernal did all this and more. He will be remembered longest for the science he loved so much. His main identifiable contributions centred on crystallography. That work led out of mineralogy into the complexities of life and to the structural school of molecular biology filled with his students and disciples, such as Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Perutz, John Kendrew and Aaron Klug. But his concept of a study of life that united physics, chemistry and biology had much wider influence, as well as informing his own studies of topics as diverse as the origins of life and the structure of liquid water.

His broader vision of science saw beyond the relief of man's estate to the transformation of humans into something else entirely. And it produced a great quantity of writing, including three books of lasting value. The brief trio of futurological essays of 1929, The World, The Flesh and the Devil , is one of the most interesting texts of the last century. Its depiction of a post-human future goes further than J. B. S. Haldane's better-remembered Daedalus , and was an inspiration for a myriad of other writers from Olaf Stapledon onwards. The Social Function of Science , published ten years later, is a still-seminal review and analysis of the organisation of research. And the monumental Science in History , which first appeared in 1954 but by 1968 had grown to four volumes and more than 1,000 pages, is the fruit of an heroic attempt to produce, as Bernal put it, "a parallel study of all economic and social history in relation to the history of science".

A more immediate concern for the application of science to human welfare prompted a lifelong interest in science and war. In the turbulence of the mid-20th century this led, alternately, to peace activism, work on civil defence, study of the effects of bombing and - for a long, intense spell - to planning for D-Day. He never worked on radar, the atom bomb or code-breaking, but was nevertheless described in one official history as the British scientist who did most to win the Second World War.

After the war he was gradually removed from military advice because of his unbreakable allegiance to Communism, though not before co-authoring a secret British study of how many nuclear weapons would be needed to cripple all major Russian cities. Convinced, with many other well-informed scientists, that the nuclear age demanded a new approach to international relations, he worked tirelessly for the Soviet-backed World Peace Council.

The rewards here were few, but he did end up as the only person who held both the US Medal of Freedom, awarded in 1945, and a Stalin Peace Prize.

All this would have kept several ordinary mortals fully occupied, but he was also a notable authority on art, architecture and cultural history, friend of Pablo Picasso and Pablo Neruda, and his grasp of three-dimensional form was a notable inspiration for Barbara Hepworth. And he was a habitual womaniser, beginning as a proponent of free love as a gesture against bourgeois values, but settling into a lifelong compulsion.

Almost incidentally, it sometimes seemed, he held a university chair at Birkbeck College, nominally in physics, where he kept his ever-ramifying scientific interests alive.

This complex and fascinating life is related with clarity and admirable organisation by Andrew Brown. Most biographies nowadays are too long, but any decent biography of Bernal is liable to feel too short, even at nearly 500 pages. There are plenty of episodes here that could be investigated in more detail, but on the whole Brown succeeds in not being overwhelmed by his subject. His book is strong on the science, but strikes a good balance between the scientific work and the many other strands of Bernal's career.

He gives a real sense of the astonishing range of his subjects achievements. By the close of the book, Bernal's last, stroke-ridden years, spent speechlessly immured in the body he had imagined transcending in The World, The Flesh and The Devil , are almost as poignant as they must have been for those who cared for the dying man. A postscript addresses Solly Zuckerman's mysterious conviction that Bernal exaggerated his role in the D-Day landings, and establishes convincingly that he did not.

It is as hard for any one person to evaluate Bernal's achievements as it is for a biographer to do them all justice. Brown is clear about the importance of his scientific thought, and here his reputation is secure.

But I suspect that he undervalues Bernal's legacy in science policy and the study of science. Here, Brown relies rather heavily on Michael Polanyi's critique of The Social Function of Science , which tied Bernal's vision to Stalinist central planning. In one sense, this was unfair, as Bernal wrote on the first page of his book of "the dangers of any organisation of science destroying that originality and spontaneity which are essential to its progress" and stressed that science could never be administered as part of a civil service. On the other hand, he suggested that recent developments in the USSR, then already in the grip of Lysenkoism, pointed to "the possibility of combining freedom and efficiency in scientific organisation".

During the Cold War, the equation of Bernalism with Stalinism was reinforced. But Western governments, inspired by radar, the Manhattan project, and by the operations research that Bernal had done so much to develop, quietly got on with planning science in their own way. As Bernal pointed out, most of this planning was for the benefit of the military, in the UK and, above all, in the US.

Some years later, modernisers in the Labour Party were ready once again to hear Bernal's case - as he put it to Hugh Gaitskell, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson in the late Fifties. Bernal's final illness prevented him from playing much part in the discussions that followed Labour's assumption of power in 1964. And the new Council on Science Policy began by repudiating Bernalism, without naming it, with a ritually reassuring declaration that it was a "misconception that the advance of scientific knowledge itself can be directed from the centre". Bernal replied that it was still possible "to identify certain growth points such as electronics, computers and biochemistry, materials science that ought to be given special support". As anyone who has followed science policy will recognise, this is pretty much what governments have been doing ever since. In one sense, perhaps, we are all Bernalists now.

But if the Labour Party once thought that science and a rather technocratic socialism might be connected in some way, they never saw the link in Bernal's terms. The rhetoric of The Social Function of Science was characteristic. "For those who have once seen it, the frustration of science is a very bitter thing. It shows itself as disease, enforced stupidity, misery, thankless toil, and premature death for the great majority, and an anxious, grasping and futile life for the remainder.

Science can change all this, but only science working with those social forces which understand its functions and which march to the same ends."

Bernal always identified those social forces with the Left, as did many others whose outlook was shaped between the two world wars. But he outdid the others in his love affair with the Soviet Union. And this remains an intriguing biographical problem. Bernal's roving mind, scientific and political contacts, and military work must have made him one of the best-informed people of his time. So how to account for his unswerving loyalty to Stalin?

Here Brown dismisses the apologias of earlier biographers. The best that one can say is that Bernal was a lapsed Catholic who transferred his zeal to an ideal of human emancipation through science and technology, and he saw the Soviet Union as the best hope that some version of this ideal could be realised. It seems, with hindsight, a curious conclusion. But then so does the notion that capitalism could support such a hope. And the alternative - of living, as most of us seem to now, without any great hope apart from the idea that somehow we will muddle through without destroying ourselves - is hardly an inspiring prospect.

Brown's book is a fine achievement. Gary Werskey's insightful The Visible College - treating Bernal alongside Haldane, Joseph Needham, Lancelot Hogben and Hyman Levy - remains indispensable for understanding the scientific, social and political currents of the 1930s. But this grand new account improves on the only previous full biography of Bernal, by the late Maurice Goldsmith, in almost every respect apart from personal acquaintance.

And personal acquaintance is certainly something to envy. One of Bernal's greatest gifts to the world was his glittering conversation, by all accounts just about the best-ever advertisement for science as the play of the mind. There are a few anecdotes and small samples here, but Bernal in full flood is impossible to recapture in a second-hand account. We are left wondering what it was like to hear the man who apparently knew everything, and kept the nickname Sage, acquired while an undergraduate at Cambridge, until the end of his life.

Perhaps a novelist can help. As Brown notes, the most memorable character in C. P. Snow's depiction of research life in Cambridge in the early 1930s in The Search is Constantine, a thinly veiled portrait of Bernal. When he imagines the significance of understanding proteins, Constantine is "inexhaustible, full of facts and speculations... happy, exuberantly at home, overflowing with a sort of scientific wit".

Jon Turney is course leader for the MSc in creative non-fiction, Imperial College London.

J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science

Author - Andrew Brown
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 562
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 851544 8

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