In 1936, after four years of chemistry at Vienna University, I took the train to Cambridge to seek out the Great Sage, and asked him: ‘How can I solve the riddle of life?’ ‘The riddle of life is in the structure of proteins,’ he replied, ‘and it can be solved only by X-ray crystallography.’ The Great Sage was John Desmond Bernal, a flamboyant Irishman with a mane of fair hair, crumpled flannel trousers and a tweed jacket. We called him Sage, because he knew everything, from physics to the history of art. Knowledge poured from him as from a fountain, unselfconsciously, vividly, without showing off, on any subject under the sun. His enthusiasm for science was unbounded.
He became my PhD supervisor. I could not have wished for a more inspiring one. Yet he was erratic, his desk was chaotic, he was always travelling hither and thither, which left him no time to finish things, and in the middle of one of his discourses he would suddenly look at his watch, remember that he had something more important to do and rush off. His lectures were spontaneous, fluent, wide-ranging, inspiring for the cognoscenti but difficult for undergraduates. When one of them left his notebook behind, we found it empty, with the single heading: ‘Bernal’s Bloody Business’.
Now, 28 years after his death, a book about him has appeared.[*] It is made up of 12 essays by different authors plus his D-Day diaries. Bernal never talked about himself, only about the world around him. Much of what I have now read about the early experiences that shaped his character and outlook made me wish that I had known it when he was still alive. It would have helped me understand him better.
Bernal’s father was an Irish Catholic gentleman farmer married to an American woman of wide education and interests. She brought Desmond up bilingually in English and French, ‘the language of gentleness’, he later remembered. In his early teens, the contrast between the wealthy English Protestant landowners and the abjectly poor Irish Catholic labourers turned Desmond into a revolutionary who vowed to study science in order to make war on the English and drive them out of Ireland.
The young Bernal’s suspicious expression on the dustcover puzzled me until I read of his experiences as a boarder at Bedford School. ‘There I could be tortured, humiliated, waste my time and my interests on dully repetitive games and military drill ... I lived like a hostage in an enemy land. My companions were cheerful thieves and liars, and furtive sexual perverts. I merely thought they were English and kept my hatred of the race to myself.’ But he did make two friends, one of whom wrote home: ‘He is the cleverest chap in the school ... not a bit conceited ... a simply topping chap.’ He left school ‘amazingly ignorant of the world’. He wrote: ‘Cambridge was a liberation. All the richness of thought was open to me ... I could meet for the first time intelligent people and be accepted by them ... I read and talked violently, discursively.’
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[*] J.D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics, edited by Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian (Verso, 324 pp., £25, 1 May 1999, 1 85984 854 0).