- J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science by Andrew Brown
Oxford, 562 pp, £25.00, November 2005, ISBN 0 19 851544 8
Let me begin with a motor trip in 1944 by two scientists down the valley from Lord Mountbatten’s headquarters in Kandy to the jungle. The younger of the two remembers what his companion talked about. He was
interested and expert in everything around him – the war, Buddhist religion and art, the geological specimens he would retrieve from every ditch, the properties of mud, luminous insects, the ancestry of cycads, but his recurrent theme was the fundamentals of biology and of the enormous developments just becoming possible through the advances in the physical and chemical techniques of the 1930s.
The young scientist was John Kendrew, one of many inspired by such conversations to win the Nobel Prize, which escaped his travel companion. But it might have been anyone, male or female, who ever came within earshot of that stumpy, bohemian visionary genius with the uncontrollable head of hair and reedy voice. John Desmond Bernal (1901-71) has evidently amazed and dazzled his biographer as much as he dazzled everyone who ever came into contact with this ‘polyvalent’ and ‘extraordinarily attractive person’ (Joseph Needham), considered by competent judges to be ‘one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century’ (Linus Pauling).
There are two reasons for reading the biography of this brilliant and tragic figure: sheer human curiosity about an individual recognisable even at first sight as singular and fascinating, and, since he stood at their conjunction, the need to understand the scientific, socio-political and cultural revolutions of the 20th century and the interlocking hopes and dreams about the future which they represented. Between the wars there was no more visible icon of the scientists’ commitment to the future than Bernal, who, in the shape of ‘John Cabal’ (Raymond Massey in Bernal-like make-up), appeared as the protagonist in Alexander Korda’s 1936 film of H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come. And, though he was living proof that there is no basic division between art and science, nobody in the suspect culture of science was a more obvious target for the sour provincialism of F.R. Leavis.
Andrew Brown’s J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science is better at satisfying biographical than historical curiosity. It is not the first book based on the Bernal Archive, now in the Cambridge University Library, but it gives us more of the facts than all its predecessors, even without those contained in the six boxes of love-letters which, when opened in 2021, will supplement our knowledge of the Sage’s legendary polygyny.
Bernal himself thought his life should be written in three colours: red for politics, blue for science and purple for sex. Brown is strongest on Bernal’s Irish dimension, important for his ideological and perhaps even his scientific development. Had the later Stalinist left behind the ‘militaristic view of social change’ which went with his youthful commitment as a Sinn Fein revolutionary? On the red side of his life Brown is distinctly less perceptive than Fred Steward’s essay on ‘Political Formation’ in Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian’s collection J.D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics (1999), presumably because he is too anxious to balance his enormous admiration for the man and the scientist by insisting on his rejection of the Stalinist. I am not in a position to assess Brown’s seemingly well-qualified discussion of Bernal’s science (Brown is a radiation oncologist and the author of a biography of Chadwick), but his analysis of Bernal’s crucial failure to play the central part in the revolution in molecular biology that one might have expected seems inferior to Robert Olby’s in his entry for Bernal in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and he shows insufficient interest in the thinking that turned so many eminent figures in the evolutionary life sciences to Marxism, or rather, more surprisingly, to the writings of Engels, and, incidentally, towards the USSR – J.B.S. Haldane, Joseph Needham, Lancelot Hogben, C.H. Waddington and Bernal himself. There was more than politics to the unusual and shortlived phase of ‘red science’.
As to the sex, Brown rightly brings out the crucial importance of Freudianism – the idea rather than the theory – in the early generation of red intellectuals and as a force for Bernal’s personal emancipation, though he omits his repudiation of it in the 1930s (which had no effect on his behaviour). Indeed, the strength of Bernal’s libido and the charm which so few resisted are equally impressive, but we are no closer to understanding the astonishing and evidently lifelong loyalty of wives and lovers, or for that matter anything about his emotions, except that he evidently attracted and respected intelligent women, whether or not he bedded them, that he was – surprisingly – deaf to music, was totally disorganised in life and lab and never did any shopping for himself.
Bernal was the son of a prosperous Catholic farming couple in County Tipperary with distinctly wider horizons than was usual in this milieu, whose gift for mathematics and all-embracing curiosity were evident almost from infancy. Unlike other authors, Brown does not stress the family’s Sephardic side, no doubt because in the Bernal household intellectual stimulation evidently came from the well-travelled and studious mother, child of New England Presbyterian clerics, and not from the rustic father.
Sent to Bedford, a minor English public school with good scientific credentials – fortunately, he would not stand for his father’s first choice, Stonyhurst – he won a scholarship to Cambridge, read and thought omnivorously, established an undergraduate reputation as ‘Sage’, an all-purpose genius, shifted from Catholic piety to atheism and from active support for the IRA’s war against Britain to socialism and the wider anti-imperialism of the October Revolution, and to Freudianism, which liberated him from sexual inhibition as well as ‘the fantasies of religion and rationalism’. He lost his virginity as an undergraduate: late by current, but not by the middle-class student standards of the time, and early enough to become a married undergraduate with a child and a partner, Eileen Sprague, who stubbornly maintained her status as his only legal wife for the remainder of his life. He was to establish a second household with children in the 1930s with Margaret Gardiner and a third with Margot Heinemann in the 1950s, both of whom also survived him.