Saving the World

Barbara Wootton

  • Sage: A Life of J.D. Bernal by Maurice Goldsmith
    Hutchinson, 255 pp, £8.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 09 139550 X

It must be just 60 years ago that, as a newly appointed Cambridge lecturer, I walked the streets of that city with a young friend, Eileen Sprague, while she discussed the pros and cons of marrying Desmond Bernal – a recent Cambridge graduate. I felt sure of the outcome, and in fact they married almost immediately afterwards, when Des (as he was known to all his friends) was 21 and Eileen 23.

I seldom saw either of them from then until after the outbreak of Hitler’s war, when my husband and I used to take weekend refuge from London bombing raids at a pub in the Chiltern village of Fingest. Opposite this was a house where Bernal had for some years been living with Margaret Gardiner and their son Martin – then a most undisciplined small boy, but now, I understand, a highly distinguished Chinese scholar living in the USA and certainly heir to his father’s intellectual gifts. Bernal’s marriage to Eileen (which had produced a son and a daughter) was never dissolved, even after Margaret Gardiner was supplanted by Margot Heinemann as his domestic companion. In addition to these relatively durable relationships, Goldsmith says that Bernal was a ‘great lover’ and had ‘given pleasure to many women’, and that ‘when he travelled abroad his hosts, especially the Russians, usually made some appropriate arrangements.’ At Fingest, any of us who were there together used frequently to meet for stimulating conversation over drinks or a meal, but I appear to have been exceptional in that I never discovered the erotic side of Bernal’s character. After his death I renewed contact with his wife Eileen, into whose care he returned during his last illness.

Goldsmith says that shyness, both on his own side and on Bernal’s, prevented the friendship between them from ripening till after about 1950. No shyness, however, inhibited the earliest manifestation of the two great passions which were to dominate Bernal’s life. Of these, the first stemmed from indignation at the contrasts, in his native Irish countryside (where his father was a farmer), between the cottages of the labourers and the fine castles inhabited by the immigrant English gentry or their descendants. The second passion sprang from Bernal’s conviction that ‘science’ held the clue to the problems that inspired the first.

At the age of seven Des, having chanced to read a lecture by Faraday on the chemistry of the candle, tried his first scientific experiment, carefully copying the word ‘hydrogen’ (which he had never previously encountered) and the recipe of how to make this from ‘diluted sulphuric acid and granulated zinc’. His mother, who knew even less about science than her son, was then persuaded to obtain these substances from a chemist, who apparently supplied them without hesitation or warning. However, when they were combined in a flask in the garden according to Faraday’s instructions, to Des’s extreme disappointment absolutely nothing happened. He decided to take one more look before bedtime, and, as it was already dark, he struck a match to see whether anything had resulted. There immediately followed a magnificent explosion, from which, happily, he escaped with slight burns on one hand, but ‘absolutely convinced of the truth of science’.

It seems a fitting sequel to this experience that it was in the Davy-Faraday laboratory that Bernal, after winning a scholarship to Cambridge and graduating in science and mathematics, embarked on his adult researches. His chosen specialism was crystallography, the bearing of which upon the injustices of capitalist society may not be immediately apparent to the layman: but to Bernal that was immaterial. It was the essentially rational nature of all scientific thinking which in his view demonstrated the potential value of a scientific approach to any human problem; and at the age of 22 this conviction led him to join the British Communist Party. Although some years later he lost his card, his loyalty to the Party remained unshaken to the end of his life.

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