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.

This was not such a dramatic event then as it would be for a rising academic today. Goldsmith, I think, underestimates the strength of left-wing opinion among Cambridge dons and students in the years immediately after the First World War, although, fairly enough, he dismisses the handful of committed academic Communists as ‘essentially a ginger group within the University Labour Club’. Yet many of Bernal’s fellow students, injured or bereaved in the war, and disillusioned by its political aftermath, were finding a beacon of hope in Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Social Reconstruction, deriving therefrom social and political programmes at least as revolutionary as those of the minority of avowed Communists among their contemporaries. Strange to say, Russell’s name nowhere appears in this biography. This is the more surprising given that, although he was nearly thirty years older than Bernal, their common interest in mathematics and socialism brought them together on many occasions during their joint lives.

In 1929, Bernal published his first book, The World, the Flesh and the Devil. This included the remarkable forecast that man would presently venture into space, but was mostly occupied with fantastic speculations about the possibilities of what would nowadays be called genetic engineering. Bernal asserted that ‘in a civilised worker the limbs are mere parasites, demanding ninetenths of the energy of the food ... while the body organs wear themselves out in supplying their requirements ... Sooner or later the useless parts of the body must be given more modern functions or dispensed with altogether.’

Today it is difficult to realise the immense excitement caused in left-wing circles in Europe and the USA by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; and no less difficult to recall the slow fading during the two succeeding decades of the hopes that it had generated. Bernal himself had no personal contact with Russian revolutionaries until 1931, when a meeting of the Second International Congress on the History of Science and Technology was to be held in London. At the last minute a Soviet delegation arrived unexpectedly, thus causing considerable inconvenience to the conference organisers. (Scientific planning did not apparently extend to consideration for one’s hosts.) The visitors turned out to be scientists distinguished in theoretical physics, plant genetics and mathematics, along with one economist. Bernal’s subsequent verdict on the meeting, however, was that it had been a failure: ‘the time was too short, the gulf between the points of view too great for there to be any real understanding.’ (An ominous, if neglected, warning for the future.) Nevertheless, in 1933 Bernal went so far as to say that ‘the USSR gave practical embodiment to the progressive ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Communists are the heirs and defenders of the liberal tradition’ (italics added).

Between the meeting of the International Congress in London and the outbreak of Hitler’s war Bernal paid several visits to Russia, in company with scientists such as Le Gros Clark, J.B.S. Haldane and Julian Huxley, as well as with the economist H.D. Dickinson, and once with Margaret Gardiner. During this period he was also enhancing his scientific reputation by his researches in crystallography, with consequential benefit to his academic career. By 1939, he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and had migrated to Birkbeck College with profes-however, expatiate on the details of his prosorial status. His biographer does not, fessional advancement, but prefers merely to proclaim that Bernal had become ‘the guru of science’.

Much of the guru’s energies at this time seems to have been devoted to establishing and promoting the British Association of Scientific Workers, whose task he saw as the emancipation of science from its ‘historical role’ both as ‘a support for the established order in a hierarchical society’ and as the ‘instrument of industrialists’. He believed the time was now ripe for the ‘actual world to become the world he wished to see around him’. The obvious political implications of this policy, as enunciated by a Communist, naturally led to disagreements within the association. Even such radicals as Lancelot Hogben and Julian Huxley raised doubts about its practical wisdom, and to many other scientists, who did not share Bernal’s political enthusiasms, the association remained suspect.

In 1939, only months before the outbreak of war, Bernal published his most important book, The Social Function of Science. Divided into two parts – ‘What science does’ and ‘What science could do’ – this substantial volume is an expression of Bernal’s whole philosophy, based on wide scientific knowledge, informed appreciation of social problems, and an imaginative vision of mankind’s possible future. The book is the more impressive in that, for once, he did not allow himself to be unduly trammelled by his political dogmatism: it still makes splendid reading.

Bernal never rated his own skill as an experimenter highly. (Perhaps his childhood experience had undermined his confidence in that respect?) But he was exceptionally fertile in thinking up hypotheses and equally ruthless in his search for evidence to substantiate or refute them.

When the war came, these talents were well employed. Bernal was invited by Lord Mountbatten, then Chief of Combined Operations, to act as his scientific adviser. The invitation was accepted on condition that Bernal’s fellow scientist, Solly Zuckerman, whose interests lay more in the biological than the physical sciences, should be offered a similar position. Both were forthwith installed in Mountbatten’s Whitehall office, where they found themselves preceded by Geoffrey Pyke, a non-scientist but a man full of ingenious or, as some thought, crazy ideas. Goldsmith reports that Mountbatten had difficulty in getting his civilian aides officially approved. In particular, Bernal’s disregard for conventional dress and hair-style, combined with his known political sympathies, proved a difficult obstacle, but in the end this was overcome, and the three together were known as Mountbatten’s ‘Department of Wild Talents’.

In the Mountbatten outfit Bernal’s attention was concentrated on preparations for the D-Day invasion. One of the most fascinating passages in this biography describes how Mountbatten and he experimented in the former’s bathroom. Paper ships were floated in the shallow end of the bath, which represented the coast of Normandy, while a junior officer made waves with a brush in the deep end. Result: the fleet sank. ‘That,’ said Bernal, ‘is what will happen without an artificial harbour.’ He then laid a life-belt across the shallow end, set up another fleet of ships, and subjected them to more waves. Nothing sank. Thus was born the concept of the ‘Mulberry Harbour’.

Bernal next turned his versatile mind to the geological problems involved in choosing the spot on the French coast at which the invasion force should land. First, he consulted the current copy of the Guide Bleu and noted its warning to tourists that at Arramanchcs the beach was sloping and muddy. Clearly that would not do; the ships would get stuck. Next question: how thick was the sand along the beaches? To answer it, Bernal tried to reconstruct the history of movements in the structure of the beaches. In the course of his research, he unearthed an ‘Anglo-Norman’ poem which described how William (afterwards ‘the Conqueror’) had crossed the sea on his way from Cherbourg to Ries on a ridge of rock at low tide. The continued existence of the ridge was then confirmed by aerial photograph. Modern battles, it seems, are won, not so much on the playing fields of Eton, as in the bathrooms of the aristocracy and the pages of medieval French poets.

When the invasion was actually launched, Bernal crossed with the troops, though there is some dispute as to whether this was on D-day itself or with reinforcements a day or so later. Anyhow, his presence soon became notorious: although compelled to discard his habitually casual clothes for some kind of naval uniform, he failed similarly to revise his vocabulary, and the story immediately went round of how he horrified the sailors by references to the ‘right’ and ‘left’ sides of the ship.

When the war was over, Bernal was awarded the American Medal of Freedom with Palme. Numerous British honours (including the Order of Merit, and a Life Peerage in 1971) were showered upon Solly Zuckerman, who continued to hold office as Chief Government Scientific Adviser. Whether any similar recognition of his services ever came Bernal’s way from the government of his own country history does not record. If it did, it may well be that formal honours were declined. Never, I imagine, would he have consented to take a seat in the Lords.

In the immediate post-war world, Bernal devoted much time to establishing a World Federation of Scientific Workers (WFSW) which was intended, as its geographically more limited predecessor had been, both to look after scientific workers’ personal interests and to ‘work for the fullest utilisation of science in promoting the welfare of mankind and peace’ on an international scale. In 1948, the new federation held its first meeting in Czechoslovakia but, although the Russians did not join till 1952, WFSW was from the beginning suspected of Communist bias. When it sponsored a World Peace Congress, of which Bernal became President in 1958, it was cold-shouldered by most countries outside the Communist world, Bernal was, however, tireless in his determination to make the whole world see that ‘the very advances of science which had made the possibility of destruction so absolute, were just those which could transform the economic situation of mankind.’ In World Without War, published in 1958, he contended that the abolition of war would make possible a ‘scientifically directed and controlled productive system’, by which the gross inequalities in wealth within and between different countries could be eliminated.

Towards the end of his biography, Goldsmith has included a sad chapter, ‘Sordid Affairs’. This does not relate, as precedents might have led one to expect, to allegations of corruption or amorous indiscretions. It deals, first, with the decision of the Council of the British Association for the Advancement of Science not to re-elect Bernal to their membership, on the grounds of his political affiliations and of extravagant statements he made in Russia about the incompatibility of science and capitalism. The second, and to Bernal more disastrous, matter was ‘the Lysenko affair’. Lysenko, supposedly a reputable agricultural biologist, and President of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, had announced his discovery that acquired characters could be inherited. The evidence for this startling discovery, however, was soon found to be totally inadequate by almost every geneticist outside Russia, whereupon Lysenko persuaded Stalin to prohibit any teaching of the accepted Mendelian orthodoxy as ‘bourgeois genetics’, while defending his own heresy by an appeal to the Marxian principle of dialectical materialism – the Communist equivalent of settling a scientific dispute by reference to the Bible. All the workers in Lysenko’s Institute who rejected his doctrine were then got rid of, some to their deaths in prison camps.

At first Bernal prevaricated, expressing the view that the staff changes in Lysenko’s Institute would lead to ‘an enormous increase of biological research in the Soviet Union’ and that ‘for some time to come there will be two radically different theories of genetics ... and evolution.’ Later, however, he modified his acceptance of the Lysenko heresy, giving less and less space to it in successive editions of his Science in History, first published in 1954. But his scientific reputation was irretrievably damaged.

Of the brilliance of Bernal’s intellect there can be no doubt, and the same must be said of the constancy of his belief in the potentialities of science in the service of mankind, and of his determination to see them realised. The nickname ‘Sage’, which he acquired early in life, and which appears on the title page of this book, does not seem to me appropriate. It evokes a man honoured for profound and quiet wisdom rather than a warrior untiring in his battles for causes which he is convinced can save the world.

There were, however, contradictions in Bernal’ personality which make any fair assessment of his contribution to the human story exceptionally difficult. In his interpretation, science included the application of logical reasoning to every human problem, chemical, mechanical, medical, economic or social. Today there still are many in the non-communist world who share his belief that the production and distribution of the materials necessary for the good life could be more efficiently managed by intelligent planning than by reliance on market forces guided only by the itch for personal profit. But not so many still regard the Soviet system as a model of how this should be done. As the Lysenko incident illustrated, Bernal almost reached the point of believing that Russia could do no wrong. His passion for social justice may well have been kindled, as I know from incidents in my own childhood, by the social inequalities that disfigured his native environment. Can it be that, although he abjured all religious belief early in adult life, loss of the Catholic faith in which he was indoctrinated as a child left a void which only another dogma could fill? Whatever the reason, the irony of the situation is that the effect of this biography may be to diminish Bernal’s rightful stature in the estimation of the public – partly because his major scientific achievements are beyond the layman’s comprehension and partly because the public is apt to take a perverse delight in discovering the weaknesses of the great.

Bernal deified Russia and he also deified science. Yet science can never be divine, even if those who believe in a deity may see it as an instrument in his hands. The employment of science in the promotion of human welfare implies a prior assumption that human welfare is a desirable objective: but that proposition is not susceptible to proof by any logical process. To me it is extraordinary that Bernal, who in practice conceded the moral neutrality of science, inasmuch as he participated in the use of scientific knowledge in warfare and was appalled at the prospect of a nuclear holocaust, should still have been so reluctant explicitly to admit in his philosophy that science is the handmaid, not the mother, of morality. Nevertheless his failure to appreciate this distinction in no way diminishes the respect due to the vigour and skill with which he devoted himself to equipping that handmaid for her task.