- 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.
Though the originality of his mind was astonishing, his progress as a scientist was curiously uneven. Forced to shift from mathematics to physics, he failed to get a first-class physics degree, which closed the Cavendish Laboratory to him for a while – not that the great Rutherford liked Bernal’s personal and scientific style, let alone his Communism. His way into science would be through crystallography, which ‘appealed to him as naturalist, a mathematician, a physicist and a chemist’ and suited his talent for experiment and theoretical modelling. For some wonderfully enjoyable and bohemian years he joined the Nobel-winning Braggs in London, before returning to Cambridge in 1927. In scientific terms, and probably in terms of his impact on politics, the next 12 years, which gave him prominence as a Communist intellectual, were the most rewarding. In effect these years made him both the founder of modern molecular biology (or, in Francis Crick’s words, his and Watson’s ‘scientific grandfather’) and, through his enormously influential The Social Function of Science, the theorist of science planning and science policy. Cambridge was his base until in 1938 he took over P.M.S. Blackett’s chair of physics at Birkbeck College, not then one of the major hubs of scientific research, where he remained for the rest of his life, building up a distinguished crystallography department after the war. His reputation attracted young researchers of the highest ability – Crick (before he went to Cambridge), Rosalind Franklin, Aaron Klug – but he remained on the margins of the revolution in the life sciences he had done so much to inspire. He was to recognise the DNA model immediately as ‘the greatest single discovery in biology’, but his name is not on it.
In fact, from early 1939 to 1946 he was effectively outside the academy as part of the extraordinarily successful mobilisation of British scientists for the war effort and one of the main inspirers and creators of ‘operational research’. He seems to have had no connection with the atom bomb project. For a few years, science and politics, theory and practice were one, and even laymen can appreciate his most dramatic achievements – he predicted the effect of the 1940 German bombing on Coventry, for example, and conducted spectacular research on the invasion beaches of Normandy – as well as his nonchalant bravery. In 1945-46 the wartime insider once again became the Communist outsider and potential traitor, though the establishment had more trouble in getting used to the transition than George Orwell, who lost no time in denouncing Bernal’s Stalinism and ‘slovenly style’. Somewhat surprisingly, he was even so asked in 1945-46 to calculate the relative military effort needed to knock out the USSR, the USA and Britain in a future nuclear war, a task he carried out with his usual icy intelligence and verve. It was to be his last official duty. There has never, incidentally, been any evidence or serious suggestion of relations with the Soviet intelligence services.
Was it only the Cold War that broke what looked like the triumphant postwar career of a major scientist at the peak of his creative capacities? The ODNB plausibly suggests that Bernal’s political activism after 1945 made it difficult for him to re-establish his prewar standing. Certainly, his total public identification with Stalinism did him serious harm. His reputation among his peer group never quite recovered from his attempt to justify the charlatan Lysenko, whose views became the orthodoxy of Soviet biology in 1948. This doesn’t, however, explain his failure to make more than a peripheral personal contribution to the great revolution in molecular biology, or his shift from research to encyclopedic and historical writing. As Brown records, the preparation of the titanic Science in History ‘at times threatened to overwhelm’ him.
Bernal could, in the words of an admiring friend, shoot ‘an arrow of original thought into any target presented to him’; it was a prodigious gift and he continued to exercise it to good effect, but his scientific reputation does not rest on his postwar research, with the exception perhaps of his work on the structure of liquids, which Brown discusses very well. How could it have? As Rosalind Franklin recalled, Birkbeck physicists worked in a bomb-damaged building under conditions that were primitive even by the standards of postwar London. They were not made any easier by jealousies and hostilities within the college and, when the international situation froze, by outside political and ideological attacks. He worked with unremitting and growing intensity, but the scientific results were less impressive than would have been predicted in 1939.
By 1951 even his powerful physique began to show cracks under the pressures of a superhuman schedule that combined full-time scientific work and academic duties with constant global campaigning on behalf of the Soviet-sponsored peace movement and a programme of writing, lecturing and conferencing that was little short of obsessional. He began to have trouble climbing mountains, and his walk became more unbalanced – he himself compared it to Lear’s Pobble. In one academic year – 1961-62 – in addition to his travels on behalf of the peace movement, he lectured in Chile and Brazil, in Berlin and Munich, at Yale (a series of postgraduate lectures on ‘Molecular Structure, Biochemical Function and Evolution’), at the Ghana Academy of Science, and at a research conference on physical metallurgy in New Hampshire; he addressed the Physical Society of France, the British Association, and institutions or associations in Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle, gave the Bakerian Lecture at the Royal Society and talked to various scientific and student societies. Since he had also published five books in the 1950s there could hardly be room for more than intermittent research.
In the end the overload caught up with him. Starting in 1963 a series of strokes laid him low, although he did not retire from the chair of crystallography he had finally extorted from Birkbeck until 1968. His last years were divided between Margot Heinemann and their daughter, Jane, and the two other wives who reasserted their claims on him. Gradually the extraordinary brain lost the physical capacity to communicate with the outside world. In the end even those closest to him, despite a lifetime’s familiarity with his voice and handwriting, could no longer decipher his sounds and signs. He passed his last two years transported from one house to another, in silent solitary confinement in the prison of a decaying body, and died on 15 September 1971, aged 70.
Even the life of the most singular individual makes little sense except in the setting of his or her time and place. Bernal’s dream of progress and liberation through a combination of political, personal and scientific revolution – Lenin, Freud and the revelations hidden in the beauty of crystals – was his own, and so was his tragedy, but only someone who reached adulthood in the first half of the 20th century would have had that dream. As both an Irish and subsequently a Communist revolutionary he belonged to the era of capitalist and imperial crisis. As a scientist he was acutely conscious of living in what the French sociologist Georges Friedmann called ‘the crisis of progress’, in a book of that name, published in 1936.
For 150 years before 1914 there was little doubt in educated secular Western minds that, faster or slower, continuously or discontinuously, civilisation was moving forward to a better future. The reality of that future could not be denied even by those who worried about its problematic consequences. But where was humanity going after 1914, in what now appeared to be the ruins of the 19th-century world, amid wars, revolutions and economic collapse? Only three pillars, reinforcing one another, still held up the temple of progress: the forward march of science, a confident, rationalised American capitalism and, for ravaged Europe and what later came to be called the Third World, the hope of what the Russian Revolution might bring: Einstein, Lenin and Henry Ford. The advance of science was safe enough, but social crisis, intellectual danger and even its own progress increasingly pressed its practitioners into looking outside the laboratories to society.
In the 1920s even the young USSR looked to Henry Ford, and Bernal, though a Communist, accepted that human needs could be satisfied either through ‘a rationalised capitalism or Soviet state planning’. The American model crashed in the world economic crisis, the central cataclysm of the era, taking with it the local versions of liberal corporate capitalism in Germany and Japan. A crude industrialisation on the Soviet model seemed to be roaring ahead. For believers in progress it seemed that the only way to the future was via a new planned socialist society created by history and transformed by science. The peculiarity of Bernal’s career is that he never lost the belief, acquired in the 1930s, that this could be achieved only by a society like the USSR, even in its Stalinist form.
The move of science into the public arena seemed both logical and necessary to a dynamic core of young natural scientists. On the one hand, they knew that the small band of pioneer explorers making discoveries round every corner were living in triumphant times – ‘in this glorious new world of science’, as the young Bernal put it. Its revolutions since 1895 had opened an era of spectacular and world-transforming progress in the understanding and control of nature. They alone knew how it was done. Only they really knew its potential. Bernal was not the only maker of daring speculations on ‘the shape of things to come’. His specific and perhaps most lasting contribution to the assertion of the power of science was to analyse its actual operation as a social and intellectual agent and how it should be organised for effective development.
On the other hand, the ignorance of those who ran the Western world was equally obvious. In an era of revolutionary upheaval and, as the worldwide capitalist economic cataclysm made clear, of poverty in the midst of plenty, they were helpless. Society needed scientists. (‘Social need’ and ‘national well-being’ entered the public vocabulary of British science in the early 1930s.) Though research and theory had traditionally been averse to controversial politics, like it or not, practitioners of an outsider science had to enter the field of public activity as a body of propagandists for science, as pioneers of the future, and, from the moment Hitler took power in Germany, as defenders of the future of civilisation. At this crucial moment, the apparent immunity of the USSR to the Great Slump discredited market economics and made ‘planning’ look like a miracle drug. Soviet Russia became a model even for non-Bolsheviks. Across frontiers of states and ideologies, ‘planning’ was the order of the day: it appealed to socialists, who believed in it on grounds of ideology, to scientists and technocrats, who practised it anyway, and to politicians, who began to realise that slump and war made it necessary.
What scientists like Bernal hoped to achieve by the planned mobilisation of people, politics, science and social hope was the good society in a world without war. But the irony of history decided that the mobilisation came about for the purpose of fighting and winning war – the greatest of the 20th century’s total wars. It was never to be achieved with equal success for any other purpose. The war fused political and scientific decisions and turned science fiction into reality, sometimes nightmare reality. The atom bomb was the social application of a political judgment against Hitler made in 1939 by nuclear theorists and experimenters. War justified Bernal’s prediction of the need for a planned ‘big science’ which would allow its practitioners to break into new realms of understanding and social usefulness. There was no other way to build a nuclear weapon. War and only war would give science and technology – nuclear, spatial, computer-generated – the resources and the support structure that propelled both into the second half of the century. And because it put new and limitless powers into human hands, war escaped control and reversed the relation between sorcerer and apprentice. The sorcerers who had created the bombs, conscious of their danger, found themselves helpless when faced with the apprentices who justified and gloried in their use. The bomb-makers became anti-nuclear campaigners, and objects of suspicion and contempt to the bomb-users.
Robert Oppenheimer and Desmond Bernal, who probably spent more time after 1945 campaigning against nuclear war than on any of his many other activities, were in different ways victims of this reversal – though they were not the only ones. Oppenheimer, hounded out of public life by enemies and witch-hunters on the excuse of prewar Communist associations, was in one way the more tragic case. His fall was greater, and the case against him transparently spurious. Given his political allegiance, Bernal could not have been surprised to be treated as a ‘security risk’ from 1945. Yet in another way his case was equally tragic, since he was brought low by those whose politico-scientific vision of the future he shared, but who chose to splinter it dramatically during the first war-risking superpower confrontation of the Cold War.
During the tense months of the 1948 Berlin Airlift, Stalin decided to defend the USSR against ideological infiltrations and other dangers from the West by an ex cathedra decision that henceforth there were two mutually hostile sciences. Only one of these was right and, because it was authorised by the Party, it was mandatory for all Communists to practise it. In Maoist terms, being ‘red’ was more important than being ‘expert’. That, rather than any argument about the nature of the reproduction of organisms, was the issue in the Lysenko affair, directly ‘authorised and in effect dictated by Stalin’, as recent research shows. Not surprisingly, it put an end to the era of ‘red science’. Bernal discredited himself by giving priority to the obligation of being loyally ‘red’.
Unconscious of historical irony, Stalin had singled out as orthodoxy’s chosen scapegoat precisely the field of life-science research which had done most to attract Western scientists to Soviet thinking and had produced the most eminent Marxists and Marxisants of the age of red science. Geneticists were vulnerable in Russia because, unlike physicists and mathematicians, who had to be allowed to go about their business whatever their ideological sins, they produced neither arms nor, apparently, enough short-term improvements in agriculture. The problematic agrobiological theories of Lysenko were officially declared correct, materialist, progressive and patriotic, against reactionary, scholastic, foreign and unpatriotic bourgeois genetics. (Some three thousand biologists promptly lost their jobs, and some their liberty.) Both Soviet doctrine and Soviet practice in the Lysenko affair were indefensible. Why Bernal, almost alone among Western scientists, chose to make an aggressive public defence of both, and reinforce it, some years later, by an implausible obituary of ‘Stalin as a Scientist’, is still not clear. It is not enough to say that he put Party duty before scientific conscience, though he can hardly have been convinced himself by his own attempts to make an intellectual case for Lysenko. Technically, he was not even a Communist Party member. However, he was by then an important public figure in the international sphere of the USSR. Possibly, concerns about world peace and the hope of influencing developments within the Soviet Union moved him. As Brown shows, he did eventually become a friend and confidant of Khrushchev. Whatever his motives, his stance did not serve his cause, himself or his reputation.
Bernal clearly failed in his political activities and, though he never expressed any criticism of the Soviet Union, he must have been disappointed in his political hopes. He was far more influential as a prophet of the post-1945 organisation, structure and public funding of science. From projects like CERN to the ‘citations index’, we still live with his heritage. But what did he achieve as a scientist?
Very few scientists have had a more impressive peer assessment. ‘The scope of Bernal’s brain was legendary,’ wrote Watson, not a man given to feelings of inferiority. ‘I regarded Bernal as a genius,’ Crick said. Pauling thought he was the most brilliant scientist he had ever met. His biographer has traced statements by at least a dozen Nobel laureates, older and younger, expressing ‘admiration or even awe’. Yet the very universality of his interests, the very speed of his responses and his consequent impatience, tempted him away from the concentration essential to measurable achievement. Probably the most balanced assessment was written in 1964 by C.P. Snow:
In natural gifts he stands very high, he is the most learned scientist of his time, perhaps the last of whom it will be said, with meaning, that he knew science . . . And yet his achievement, though massive, will not dominate the record as it might have done. The number of scientific papers, all over the world, produced under other names, which owe their origins to Bernal, is very large. But he has suffered from a certain lack of the obsessiveness which most scientists possess and which makes them carry out a piece of creative work to the end. If Bernal had possessed this kind of obsessiveness he would have polished off a great deal of modern molecular biology and won Nobel Prizes several times over.
Should we therefore think less of his achievement? It is the paradox of scientific knowledge that, being cumulative, its practitioners are remembered for personal priority in a sphere where progress is collective and independent of single individuals. The greatest geniuses in the sciences are historically replaceable, because their innovations would have been made by others sooner or later, and are inevitably part of a continuing collective endeavour. We rightly honour Mendeleev, but the chemical elements would have found their periodic table without him. The names Crick, Watson and Wilkins on the 1962 Nobel stand for a regiment of researchers who made their breakthrough possible and continued to develop it. On the other hand, the mechanism of reward and name-recognition is inadequate to record the contribution of men like Bernal, though at least four of his pupils and disciples won Nobel Prizes in the three years 1962-64, without counting Crick, who had wanted to work for him and Franklin from his own laboratory. His work is not a solid but an impulse, an atmosphere.
Everybody knows what Roentgen did in science, even though we may know or need to know nothing else about him: he discovered X-rays in 1895. Few know who Higgs was or is, but he gave his name to the mysterious Higgs Boson, about which physicists argue. Nothing in science permanently carries Bernal’s name. Most of those who knew him and felt the impact of this extraordinary figure are already dead. Once the generations who responded directly to the stimulus of such a man die, his reputation is in the hands of the historians. They will need to be not only experts in the history of science, but men and women who can reconstruct the mood and temper of his age of global catastrophe and global hope, for a time when no one is left who can remember it. Andrew Brown’s book will be their necessary point of departure.