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J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science

[The book]Andrew Brown, a medical radiologist and science historian, has compiled an excellent biography, of the brilliant crystallographer, J. Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) (the nickname Sage was acquired at Cambridge, according to Perutz, “because he knew everything, from physics to the history of art”). There have been several biographical accounts of aspects of Bernal’s colorful life, including his own unpublished Microcosm, but this is the first attempt to portray the immense range of his scientific and political energies, interwoven with glimpses of his unconventional domestic life. Few novels feature crystallographers but, despite the usual author’s disclaimer, Charles P. Snow clearly used his friend Bernal as a model for the scientist character Constantine who envisaged a multidisciplinary Biological Research Institute in “The Search”. Twenty-five years after the publication of Bernal’s most influential book, The Social Function of Science (London, Routledge, 1939), Snow contributed a perceptive personal portrait, emphasizing Bernal’s bravery and imagination, to the multi-author re-assessment volume The Science of Science (ed. M. Goldsmith & A. Mackay, Souvenir Press, 1964).

Dorothy Hodgkin composed a beautiful, affectionate, authoritative and detailed appreciation [Biogr. Mem. Fellows R. Soc., 26, 17-84, 1980] of her friend Bernal’s early life and subsequent career. She included Lord Mountbatten’s admiring memories of Bernal’s pertinent scientific advice for the 1944 Normandy invasion. More recently, Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian edited a collection of 15 essays, J D Bernal (London: Verso, 1999), predominantly on Sage’s international peace campaigning and other political activities, but including a useful chronology of events in Sage’s life.

Andrew Brown has now produced a comprehensive and scholarly, but very readable biography (Oxford: University Press, 2005) based on five year’s research into Bernal’s papers and war reports and from information derived from many of his family, friends and colleagues. Brown’s approach is broadly chronological. However, some of the 22 chapters are topic-based. Thus, one chapter on the Physical Basis of Life covers the emergence of molecular biology, while another on Peace brokering puts the anti-nuclear-bomb campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s in context.

[Bernal]Bernal was perhaps the most international of crystallographers. At the inaugural UN Educational and Cultural Conference, he was one of the scientists credited with ensuring that the new organization should include an S for Scientific and so be UNESCO. The Social Function of Science not only dealt in immense detail with the organization of science education and research in the UK, but also embraced a survey of science across the world. Its proposals as to what science could do were both visionary and controversial at the time. As early as 1930, Bernal was largely involved with Ewald in international crystallographic committees on abstracting and the nomenclature and tabulation of space groups. More generally, early recognition of the problems of dissemination and retrieval amid the information explosion led to far-reaching proposals in 1939, developed further in 1948 for what would ultimately be an international institute for scientific publication (with abolition of full-length papers in conventional journals, a notion revised in 1960) and information abstraction; an international scientific language was even contemplated. The suggestion that new structures should be logged was made in 1948, but it was not until 1970 that Olga Kennard could dedicate the first two volumes of the CCDC’s Molecular Structures and Dimension to Bernal. His familiarity with post-1945 Schools of Crystallography in Britain and the Commonwealth is shown in Chapter 17 of Fifty Years of X-ray Diffraction (ed. P.P. Ewald, Utrecht, IUCr 1962). Having been one of those involved in the 1946 decision to set up the IUCr, he became President in 1963 until incapacitated by his second tragic stroke in 1965.

Several visits to the USSR in the early 1930s made a strong impression on Sage, although his irrevocable position on religion and politics had been established earlier. His first adult visit to the USA (his mother was a bilingual English and French speaking American, but he was educated in Ireland and England) was curtailed by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Post-1945, many of Sage’s visits to the USSR and Eastern Europe (several of whose scientific academies awarded him Membership) and to China and India included both scientific lectures and peace campaigning. He met Khrushchev, Mao Zedong and Nehru, gave a demonstration to Churchill, and participated in committee meetings in the White House, the Kremlin and 10 Downing Street. His experience of less developed countries began with laborious and uncomfortable war-time travel for Mountbatten but thereafter he made many lengthy tours to countries with emerging economies to advise on the development of each nation’s science. His expertise across chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology and structural materials made him a valuable and inexpensive science consultant and also enabled him to indulge his wider intellectual interests with visits to historic sites and museums. Throughout this time and amid all his extra-curricular activities, Bernal continued to hold the responsibilities of a university chair in physics at Birkbeck (to which students came to lectures only in the evenings).

X-ray crystallographers of a certain age will be especially conscious that Bernal rejected W.H. Bragg’s spectrometer, then in vogue at the Royal Institution in the 1920s, in favor of Polanyi’s rotating-crystal photographic method. He made the laborious calculations, first for Bragg and rotation angles and then for reciprocal-lattice co-ordinates, to facilitate the construction of indexing charts. (Incidentally, Polanyi, another polymath, by this time at Manchester, was in the late 1930s to disagree with Bernal both about his advocacy of the central direction of science and about life in Russia.) Bernal then designed what became the Pye (later Unicam) universal X-ray photogoniometer, widely used from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Perhaps Bernal’s greatest scientific contribution was to nurture a clutch of Nobel prizewinners in the development of molecular biology. In his biography, Brown notes that with Bernal’s prolific writing, this Renaissance man changed the course of science and initiated much systematic discussion and some action about what we now call science policy and the integration of science with society.

Outstanding intellects often display surprising discrepancies in behavior and judgment. Against much evidence, Bernal remained uncritical of Stalinist Russia (he accepted a Lenin Peace Prize in 1953) and continued to support Lysenko. He also lived what might euphemistically be described as a Bohemian lifestyle. With regard to personal achievement in scientific research, some would feel that he dissipated too much of his, admittedly enormous, energy in committee meetings or, indeed, in just too many activities. Thus, perhaps, was lacking the long-term obsession within a single field (though he returned to liquid structure, for example, quite late in his research career) that might have led to a Nobel Prize, whether in science or for peace. Brown neither ignores nor dwells on these matters unduly. He has produced a fascinating 470-page biography that does justice to the rich life of an inspirational and imaginative scientist and an ebullient, influential and wide-ranging character.

Derry W. Jones, Bradford University, England