J D Bernal: the sage of science

J D Bernal: the sage of science 

Andrew Brown 

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2005 | 562pp | ?25 (HB) | ISBN 0198515449 

Reviewed by Derry Jones

J D (James Desmond) Bernal never won a Nobel prize but his biographer, Andrew Brown, records that over a dozen molecular biology laureates have expressed admiration for his brilliance and influence; he was nicknamed ’sage’ by fellow undergraduates at Cambridge and this title stuck with him.  

Within science, Bernal’s originality and perception embraced crystallography, materials, proteins, liquids and military operational research. He was even the model for a fictional scientist in a C P Snow novel. In the 1950s he was an unpaid scientist consultant across the world but was not admitted to the US despite his 1947 US medal for freedom for his war work. More widely, his serious intellectual endeavours and extensive writing were shared across scientific history, social science, art, and anti-war campaigning.  

His book on sociology, The social function of science  (1939), advocated central planning of scientific research to serve the peaceful needs of society but, as Michael Polanyi pointed out, Bernal’s praise of the USSR ignored its oppression. Post war, Bernal’s devotion to the USSR line was unswerving; he met and supported Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, he accepted a Stalin peace prize, and he was photographed alongside Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a two-hour speech to a Moscow peace congress. 

Several previous biographical accounts cover aspects of Bernal’s life in science, social science and politics. Brown’s fine biography is a long, comprehensive, scholarly account of the whole man, not excluding his (frequently reciprocated) attraction to women. Its 22 chapters include five devoted to wartime defence research (while at Combined Operations, a division of the British war office, Bernal and Lord Mountbatten were mutual admirers) and five to anti-war and peace missions. Most of these chapters, like those on the origins of life and the emergence of molecular biology, form almost complete stories; they generally include, unostentatiously, background histories, eg on pre-war virus research, post-war nuclear proliferation politics, the Snow-Leavis two cultures debate, and the 1960s polywater controversy. 

Chapters describing the intellectual climate at the Royal Institution in the 1920s, the Cavendish in the 1930s, and Birkbeck in the 1950s are absorbing. But I also enjoyed Brown’s readable accounts of other facets in the crowded life of this inspiring, if flawed, intellectual giant.