Climate Stories is having a summer holiday - have some JD Bernal as a filler

Climate Stories is having a summer holiday. I'll be back in September. As a filler, he’s an old piece about JD Bernal I wrote a few years ago. He was a biophysicist, and this has almost nothing to do with climate science, but it's still an interesting case in 20th century science, offering some background music for our story. 

Born in 1901 in County Tipperary, John Desmond Bernal was one of those scientists people feel the need to say “he never won a Nobel” about, presumably because they think he could have.

It’s sometimes argued that he just spread his expertise a bit too thin for that sort of prize. He was largely recognised as a bit of a general clever-clogs, picking up the the nick-name “sage” at university. A couple of his PhD students – Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin – did win Nobels though, as did his old supervisor, William Henry Bragg. Rosalind Franklin worked with him for a bit too, as did Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick (if you’ve not heard of any of these, google them, they’re all super-interesting in their own right). So he had a bit of Nobel sparkle around him.

He was possibly as famous for his socialism as his science though. At school, he had been rather insulated from politics. But he started attending Socialist Society meetings at Cambridge and, as a PhD student living in Bloomsbury later in the 1920s, he joined both the Holborn Labour Party and the Communist Party (it wasn’t especially remarkable to be a member of both at the time).

He marched in the General Strike in 1926, and there’s a lovely story of him being especially moved by the experience of walking through London that day, the streets left at a relative standstill. But his years in Bloomsbury, if anything, weren’t especially inspiring politically, and it was in the 1930s, back in Cambridge, that he got more active. There’s another great story about a Russian delegation crashing a major history of science conference held at the Science Museum in 1931, and inspiring Bernal as they ripped the ideologies of bourgeois science to bits. 

Apparently he wasn’t strictly a “card carrying” commie, having absent-mindedly dropped his actual card sometime in 1933 and not bothering to replace it (see Fred Steward’s chapter in Swann & Aprahamian). Some said Bernal eventually took to Marxism with a religious fever, a replacement for the Catholicism of his youth (a point others also have made about his adoption of Freud). It seems a bit patronising to describe people being religious in their political zeal. But I don’t know though, maybe Bernal was.

Bernal wasn’t unusual as a politically active left wing scientist in 1930s Britain. Eric Hobswam cites CP Snow as saying if you were to poll a couple of hundred of the brightest young physicist in the mid 1930s, you’d have found around fifteen communists, a good fifty more on left and a hundred admitting to leftie sympathises, with the rest neutral apart from the odd handful on the right.

Bernal was not simply a scientist who was interested in politics, he felt strongly the two should be connected. A good example of this was his 1939 book The Social Function of Science which argued science wasn't just an aloof intellectual matter but, to put it simply, a way to make the world better. The book was highly influential, instrumental in the development of the social studies of science and arguably, aspects of post-war science policy.

As Chris Freeman summarises, for Bernal science is the most important thing humans do and so, in both short and long term, it’s own justification. It provides such a huge capacity for social change and improvement of people’s lives. It just had to be planned out in the right way. To quote Bernal's biographer, Andrew Brown: “The sense of impending war clearly emerges. Bernal deplored the application of scientific discoveries in making war ever more destructive, while acknowledging that the majority of scientific and technical breakthroughs have their origins in military exigencies, both because of the willingness to spend money and the premium placed on novelty during wartime.”

At the heart of Bernal’s book – and his political legacy – is a call to organise this great human power of science, and to organise it to serve the many, not the few. Bernal’s particular approach contained, arguably, somewhat of an over-idealisation of the USSR’s. But that doesn’t mean his central desire to try to organise science is necessarily wrong, just that we might disagree about the best way to go about it. There are a range of ways we might organise science, and a range of ways we might be explicit and hope to involve others in this process.

Bernal’s view of organising science was basically a sense that great names could fix things. Bernal venerated expertise, or at least he had a strong belief the benevolence of the scientific expert when it came to distributing the power to make decisions about science.

Freeman agrees with Bernal’s enthusiasm for ambitious well-organised use of science and technology for human welfare, but stresses need to be complemented with equally explicitly commitment to promotion of open critical debate (see also Freeman’s Vega lecture on Bernal). In reference to Bernal’s much publicised support of Lynsenco, Freeman argues that the best way to criticise and expose reactionary ideas in science remains to point out they are unscientific in public, not to rely on political labels.

In 1938, Bernal was appointed professor of physics at Birkbeck, but at the onset of the Second World War he was pressed into service. Apparently John Anderson (yes, that’s Anderson as in Anderson shelters) wanted Bernal as a scientific adviser “even if he is as red as the flames of Hell”. Together with his friend Solly Zuckerman, Bernal gave analysis of bombing a quantitative basis, which helped make a case against exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of Allied bombing, going on – with Patrick Blackett – to advise against the bombing of several German cities as a waste of manpower and resources. Later, Bernal and Zuckerman were seconded to General Mountbatten’s D-Day planning team, and a strong friendship sprang up between Bernal and Mountbatten.

After the war, Bernal resumed his professorial duties at Birkbeck, setting up the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948. Post war, he helped put the S in UNESCO (i.e. the science) though his politics sometimes got him into trouble with the scientific establishment. He was excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, after speech he gave in Moscow critiquing the nature and control of science in the capitalist west, and Julian Huxley refused to work with communist scientists.

Bernal was also an active peace campaigner, involved in the World Peace Council. When the British Peace Committee attempted to host the World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a number of delegates ended up stranded in London, including one Pablo Picasso. Bernal organised a party in his flat for them, and Picasso drew a mural on the wall of Bernal’s sitting room. Bernal later gave it to the ICA, and it’s currently at the Wellcome Collection (only a few blocks from Birkbeck).

I haven’t really gone into his personal life here, but Hobsbawn describes Bernal as having a “purple” approach to sex to complement his otherwise “red” characteristics. Brown says Bernal and his wife took to their open marriage “with gusto”. You can google around a bit for more if that’s your sort of thing. He had a few kids. His mum sounded pretty cool too. You can read the first few pages of Brown’s book for details on her. There are a few portraits of him in the national collection and a plaque outside his old flat in Camden. He died in 1971 and is buried in South London.

Climate stories will be back in September.