John Desmond Bernal

Scientist as revolutionary

Print edition : May 25, 2001

J.D. Bernal (sitting, fourth from left) with Frederic Joliot Curie (third from left) at the executive council meeting of the World Federation of Scientific Workers in 1946.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The life of J.D. Bernal is a testimony to the commitment that a scientist must use his knowledge and technique only for human welfare. (Published in the issue dated May 25, 2001.)

SOMETIME in 1940, two men disembarked at a railway station in the English countryside. They were internationally reputed scientists and had come in search of an abandoned shed to conduct an experiment. They had no training or experience in the experiment; nor did they have substantial funds. One of them was a physicist-turned-biologist, J.D. Bernal, and the other was a doctor-turned- anatomist-turned curator of a zoo, Solly Zuckerman.

The experiment was an urgent one. The Second World War had started and aerial attacks by the German Luftwaffe had caused panic in London. Those were pre-radar days. The experiment was to determine the damage potential of bombs of different sizes and to see how the damage reduced with increasing distance from the point of impact. It was surprisingly simple. Apes and pigeons were kept in shelters and bombs were exploded at different distances - of course with the permission of the Police Department. Then the scientists would examine the damage to the shelter as also to the captives. It turned out that the damage was far less than the popular perception of what it would be.

The two men now used themselves as "guinea pigs", that is, they sat inside the shelters while the bombs were exploded and thus gathered first-hand data about the impact on human beings. Their finding played an invaluable role in lifting the morale of British citizens and helped them design protective shelters and plan civil defence systems. This was particularly true of the most vulnerable section, the working class.

Not only the result but the experiment itself had a message: that the scientist has a great role to play as a citizen and must apply his knowledge only for human welfare.

The life of Bernal, whose hundredth birth anniversary falls in the second week of May, was a testimony to this commitment. He was a man of rare versatility and his intellectual influence extended far beyond the confines of the scientific fraternity. In science, he was a pioneer in understanding the interrelation between structures and functions in physical, chemical and biological systems. On social questions he was a pathbreaker who tried to explore the relationship between the functions of science and the structure of the society in which it operates. It is not enough for philosophers to interpret the world, they must also see how to change it. With this world-view in mind, Bernal considered that a scientist's duty lay also in changing the social functions of science so that it would not become an instrument in the hands of a privileged class to exploit the poor.

JOHN DESMOND BERNAL was born on May 10, 1901, in an Irish Catholic family whose members were formerly Spanish shepherdic Jews. His mother was an American. He was a precocious child who tried many things, including writing an autobiography at the age of nine. He tried to build things, but was not a skilled instrument builder, being clumsy with his hands. He nearly electrocuted himself and a friend while setting up an X-ray tube. Later in life he would show great foresight, giving ideas about new instruments, which his collaborators would build, often with inexpensive objects such as broken clocks and cycle tubes.

At the age of 10 Bernal left Ireland for England to join a school. He had witnessed the Irish independence movement, which had his sympathies. He had also seen the tragedy that the First World War brought to social life in England.

Bernal found intellectual satisfaction for the first time when he came to study in Cambridge. Here he attended many meetings and met many kinds of people. There were not only students and intellectuals but also soldiers and industrial workers. It surprised him that while the sun did not set in the British empire it was only darkness and gloom that awaited the poor. It was in one such meeting, on November 7, 1919, that Bernal heard from a friend about the October Revolution in Russia and about the experiments in socialism in the newly born Soviet Union. This piece of information opened up a new world for him. Bernal now realised how narrow his Irish nationalism was. It indeed impressed him that "It was the people that would sweep away all things that I hated.... It would bring the scientific world state." This led him to study the ideology on which the new Soviet society was based, that is, Marxism-Leninism. Having thus gained a framework and a world-view, Bernal tried to gain a wider vision of science by studying different courses that Cambridge offered. For his tripos he read such diverse subjects as mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics and mineralogy, and his encyclopaedic knowledge earned him the nickname Sage.

Bernal's acceptance of Marxism made him renounce Catholicism and declare himself to be an atheist and a communist. This disturbed his family. Bernal's father sent a priest to talk to Bernal and bring him back to the faith. But this had the opposite effect: the priest too left the church.

There was also another encounter, of a different type. Some students thought that this young communist must be taught a lesson. They attacked Bernal one night in his room. This combat group (which had alleged links with a future admiral, Lord Mountbatten) got a severe beating from Bernal. They fled. The group members made a tactical error: they came in smoking cigarettes. Bernal switched off the light. They could not see him but he could see where they were and gave a huge punch on the face of each one of them.

By 1923, Bernal and his wife were members of the Communist Party. They mobilised workers for the 1926 general strike. After a decade or so he gave up the membership of the party but remained a communist. Informal yet deep links with the party continued.

In accepting Marxism, however, Bernal was not alone. The Cambridge group now consisted of other brilliant scientists. Joseph Needham and J.B.S. Haldane were in this group. Like Oparin in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Haldane had done pioneering work on the theory of chemical evolution of life, that is, life consisted of inanimate molecules. Bernal added another dimension to this and said that it was not merely the chemistry of molecules but also how these molecules were arranged that needed to be seen - that is, how the structure determined the function. The first landmark in this was achieved by Watson and Crick's determination of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953. This means that in 20 years, Bernal's pioneering ideas had become the accepted methods in biology. The human genome map further confirms Bernal's vision that "life is beginning to cease to be a mystery" and could now be pictured and would become "practically a cryptogram, a puzzle, a code that can be broken" that "while removing most of the mysteries of life, will not reduce in the minds of the scientific biologists of today any of the appreciation of its complexity and beauty."

Although as a student Bernal was recognised for his originality in physics and mathematics, he finally chose biology as the field of his work. It was he who established X-ray crystallography as an important tool in the study of biology and later developments in biology owe a great deal to this and other innumerable contributions from Bernal.

His contributions include the formulation of tables that helped early crystallographers find the structures of crystals (when there were no computers), and pioneering works on sex hormones, proteins, viruses and the structures of different solid phases of water (ice, snow and so on). Later he gave the first model of the liquid state. He is also considered a pioneer in the physics of composites. Many famous biologists, including Nobel laureates, have attributed their success to the insights that Bernal provided in the decisive phases of their work. Dorothy Hodgkin said that she should have shared her Nobel Prize with Bernal instead of winning it alone. The Nobel Prize-winning works of Max Perutz and John Kendrew on the structure of haemoglobin and myoglobin and that of Aaron Kluge on electron microscopy of viruses owe a great deal to the inputs from Bernal. Bernal did not win the Nobel Prize.

It was indeed not in biology alone but in life that Bernal and his collaborators were interested. What interrupted their total attention to the laboratory were indeed the events that occurred outside it. It was in response to these global issues that Bernal in his Cambridge days formed the Cambridge Scientists' Anti War Group. It focused on issues such as the economic depression of the 1930s, the Nazi horror in Hitler's Germany, the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China and the freedom movements in the British colonies. In this gloomy environment, the Soviet Union was the beacon of hope and Bernal made his contact with the Soviet scientists when Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin led a team to England in 1931.

The discussions made the scientists conscious of two urgent needs: to make average citizens aware of science, particularly how science can help them in their lives, and to educate them about the harmful possibilities if science was used for destructive purposes. It was soon felt that even the scientific community required more education on some of these social issues.

Bernal's analysis of these social questions is found in his work The Social Function of Science, which created a stir when it appeared in 1939. It was in this book that Bernal analysed the liberating effect of the socialist revolution in the Soviet Union. He considered the exploitative nature of the capitalist system a hindrance to the growth of science. This book also analysed briefly the state of science in colonial India and commented on the occasional brilliance and extreme unreliability of Indian science. Perhaps his most incisive observation was that the main social forces behind the development of science in India were not scientists themselves but the political agitators who were fighting for freedom and self-reliance.

A large part of the book is devoted to an analysis of science in Nazi Germany. Bernal noted that science that was taught in German universities had deep links with industry - particularly the chemical industry - and was thus aided by militarism, which helped the entry of fascist ideology in academia. According to him, another reason for Hitler subverting academic life was the complacence of the non-Jewish intelligentsia. Many of them considered that the expulsion of the Jewish members of the faculty gave them an opportunity, Bernal observed.

Under fascism, science became an instrument to redefine certain human values, such as purity of race and national pride; peace was seen as a preparation for war; the army was looked upon as the supreme school of national education, where one must learn to be silent and, if necessary, suffer injustice in silence. The message of hope was, however, given by the French intelligentsia. They solidly resisted French fascism and mobilised popular opinion in favour of the anti-fascist Popular Front. Great intellectuals such as Frederic Joliot and Irene Joliot Curie, Langevin, Pablo Picasso and Jean Paul Sartre became the rallying figures behind this front, of which the French communists constituted the backbone.

Bernal concluded that the Third Reich under Hitler would unleash a world war and rallied British scientists for war preparations. This involvement helped Bernal and his friends gain acceptance from the governmental defence establishments, even though he was a communist "as red as the fire of hell". Of course, the communists could not have been left out as they were the most committed anti-fascists. Bernal was one of the pioneers in applying operations research ideas in these War years and was directly involved in the D-Day landing of the Allied forces in Normandy. His special contribution was that he devised aerial photography methods to study the shapes of waves on the Normandy beaches under different wind conditions. From these shapes he determined the inclinations of these beaches, which helped in understanding whether they could withstand the landing of tanks and armoured vehicles.

At the end of the Second World War this anti-fascist alliance collapsed, with the initiation of the Cold War. Bernal, like his friend Joliot in France, was out of favour with the establishment. Moreover, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki placed a special responsibility on the scientists to see that the results of their scientific work were not used for destructive purposes.

Bernal involved himself in organising several forums to contain the damages of the Cold War: the Scientific Workers' Association, the Pugwash Conference, the World Peace Council and so on. Indian scientists like M.N. Saha, D.D. Kosambi and S.S. Sokhe were also leaders of this movement for peace. He was pivotal in mobilising the support of British scientists to the newly independent colonies in their scientific planning; he also mobilised support for the formation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Bernal's monumental work, Science in History, appeared in the 1950s, and one entire session of the Soviet Academy of Science was devoted to the study of this single work. The book is not a mere chronological history of science. It gives a method to analyse the role that science has played in history. Science, according to Bernal, "will not fail for lack of human capacity; where it fails will be for lack of social organisation to make use of that capacity". This failure has happened because the imperialist system perpetuates underdevelopment and thus has stopped the entire humanity from involving itself with scientific progress. This huge manpower, according to Bernal, could be released for the progress of mankind and science only with the demise of imperialism and the capitalist system.

The hope, according to Bernal, lies in the socialist system. He analysed in great detail the scientific progress made under socialism. The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, to some, may signify the demise of socialist ideology. Yet, any serious student of history would agree that no society in the past achieved such rapid scientific progress as these socialist societies did and never before had science been put at the service of such a huge mass of humanity. Bernal had concluded that the future of science in these societies as also in the People's Republic of China depended as much on their internal stability as on their ability to ward off the threat of war, including a nuclear war, and the cessation of bickering within the socialist camp. These conclusions appear to be prophetic in the light of the developments in Eastern Europe.

Bernal died on September 15, 1971, that is, 20 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was a regular visitor to the Soviet Union since the 1950s and must have noticed the imperfections, both in the Stalin era and in the subsequent period. Since he never denounced either Stalin or the post-Stalin leadership of the Soviet Union it is not clear as to what his evaluations were. He maintained good relations with leaders like Zhou Enlai, Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Kwame Nkrumah and Jawaharlal Nehru. He closely interacted with anti-imperialist intellectuals such as Picasso, Nazim Hikmet, Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda. These actions suggest that he strove to develop an anti-imperialist front.

BERNAL'S close links with India deserve special mention. He visited India several times. His friend Blackett came to India many times as a scientific adviser. His student Dorothy Hodgkin had many students from India as her collaborators; several of them worked in Bangalore later. Bernal's friend J.B.S. Haldane settled in India in the 1950s and became an Indian citizen. Indian scientists owe their gratitude to Bernal for two reasons. Bernal was responsible in no small measure for drawing the attention of G.N. Ramachandran (or GNR, unquestionably the greatest Indian scientist in the post-War era) to some outstanding problems in protein structure. They met at a conference in Chennai and Bernal told GNR about some intriguing features in the structure of collagen. For GNR, the problem was where he would get samples of collagen from. Perhaps at the CLRI, your next door, suggested Bernal and it turned out to be so. (Bernal was referring to the Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai.) That was the beginning of GNR's path-breaking work on the structure of collagens. Bernal was thus a great catalyst.

Bernal introduced A.R. Vasudev Murthy of the Indian Institute of Science to D.D. Kosambi during the Indian Science Congress in Pune in 1950. (In his book Science in History, Bernal uses Kosambi's characterisation of science as the cognition of necessity.) Kosambi told Vasudev Murthy that he intended to make a study of Indian history on the lines of Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It was in this way that Kosambi's collaborations with the scientific community in Bangalore began; he stimulated them in lively debates on the social functions of science and the culture and civilisation of ancient India.

THE thrust in Bernal's later writings was the promise that science holds for mankind. The 20th century revolution in science, which was essentially triggered by a crisis in knowledge (in physics, which later became all-pervasive) gives the hope that mankind's eternal dream of a "life with plenty of food and no work to do" can be realised - not only for millionaires and princes but for all citizens of the world. But to achieve this people should unite to create a world without war. The battle of ideas, regarding the relative merits of capitalism and socialism, ought to go on but it is not to be resolved by armed conflicts.

The 20th century has also witnessed the transformation of science from a "romantic pursuit" to a paid profession where the actions of the "scientific worker" are subservient to the interests of the funding agency, such as monopoly industries and the state. The right to egalitarian utilisation of knowledge, that is, science and technique, is a democratic demand of all working people, including the scientific worker. The democratic revolutions of the 20th century give man a vision of an earthly paradise - a paradise from which no one will be driven away for the "crime" of tasting the fruit of knowledge. The science of the society, which in the 20th century proved to be the guideline for practical actions, helps man to make history consciously. With this the true history of mankind has really begun.

Dr S. Chatterjee is a scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.

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