J D Bernal

jenyan1 jenyan1 at SPAMuic.edu
Sat May 12 11:47:17 MDT 2001

Volume 18 - Issue 10, May 12 - 25, 2001
India's National Magazine on indiaserver.com

Scientist as revolutionary

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.


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, 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 inumerable 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.

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