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Some famous Irish communists

J. D. Bernal


John Desmond Bernal was born in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, on 10 May 1901. In early life he was known as Desmond, later as John, though most of his close contemporaries called him “Sage,” a nickname considered to sum up his extraordinary qualities as a dazzling talker and visionary thinker.
     His father’s family were Irish Catholics, though they had formerly been Spanish Sephardic Jews; his mother was American. At the age of ten he was sent to school in England and later attended the University of Cambridge, and he remained in England for the rest of his life. As a schoolboy he showed an early talent for science, devising his own laboratory tests. He was also precociously radical, supporting the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence.
     On 7 November 1919 Bernal heard at a meeting about the October Revolution in Russia. After moving to London in the 1920s to work at the Royal Institution he attended the 1917 Club.
     Bernal studied both mathematics and science for his BA degree in 1922, followed by another year of natural sciences. He taught himself the theory of space groups, including the quaternion method, which became the mathematical basis of later work on crystal structure. After graduating he began research under William Bragg at the Davy-Faraday Laboratory in London.
     In 1923 Bernal and his wife joined the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain, and both were active, especially during the general strike of 1926. Bernal also wrote for the theoretical journal Communist Review.
     At university Bernal displeased Ernest Rutherford by not taking up nuclear physics and choosing crystallography as his area of research. But he ended up selecting biology as his main field of work, perhaps seeing the social aspect as an added interest but also because he felt that biology needed assistance from physics and chemistry. His work was characterised by a crossing of boundaries, not only between physics, chemistry and biology but between science and society—a product of his Marxist world view, The consequence was a stunning array of achievements, with not a few scientific achievements being named after him. The Bernal tables helped early crystallographers to calculate the structures of crystals, and he carried out pioneering work on sex hormones and proteins. He was first to work out the structure of graphite and was a pioneer in the physics of composites: the Bernal hard sphere model was the first such approach in the analysis of the liquid state of water.
     His role as a catalyst for others, in seeing the connections between aspects of scientific disciplines, was at the root of many of these achievements. The biologist Dorothy Hodgkin said that Bernal should have shared her Nobel Prize. Other prizewinners recorded their debt to their association with Bernal, involving work on the structures of haemoglobin, myoglobin, and the electron microscopy of viruses.
     Bernal’s work was central to the development of crystallography and he was a founder of the science of molecular biology. He eventually became professor of physics at the University of Cambridge and from 1932 to 36 worked on the development of X-ray crystallography with Dorothy Hodgkin.
     Bernal officially allowed his Communist Party membership to lapse in 1933, possibly because his scientific work was now becoming highly sensitive. It is virtually certain that he had accepted a proposal from Harry Pollitt (general secretary of the CPGB) that the scientist’s role in developing a broader movement of progressive intellectuals outside the party would constitute his party work. Though Bernal did not work inside a formal party structure, it is clear that his work was guided by the party, and Bernal considered himself a communist in every sense of the word.
     In 1937 Bernal became professor of crystallography at Birkbeck College, London. In 1939 he published probably the earliest text on the sociology of science, The Social Function of Science, which analysed the liberating effect of socialism on science. He wrote many other influential books on science policy and the history of science, including The Freedom of Necessity (1949), The Physical Basis of Life (1951), Marx and Science (1952), World Without War (1958), A Prospect of Peace (1960), and The Origin of Life (1967).
     During the Second World War, Bernal was scientific adviser to Admiral Louis Mountbatten, chief of combined operations. In August 1943 he helped to select the beaches for the D-Day landings in France, and he was the joint inventor of Mulberry Harbour, the artificial docks that were vital to the landings in 1944. He devised methods of aerial photography to photograph the shapes of waves on the Normandy beaches under different wind conditions. From this work he devised methods for determining the inclination of the beaches to see how they would withstand the landing of armoured vehicles. Bernal himself landed in Normandy the day after D-Day.
     In 1947 Bernal was awarded the US Medal of Freedom, but his political views made him an unwanted guest, and during most of his career he was prevented from attending scientific conferences in the United States.
     Bernal was closely associated with the peace movement, from his early support of the Cambridge Scientists’ Anti-War Group to becoming vice-president of the World Peace Committee. In 1951 he founded Scientists for Peace, and in 1953 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. After the war he travelled extensively, visiting eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. He was concerned about the way in which scientists from newly independent and neo-colonial countries were enticed to richer countries (a process that has increased alarmingly since then); it was apparently he who coined the term “brain drain” to describe this phenomenon.
     From the early war years Bernal was a supporter of the refounded Association of Scientific Workers, which later amalgamated to form ASTMS, later part of MSF, today part of Unite. He also helped to establish UNESCO and the World Federation of Scientific Workers,
     Since 1968, when Prof. Bernal retired from Birkbeck, his old college has held the annual J. D. Bernal Lectures, which deal mainly with aspects of science that have social consequences.
     John Desmond Bernal died on 15 September 1971.

[Based on the article by Graham Stevenson.]

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