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How to Lose a War

The Spokesman, 90

Andrew Brown, J. D. Bernal – The Sage of Science, Oxford University Press, 576 pages, hardback ISBN 0198515448 £25.00


Desmond Bernal earned a reputation as a Titan among British scientists, and a distinguished boffin for the British armed forces in the Second World War.   Together with Solly Zuckerman and others, he pioneered the study of the effects of bombing on cities.


His biographer tells us that Bernal’s ‘pièce de résistance was the planning of D-Day: a contribution that has given rise to some controversy’. He earned the nickname ‘Sage’ because he was believed to know everything. But this belief was an exaggeration, even if he did know a great many things. Among Communist scientists, Joseph Needham knew a great deal more, and carried his knowledge with a great deal less dogmatic assurance.


This is a fine biography, and it is not averse to painting at least some of the warts as well as the achievements of its subject. Desmond Bernal was a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, and laid the foundation of molecular biology. He was a generalist, and wrote stimulating analyses of the social functions of science. He was also an Irish rebel brought up under the shadow of the Easter Uprising, and became a committed Communist with a strong tendency to piety.


Bernal was one of the core group of British scientists who attended the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London. This was ‘galvanised by the unexpected arrival of a delegation from the Soviet Union’. Eight contributors were led by Nikolai Bukharin, and his team included the distinguished geneticist, Vavilov. At the time the most powerful contribution of the group was esteemed to be a lecture by Boris Hessen, on the social and economic roots of Newton’s Principia.


The unique flavour of the Russian contribution was described in The Spectator by Bernal, who had a female connection with the journal. (Bernal had several female connections, so much so that his archive of six boxes of his love letters is sealed, we are informed, until 2021, by which time, we may anticipate, at least some of the passion contained in them may be spent.)


We might wish that the archive could have included the Sage’s thoughts about Bukharin and Vavilov, both of whom perished in Stalin’s witch-hunts. In fact, Bernal gave his support to the charlatan academician Lysenko, who wrote perhaps the most dismal page in the history of Soviet Science.


Of course, by this time, Bernal was a luminary of the World Peace Committee, and one of the most distinguished sycophants of Stalin. There is a revealing description of a visit to China, which shows how the affection for Stalin carried over into support for Khrushchev. During a firework display at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Bernal was approached by a tall Russian who said ‘Nikita Sergeyevich wants to speak to you’. Bernal also met Zhou Enlai, who promised him an interview. But after the meeting with Khrushchev, Zhou sent ‘an undiplomatic message … saying that he did not see any value in seeing him’.


Here was a man celebrated by Francis Crick as ‘a genius’ and by Linus Pauling as ‘one of the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century’ and variously described as ‘one of the best, if not the best, scientific minds in the world’, and ‘the pioneer who pushed the frontier forward’, who could nonetheless embrace with all the fervour of a Moonie, a political creed of remarkable vacuity.


How could it all happen? Andrew Brown gives us an honest portrait, and shows us how very clever ‘Sage’ really was. But he does not hide the grosser lapses of the political man.


For this reason, although this is a very good book, it will not be the last. Quite aside from any indiscretions which may await us in the six sealed boxes of love letters, the circle of Sage’s brilliance and incomprehension remains to be squared.


Ken Coates







Independent News Collective


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