The Tipp Sage


I remember excitedly buying a boxed set of four books, Science In History by John D. Bernal (Pelican, 1965), when I was an undergraduate. At the time, I was an amateur Marxist, and Bernal's work was an encyclopaedic analysis of science and society from a Marxist point of view. I was delighted to learn that Bernal was an Irishman who had spent a brilliant career at the leading edge of UK science.

John Desmond Bernal was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, in 1901. The Bernals were originally Sephardic Jews who came to Ireland in 1840 from Spain, via Amsterdam and London. They converted to Catholicism, and Bernal was Jesuit-educated. Bernal showed precocious talent. At the age of two he was taken by his American mother to see his grandmother in California and he amazed passengers on the steamship by talking in both English and French. While at Cambridge, his fellow students nicknamed him "Sage", because of his great knowledge.

Bernal started as a science undergraduate at Cambridge in 1919, where his studies included mineralogy and the mathematics of symmetry. He gained a research position in 1923 at the Royal Institution, in London, with William Henry Bragg, the eminent crystallographer (one who studies crystalline structures using X-rays).

He returned to Cambridge in 1927 as the first lecturer in structural crystallography, convinced of the enormous potential of his field to elucidate the structure of the technological and biological worlds. Bernal fulfilled his agenda through his own brilliant work and by inspiring the upcoming generation of crystallographers at the Cavendish Laboratory and at Birkbeck College, London, where he was appointed professor of physics in 1937. The young field of molecular biology was stagnant until Bernal observed that you could do X-ray studies of proteins only in the wet state.

Bernal had a brilliant mind but he never personally pursued any single idea to the extent required to win a Nobel Prize, however. One of the many topics that interested him was the origin of life on earth. In 1947, he suggested that clays may have concentrated organic molecules on the early earth, enabling rapid chemical evolution and leading to the origin of life. Also, following the discovery of organic substances in the Orgeuil meteorite, which fell in France in 1864, Bernal suggested that if contamination by earthly organic substances could be ruled out, then the organic substances in the meteorite resulted either from living things on the meteorite's parent body or from inorganic processes in the early solar system. Either eventuality could mean that meteorites supplied the raw material for the origin of life on earth.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 inspired many Cambridge intellectuals, including Bernal, to become Communists. Bernal published several books, including The Social Function Of Science (1939) and his magnum opus, Science In History (1965). In The Social Function Of Science, he analysed science both under socialism and under capitalism. He argued that science was outgrowing capitalism and that UK science could achieve its full potential only under socialism. Bernal was a very popular figure in the Soviet Union and in the post-war East European states. He won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1955. His dedication to Marxist philosophy made him a great admirer of the Soviet Union, but his outlook in this respect was far too uncritical. In his obituary of Stalin, Bernal described him as "a great scientist who combined a deeply scientific approach to all problems with his capacity for feeling and expressing himself in simple and direct terms".

William Reville is a senior lecturer in biochemistry and director of microscopy at UCC