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John Desmond Bernal
Dr Subodh Mahanti



Whether true or false others must judge; for the firmest conviction of the truth of a doctrine by its author, seems, alas, not to be the slightest guarantee of truth Charles Darwin

Get the best information in the minimum quantity in the shortest time, from the people who are producing the information to the people who want it, whether they know they want it or not. J.D. Bernal

The story opens in 1936 when I left my hometown, Vienna, for Cambridge, England, to seek the Great Sage. He was an Irish Catholic converted to Communism, a mineralogist who had turned to X-ray crystallography: J.D. Bernal. I asked the Great Sage : "How can I solve the secret of life". He replied : "The secret of life lies in the structure of proteins, and there is only one way of solving it and that is by crys tallography." We called him the sage because he knew everything from history to physics. His conversation was the most fascinating of anyone I have ever come across. Actually what had attracted me to Cambridge were the lectures of a young organic chemist in Vienna who told us students of the work being done in the laboratory headed by Frederick Gowland Hopkins,one of the founders of biochemistry. (Max Ferdinand Perutz), the Nobel Laureate

Bernal was a committed Marxist and a member of the British Communist Party. Bernal's interest and involvement in social and political issues began about the same time he initiated his scientific studies at Cambridge. He was the most respected and loved of Western intellectual communists. Today Bernal's views as a hardcore communist may not be appealing, if not, totally irrelevant. The world has drastically changed since Bernal's time. But then Bernal's political activity was just one aspect of his fascinating personality. Above all Bernal was a great teacher who could influence and inspire a large number of students, who later made pioneering contributions in their respective fields. Bernal was an original thinker. He was a visionary scientist. In fact, Bernal was one of the most influential scientists of his generation.

By all accounts John Desmond Bernal was a dazzling thinker and talker. His contemporaries called him "Sage" as he was considered to be uncommonly wise. He had been the most brilliant thinker of his time. It was his encyclopaedic knowledge, his breath of vision, and his conscientious activism that most singled him out rather than his scientific contributions. Charles Percy Snow (1905-80), the English novelist and physicist, thought that Bernal was "perhaps the last of whom it could be said, with meaning, that he knew science'. Julian Huxley (1887-1975), the English biologist and writer, thought Bernal to be the wisest man in Britain. Joseph Needham described him as one of the best minds of their generation.

Bernal was born on 10 May 1901 in Nengh, County Tipperary, Ireland. About his family background, C.P. Snow wrote: "Like almost everything else about him, his family origins were unusual. His father was what used to be called a squireen, somewhere between a farmer and a catholic Irish squire. His mother was an American, educated at Stanford, who wrote some interesting journalism and had considerable resemblances to a Henry James expatriate heroine. There were, as happened throughout Bernal's life, legends about this heredity, for he was a mythopoetic character about whom stories, and inaccurate statements, of fact massively accumulated. For private circulation there once appeared a loving document about him entitled The Irish Jew".

At the age of 10 he was sent to boarding school, Stonyhurst, a Jesuit establishment, in England. He stayed there for two years before coming back to Ireland. It is said that the reason for leaving the school was that he was dissatisfied with the scientific education there. But after an interval, Bernal was sent again to England, to another public school, Bedford. At eighteen Bernal won a major open scholarship in mathematics to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After getting a second class in Part I of the Mathematical Tripos, Bernal took Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos in chemistry, mineralogy and geology in which he got a first class. Then he proceeded to Part II physics and got another second class. He became obsessively absorbed with crystallography and undertook an elaborate painstaking research problem in this field. He derived 230 space groups by means of Hamiltonian quaternions, an astonishing piece of work for an undergraduate.

This work enabled him to get a research post at the Royal Institution in London in 1923. He was to work with William Henry Bragg (1862-1942), who alongwith his son William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971), developed X-ray analysis of the atomic arrangement in crystalline structure. Within a short period, after joining the Royal Institution, Bernal established himself as one of the most accomplished crystallographers in England. At the instance of Bragg he started to work on the structure of graphite. His analysis of the structure of graphite was a classic piece of distinctly laborious work. He also created a diagram for interpreting X-ray photographs which is now called "Bernal Chart". In 1927 he came back to Cambridge to join the newly established department of crystallography. It was Arthur Hutchinson, the professor of Mineralogy, who persuaded the university to establish a department of crystallography and advertise for an Assistant Director of Research. The period from 1927 to 1937 in Cambridge was the most creative period of Bernal's scientific life. At Cambridge he worked on the structure of vitamin B I (1933), pepsin (1934), vitamin D 2 (1935), the sterols (1936) and the tobacco mosaic virus (1937).

In 1937 he was appointed as professor of physics at Birkbeck College of the London University. He succeeded his great contemporary Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett (1897-1974), who built an improved cloud chamber used to photograph tracks of a nuclear disintegration and cosmic ray shawer discovered the positron and got Nobel Prize in physics in 1908. Here Bernal made notable contribution on the structure of liquids and inspired others to do important work.

The Bimolecular Research Laboratory, the brain-child of Bernal was opened by Sir Lawrence Bragg on 1 July 1948. In the words of Bernal : "The setting up of the Birkback College Biomolecular Research Laboratory was made possible by the generous gift of the Nuffields Foundation which enabled the college to equip and man the two houses in which the present research center is lodged. The old research laboratory of the physics department where work along these lines was carried out on a small scale before the war had been destroyed by enemy action and would in any case have been much too small for the scale of work at present in hand". The three objectives of the laboratory were :

1. "To work on the structure of proteins".
2. "To develop the necessary electronic and computing skills needed for the faster and better analysis of these proteins".
3. "To understand the fundamental nature of the constituent active materials in cements and the nature of their reaction with water".

The establishment of this laboratory is the testimony of Bernal's great vision. In those days when there were no proper hardware and computer it was extremely difficult to determine a precision structure. It took a team of 2 or 3 people 3 years to determine a precision structure. With the development of computer the same could be achieved in less than 0.1 second on a Intel based P2 running at 400 MH2.

Bernal used to live in a flat on the top floor of the laboratory to avoid wasting of time in commuting. Moreover, staying there he could check up easily on the activities of his students in their offices on the lower floors. Besides scientists, many eminent peace campaigners were entertained in his flat above the laboratory including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who painted a mural on the wall of the flat. The mural, the only one ever executed by Picasso in England, was saved from demolition.

Pablo Picasso's drawing on the wall of Bernal's Flat

Bernal was one of the principal creators of molecular biology. Bernal was the founder of protein crystallography. Indeed, the field of molecular biology was sterile until Bernal's observation that protein crystals could be studied only in the wet state. Bernal was the first crystallographer to obtain clear images of X-ray diffraction by protein in 1934. To avoid dehydration during the experiment, Bernal had placed the protein crystals in a capillary tube that was closed at both ends. While the images obtained by Bernal did not lead to a three-dimensional description of protein structure, but these images were clear enough to confirm the macromolecular nature of proteins. Thus Bernal demonstrated the possibility of resolving the three dimensional structure of proteins. Among his students were Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910- 94), who determined the structure of the vitamin B12 molecule through X-ray crystallographic analysis and got Nobel Prize in 1963; Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), who played a major part in the discovery of the structure of DNA by J.D. Watson and Francis Crick; Aaron Klug (1926- ), who developed crystallographic electron complexes and got Nobel Prize in 1982; and Max Perutz, who worked on the structure of haemoglobin and got Nobel Prize in 1962.

Bernal's role in establishing the field of protein crystallography will be obvious from the following remarks of Perutz : "In 1934 J.D. Bernal and Dorothy Crowfoot (now Hodgkin) at the Crystallographic Laboratory in Cambridge, England, placed a crystal of pepsin in an X-ray beam to see if it gave a diffraction pattern. It was an unpromising experiment because it had already been proven that protein crystals give no diffraction pattern. This was only to be expected because the great German chemist Richard Willstatter and his pupils had shown that proteins are colloids of random structure, and the enzymatic activity of J.H. Northrop's crystalline pepsin did not reside in the protein, which was but inert carrier for its real, yet to be isolated, active principle. Besides, even if the German chemist were wrong, and a diffraction pattern were obtained, it would clearly be impossible to deduce from it structures of molecules as larger and complex as proteins.

Contrary to all reason, or perhaps because they had not read the literature, Bernal and Crowfoot discovered that pepsin crystals did give an X-ray diffraction pattern. It was made up of sharp reflections that extended to spacing of the order of inter atomic distances, showing that pepsin was not a colloid of random coils, but an ordered three-dimensional structure in which most of its 5,000 atoms occupy definite places. Their observation opened the subject of protein crystallography. (emphasis not in original).

In the historical development of science, Bernal has a leading place. It was not so much for his actual contribution. As stated above he demonstrated that if treated correctly a protein crystal could retain its order during irradiation by X-rays and the three-dimensional structure could be worked out from the information scattered become of X-rays. His students went on to solve the structures of haemoglobin and other key materials. The application of X-ray crystallography to structural analysis of complex molecules revolutionised our understanding of biology.

Bernal was the originator of the study of viruses by X-ray crystallography. This is because Bernal could visualise the utility of X-ray diffraction in determining the structure of virus and he and Isador Fankuchen (1905-64) had taken the first X-ray photograph of Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Tomato Bushy Stunt Virus in the 1930s. Bernal also conducted research into the origin of life and the structure and composition of the Earth's crust.

It can be said that Bernal's work with Dorothy Hodgkin, Isidor Fankuchen and others on X-ray crystallography effectively started molecular biology. Bernal had anticipated that in the geometry and physical structure of such molecules must lie some of the explanations of the origin of life and the way the living process works. That Bernal was right became amply clear when Watson and Crick unravelled the structure of the DNA- the double helix.

Science was absolutely central both to Bernal's social thinking and to his philosophical thinking. The scientific method encompassed the whole of his life. Bernal viewed science as a social activity, integrally tied to the whole spectrum of other social activities; economic, social and political. According to Bernal, the cause of science was inextricably intertwined with the cause of socialism. He believed that "In its endeavor science is communism". Bernal had proposed that government support and planning of scientific research would be the best means of improving the condition of human life. For Bernal there was no philosophy, no social theory, no knowledge independent of science. Science was the foundation of it all. Bernal's philosophy of science was in the tradition of Engel's. The important thing about Engel's concept of nature, as Bernal saw it, was that Engle's saw it as a whole and as a process. Bernal founded altogether a new discipline called "Science of Science". Its objective was to overcome overspecialization and to achieve the unity of science. "It placed science within the context of the whole of human and cosmic evolution. Its central idea was the process of transformation, and its scope was the whole range of human experience".

Bernal's own writings included : The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929); The Social Function of Science (1939); The Freedom of Necessity (1949); The Physical Basis of Life (1950); Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century (1953); Science in History (1954); World Without War (1958); Origin of Life (1967) and The Extension of Man--Physics Before the Quantum (1972).

Bernal collaborated in the 1940 monograph on steroids with Isidor Fankuchen and Dorothy crowfoot Hodgkin, in which crystal data were listed for more than eighty sterol derivatives. "The Social Function of Science", which Bernal wrote became the most celebrated piece of work. Many a people were greatly influenced by it. During the same period when he was involved in groundbreaking research on the crystals of biologically important substances like sterols, proteins and viruses.

Jerry Rabetz, historian and philosopher of science, wrote in his essay, the Marxist Vision of J.D. Bernal : "With a magnificent sweep, his surveys run through the history, sociology, political critqiue and the future of science. His was a coherent vision, one deriving from a great tradition of progressive thought about science, which first matured to the mid - 18th century but was, I think, and enriched and deepened by Bernal's own intense concern for science and democracy … Bernal's Social Function of Science was perhaps the last of the great testaments of science in which a person of broad intelligence and philosophical depth could argue coherently the social problems of the world, and of science itself, could be solved simply by the methods and approach of science".

Eugene Garfield wrote: "Through my career-- in fact, since my early adolescence - I have been fascinated by the history and sociology of science. Indeed, it is quite likely that a book my uncle gave me at the end of my freshman year in high school - John D. Bernal's The Social Function of Science was the spark that ignited my incipient interests in research and influenced my eventual decision to make a career for myself in the science community".

In Science in History Bernal gave a general review of the achievements of science as a whole, revealing its philosophical significance and role in human history. In World Without War he discussed the prospects of the peaceful use of scientific discoveries for the benefit of humanity.

Towards the end of his life Bernal was not happy about the way science was being done. Jerry Rabetz had asked Bernal in the early 1960s in London at a British Society of History of Science meeting : "How do you feel now nearly 25 years after you published your great work on the social function of science? How do you feel about science especially now since the lessons have been absorbed?" Bernal replied: "Oh, it's all a racket. Back in the old days we all loved science, we were in it just because we loved it and it was a great fun. But now you have all kids, it is just careers and they don't care. All they want is more money and more personnel. It is terrible".

Bernal was deeply involved in wartime activities during the Second World War. After the Germans invaded Russia, he threw all his energies into aggressive war. Under the aegis of the Ministry of Home Security, Bernal carried out with Solly Zuckerman an important analysis of the effects of enemy bombing. He became an Advisor to Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-79), the Chief of Combined Operations. He went to the Quebec Conference and helped plan the invasion of Europe. After the War, Bernal worked for establishing peace on the globe.

Bernal died, at the age of seventy on 15 September 1971. Bernal was an active, often restless man but unfortunately for some years before his death he had lost almost all muscular movement. He could not speak even with amplifier except those of his nearest connections who could catch his tone of voice.

We would like to end this brief write-up on Bernal by quoting C.P. Snow on Bernal : "..all through this life he had a curious lack of the artistic impulse to perfect a piece of work and sign his own name underneath. He started so many things, and stayed to finish only a few. Others could do the final work. He was part of a collective enterprise. In some depths of this temperament he was self-centred, but also he was the most unselfish of men. It was that combination, as rare as the somewhat similar one of Einstein's, which made him different from most of the human species". Certainly we need many more Bernals today - to inspire the younger generation and to generate ideas worthy of pursuing.

I would like to thank Prof. Santosh K. Kar, Centre for Biotechnology, Jawaharlal Nehru University for giving me the book, Science Is not a quite Life : Unravelling the Atomic Mechanism of Haemoglobin by Max Perutz and Dr. A.K. Mathur of NISTADS for providing some information on Barnal.

Subodh Mahanti

Sources  :


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