Bernal, J. D.

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John Desmond Bernal (1907–1971), an eminent X-ray crystallographer and pioneer in the field of social studies of science and the movement for social responsibility in science, was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland, on May 10, and died in London on September 15.

Life and Science

Following his education at Cambridge University, Bernal began his crystallography research at its Davy-Faraday Laboratory in London in 1923. After returning to Cambridge for a short period (1934–1937), he went to Birkbeck College, University of London, where he served as professor of physics (1937–1963), professor of crystallography (1963–1968), and professor emeritus (1968–1971). He initiated groundbreaking research on the crystals of sterols, proteins, and viruses and established the three-dimensional structures of nucleic acids, proteins, and viruses.

Bernal's work in molecular biology led to the conjecture that clays concentrated chemical compounds leading to the origins of life. He speculated in many directions and stimulated scientific research in many areas, arguing for the importance of space exploration and investigation of the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and was considered to be a founder of the field of astrobiology. In an early work, TheWorld the Flesh and the Devil (1929), he set out a futuristic sketch of further evolution, showing how scientific rationality could overcome obstacles in the physical, physiological, and psychological domains. A number of important women scientists worked in Bernal's lab, including Dorothy Hodgkin, with whom he made the first X-ray photograph of a protein (pepsin), and Rosalind Franklin, who did the empirical research that led to the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA.

During World War II, Bernal was a scientific adviser to combined Allied operations, serving in Lord Mountbatten's department of wild talents. After the war, he was active in the international peace movement. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in Britain in 1937 and, in the postwar period, became a member of the scientific academies of many eastern European countries. His awards included the Royal Medal of the Royal Society (1945), the Lenin Peace Prize (1953), and the Grotius Medal (1959).

Beyond laboratory results, it was Bernal's voluminous knowledge, breadth of vision, and conscientious activism that distinguished him. He led a complicated life, sitting on hundreds of committees and playing a leading role in many scientific and political organizations. He was a dazzling thinker and talker; indeed his contemporaries called him Sage. At the experiment level, however, he tended to generate seminal ideas while leaving the details to others. He was a mentor to several Nobel Prize winners.

Science of Science

Although Bernal reached the heights of the academic establishment, he engaged in radical critique of its cherished assumptions and structures of power. Bernal was a Marxist in philosophy and a communist in politics. He participated in the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931, at which the unexpected arrival of a Soviet delegation created a great stir. Bernal was struck by the unity, philosophical integrality, and social purpose of the Soviet scientists, which contrasted with the undisciplined philosophies and remoteness from social considerations of their British colleagues.

In response Bernal became a leading force in a new movement for social responsibility in science that took a number of organizational forms, such as the Association of Scientific Workers and the Division for Social and International Relations of Science, a part of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The movement had impact as well as opposition. John Baker's Counterblast to Bernalism (1939) led to formation of the Society for Freedom in Science (1940–1945), which devoted itself to the defense of pure science and rejected any form of social control of science.

Bernal argued for the necessity of a science of science. He saw science as a social activity, integrally tied to the whole spectrum of other social activities, economic, social, and political. His book The Social Function of Science (1939) quickly came to be regarded as a classic in this field. Based on a detailed analysis of science, under both capitalism and socialism, Bernal's dominant themes were that the frustration of science was an inescapable feature of the capitalist mode of production, and that science could achieve its full potential only under a new socialist order. According to Bernal, science was outgrowing capitalism, which had begun to generate a distrust of science that in its most extreme form turned into rebellion against scientific rationality itself. The cause of science was, for Bernal, inextricably intertwined with the cause of socialism. He saw science as the key to the future and the forces of socialism alone able to turn it.

For Bernal, the scientific method encompassed every aspect of life. There was no sharp distinction between the natural and social sciences. He regarded science as the starting point for philosophy. Science, philosophy, and politics were bound together in Bernal's highly integrated mind. He considered the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism to be the most suitable philosophy for science. Bernal saw it as a science of the sciences, a means of counteracting overspecialization and achieving the unity of science, which should reflect the unity of reality.

Bernal was unsympathetic to positivist philosophies of science, but also to criticisms of positivism that would undermine science itself; he thought of irrationalist and intuitionist currents as the backwaters and dead ends of human knowledge. He objected most to scientists, such as Arthur Eddington (1882–1944) and James Jeans (1877–1946), who brought irrationality into the structure of science by making what science did not know, rather than what it did know, the basis for affirmations about the nature of the universe. His enduring legacy is a defense of science that ties it inextricably to philosophy and politics.


SEE ALSO Communism; Marxism; Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


Aprahamian, Francis, and Brenda Swann, eds. (1999). J. D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics. London: Verso.

Bernal, J. D. (1939). The Social Function of Science. London: Routledge.

Bernal, J. D. (1949). The Freedom of Necessity. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bernal, J. D. (1969). Science in History, 3rd edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1st edition, 1954; 2nd edition, 1957.

Bernal, J. D. (1969 [1929]). The World, The Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Goldsmith, Maurice. (1980). Sage: A Life of J. D. Bernal. London: Hutchinson.

Sheehan, Helena. (1985). Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History. New Jersey: Humanities Press.