Tuesday, June 09, 2009

John Desmond Bernal, an internationalist scientist

By Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.
J.D. Bernal: Science in History

In the Science and Technology STS) class during my undergrad in UP, we read about John Desmond Bernal. It immediately made me wonder if he was related to the acclaimed director of the same surname. It turned out that he was more related to my profession as he was a physicist in the 1930s.

Bernal was born in Ireland in 1901 and studied mathematics and science in Cambridge University. As a scientist, he worked out how the molecules in different substances were arranged in a crystal. He used his knowledge of mathematics to deduce these structures from X-ray images, becoming one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography. He figured out the structure of substances, such as graphite, and biological compounds, such as vitamin B1, D2, pepsin, sterols and even the tobacco mosaic virus.

Given the nickname “Sage” in Cambridge, JD Bernal was an accomplished scientist in his own right, pioneering in the exploitation of the techniques of X-ray crystallography in biology.

X-ray cystallography is now a routine procedure in diverse fields from chemical analysis to geology.

After his stint at Cambridge, he worked under William Bragg at the Royal Institution in London and with other prominent scientists such as Rosalind Franklin (who eventually worked on the structure of DNA) and Nobel laureates such as Aaron Klug, Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin.

Another interesting aspect to Bernal’s personality was his involvement as a political intellectual of his times. He was reportedly a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (but literally lost the card later, according to some accounts). He attended the famous History of Science and Technology meeting in 1931 and met Soviet scientists, sharing their world view on the role of science and its functions in society. This spurred him and his colleagues such as Joseph Needham to engage in, as Helena Sheehan describes it, “a vigorous movement for the defence of science against all forces threatening it and for social responsibility in all areas of scientific endeavour.”

He was a prolific writer on the dialectical relationship of science and technology and society. He published texts such as “The Social Function of Science” and the influential four-volume work collectively known as “Science in History.” As its title says, “Science in History” traces the emergence of science and technology and its socio-political context through the ancient era, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution up to the modern era.

In writing about the science of science, he described how science was intertwined with other social activities of humans: from the economic, social to the political spheres. His detailed analysis of the role of science in each era of advance from the communal stage of hunters and gatherers to the current monopoly capitalist stage is an eye opener. It stresses the social nature of scientific endeavor and tells of the irony that science is being used mainly by the elite in each economic stage to advance their own interests. As such, the advance of science is tied more to the advancement of these groups status rather than for the general welfare of all peoples.

JD Bernal worked during the economic crisis leading up to World War II—a time very much like our own. In his introduction to “The Social Function of Science,” he describes his motivation saying (in 1939) that “the events of the past few years have led to a critical examination of the function of science in society. It used to be believed that the results of scientific investigation would lead to continuous progressive improvements in conditions of life; but first the War and then the economic crisis have shown that science can be used as easily for destructive and wasteful purposes, and voices have been raised demanding the cessation of scientific research as the only means of preserving a tolerable civilization. Scientists themselves, faced with these criticisms, have been forced to consider, effectively for the first time, how the work they are doing is connected around them.”

Bernal points to an alternative direction in which science is to be used for the upliftment of the majority in which the social products of scientific endeavor is shared by all. He sketches the potential for society from automation, energy and other benefits from science as well as the economic system that can bring this together—socialism. He said in “Marx and Science” in 1952 that “if capitalism had built up science as a productive force, the very character of the new mode of production was serving to make capitalism itself unnecessary.”

In seeing nature as a whole and as a process, John Desmond Bernal showed that science and society should be studied similarly as well. With a clear historical approach to science, his intellectual and political efforts during his lifetime makes him one of the 20th century’s most influential scientists.

Dr. Tapang is the chairperson of AGHAM.


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