Science in History
The intellectuals of Ireland have done as much as anyone in the last one hundred years to keep the English-speaking world alive and awake. Throughout the whole Northcote-Trevelyan era, when England was siphoning off many of her most fertile and flexible minds into the Higher Civil Service, the Irish were (to put it euphemistically) “free of administrative cares”—more exactly, they were not their own masters. Instead, they ran rings around their self-appointed rulers. Once the Great Hunger had abated, Irishmen spread into the main body of English and American thought and literature, and took possession. From Shaw and Yeats up to Conor Cruise O’Brien, they have continued ever since to needle their “betters,” and to mock the transient certainties of Anglo-Saxon ideologues. Exuberant, versatile, inventive, and witty, they have been impossible to ignore. Though brushed aside in England either as licensed jesters or as immoralists—Shaw on the one count, Joyce on the other, Wilde on both—they have always returned to the attack, and by now they form as distinctive a breed as their mid-European counterparts, the Hungarians: a breed which is immediately recognizable wherever it appears.
I say “wherever it appears” advisedly. Understandably enough, when we think about Irish intellectuals our minds turn first to the great literary figures of twentieth-century Ireland; but in John Desmond Bernal they have produced also a man whom C. P. Snow can call “the most learned scientist of his time.” Not that the epithet “learned,” although well-deserved, is the first or most natural one to choose when describing Bernal: nothing so stodgy! For he has shared in full all the familiar characteristics of his kind—brilliance and verve, penetration and intellectual daring, balanced against that ultimate lack of doggedness and self-criticism which (in the last resort) mocked Shaw’s claim to equal Shakespeare, and kept Oscar Wilde several pegs below Chekhov, and even Maupassant.
In science as in literature, Bernal’s English contemporaries have proved peculiarly vulnerable to Irish charm, unpredictability, and humor. Since his student days in Cambridge in the Twenties, he has dazzled them with his capacity to jump between physics and politics, biochemistry and world history, throwing off a stream of dashing speculations and original ideas as he goes; and his English colleagues, drilled to more disciplined and pedestrian habits of thought, have plodded behind him, filled with either wonder or irritation. In the 1930s, indeed, Bernal became for a while a major intellectual influence. Though it was the poets of the Popular Front era (Auden, Spender, Day Lewis) who took the public eye, the real focus of radical thought in the Britain of the time was among the scientists of Cambridge, and the man at the center of it all was J. D. Bernal.
THE brilliant, passionate, and articulate young crystallographer could argue on equal terms about half-a-dozen fashionable fields of science, to say nothing of politics, economics, and theology—for he only gradually abandoned the Catholicism of his youth. As a result, he became a …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.