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Mstation Book Reviews
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Thu, 30 Mar 2006

J.D.Bernal

Andrew Brown, J.D.Bernal The Sage of Science,
Oxford University Press

This thick (562 pages including index) describes a man who was not thick at all, except, some would say, in his political beliefs.

J.D. Bernal was the father of x-ray crystallography and was known as Sage because of his wide knowledge of just about everything. This was tested one day at lunch at his lab at Cambridge University when one of his colleagues introduced in a spirit of fun the topic of Mexican architecture. Sage's response was to ask which period they were interested in and then gave a lively talk. Just as well he wasn't surrounded by the meanspirited... most of the time. During WWII he worked on a number of projects where it was later falsely said that he had made little contribution.

This biography traces J.D. Bernal from his birth in Ireland through school and university and includes quite a lot of detail of his work in crystallography, and also that of others in the field. The time stretches through WWI and through WWII. It thus encompasses the birth of Quantum Mechanics and various political movements including communism and the nazis. J.D. Bernal, like quite a few educated people of his time were very keen on the Russian communist model. Cambridge, at the time also had the likes of Blunt and Philby who would become famous spies. This is said to be Bernal's blind spot as when the true measure of Stalin was becoming plain, Bernal still stuck to his communist guns. In fairness, anyone seeing the complete faillure of capitalism during the depression could be forgiven for thinking there was a better model ... particlularly people such as scientists who were regarded as an elite in Russia - as long as they toed the political line.

Bernal also had a notoriously active sex life which is alluded to in the book but not dealt with in a prurient way. What we end up with is quite a detailed portrait of the man such that we feel we might predict what is going to happen as circumstances arise.

All in all, the scholarship is breathtaking and it is all quite readable as well. For those interested in the history of science, this book is a worthy contender for the bookshelf and also for those just interested in people.

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