J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science

OUP Oxford
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J.D. Bernal, widely known as Sage since his undergraduate days at Cambridge, was a visionary scientist who was the first to see that the new subject of X-ray crystallography could be applied to the study of life. His pioneering work at Cambridge in the 1930s laid the foundation of molecular biology. He was one of the most influential and brilliant scientists of his time, inspiring many subsequent Nobel laureates. Bernal's restless energy and legendary intellect took him far beyond science. An astonishing polymath and a fervent Marxist, he was one of the central figures in a cosmopolitan intelligentsia in an age of extremes. The story of Bernal's life reflects the extraordinary political and intellectual climate in which he lived. He was witness to (and often involved in) some of the great events of the 20th century: the Easter Rebellion, schooldays in the Great War, the anti-fascist movement, the Second World War, pacifist causes and nuclear disarmament during the Cold War. He was a pioneer of Operational Research during WW2 and made the first objective analyses of the effects of bombing on cities. As this biography shows, he played a crucial role in planning the D-Day landings, arriving secretly on the Normandy beaches himself a day later. After the war, he became an international ambassador for Marxism, science, and peace, and was one of the few men familiar with Downing Street, the White House and the Kremlin. Brown's biography sets out a life richly and fully lived. Nearly every important British scientist of the mid-third of the 20th century appears in its pages, along with artists (Picasso, Hepworth), writers (Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Pablo Neruda) and statesmen (Churchill, Khrushchev, Mao, and Nehru). This compelling account draws on unprecedented access to Bernal's papers and war reports to piece together a dazzling image of Bernal: his Irish Catholic childhood, his Cambridge years, his research, his dedication to science, his intellectual brilliance, his blind, unswerving commitment to Marxism, his unorthodox Bohemian love life. But above all, the Bernal who emerges from this often critical account is a man not only of remarkable mental powers but of great warmth, kindness, and humanity.
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About the author

Andrew Brown is an English radiation oncologist practising in New Hampshire. His biography of Sir James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, The Neutron and the Bomb, was published by Oxford University Press in 1997. He has also published medical papers and articles on nuclear scientists and history.
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Additional Information

Publisher
OUP Oxford
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Published on
Nov 24, 2005
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Pages
592
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ISBN
9780191579509
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Language
English
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Genres
Biography & Autobiography / Historical
Biography & Autobiography / Science & Technology
Science / General
Science / History
Science / Life Sciences / Molecular Biology
Science / Physics / Crystallography
Science / Physics / General
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Eligible for Family Library

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Sir Isaac Newton once declared that his momentous discoveries were only made thanks to having 'stood on the shoulders of giants'. The same might also be said of the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick. Their discovery of the structure of DNA was, without doubt, one of the biggest scientific landmarks in history and, thanks largely to the success of Watson's best-selling memoir 'The Double Helix', there might seem to be little new to say about this story. But much remains to be said about the particular 'giants' on whose shoulders Watson and Crick stood. Of these, the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose famous X-ray diffraction photograph known as 'Photo 51' provided Watson and Crick with a vital clue, is now well recognised. Far less well known is the physicist William T. Astbury who, working at Leeds in the 1930s on the structure of wool for the local textile industry, pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography to study biological fibres. In so doing, he not only made the very first studies of the structure of DNA culminating in a photo almost identical to Franklin's 'Photo 51', but also founded the new science of 'molecular biology'. Yet whilst Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize, Astbury has largely been forgotten. The Man in the Monkeynut Coat tells the story of this neglected pioneer, showing not only how it was thanks to him that Watson and Crick were not left empty-handed, but also how his ideas transformed biology leaving a legacy which is still felt today.
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