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Minerva (2007) 45:305319 DOI 10.


Springer 2007

Essay Review

THE VISIBLE COLLEGE REVISITED: SECOND OPINIONS ON THE RED SCIENTISTS OF THE 1930S Andrew Brown, J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), xiv + 562 pp., ISBN 0-19-851544-8 Mary Jo Nye, Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2004), 255 pp., ISBN 0-674-01548-7 A year or two ago, Dan Greenberg suggested that Minerva ask authors of signicant even notorious works in the social studies of science to reect on how, looking back, they might view the contribution they have made to the literature. Their task was to survey new perspectives and insights of relevance to contemporary scholarship. This essay is an experiment in that direction. On the strength of an auto-critique of The Visible College, it examines the recent biographies of J.D. Bernal and P.M.S. Blackett, two of Britains most politically engaged scientists of the past century.

THE VISIBLE COLLEGE I wrote The Visible College (VC) in the 1970s, on the crest of what looked like a long wave of renewed interest in Marxist scholarship and radical politics. However, by the time of its publication in November 1978, this wave was already beginning to crash, along with my hopes of a Penguin edition. VCs reissue, in 1988 by Free Association Books, fared little better.1 Nevertheless, the book continues to feature on reading lists and to inspire younger scholars. Briey, VC focuses on the lives of ve leading British left-wing scientists of the 1930s: J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy, and Joseph Needham. It is
1 Gary Werskey, The Visible College: A Collective Biography of British Scientists and Socialists of the 1930s (London: Allen Lane, 1978; New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978; 2nd ed. London: Free Association Books, 1988).



a collective biography, in that it compares and contrasts the thoughts and actions of the ve, and attempts to bring out the interplay between them within a loosely Marxist framework. The members of the college interested me because of the durability of their socialist convictions and their legacy to my own generation of scholarly activists. In pursing these themes, VC touched lightly on scientic careers and private lives, but only to the extent that these aected their politics. The book was much more detailed in its treatment of their early and mid careers than it was of their later years, which included the era of the Cold War. It also omitted one of their most inuential comrades, the nuclear physicist P.M.S. Blackett, largely on the grounds that his contributions to political ideas were comparatively slight. VCs story-line is relatively straightforward. Prior to the 1930s, its subjects are seen as the products of their class origins, family circumstances, educational traditions, and their commitment to High Science. An eventual incorporation into both government and private enterprise shaped their understanding of science and politics. But the dominant moment in their lives was the First World War, the memory of which induced for most a shift to the Left. By the early thirties, their convictions rekindled by the twin crises of Depression and Fascism and reworked through Soviet Communism and Marxist theory led to a sustained burst of political action. They formed with the liberal humanists a scientic popular front that reshaped the British Association for the Advancement of Science, renewed the Association of Scientic Workers, and established close ties with like-minded scientists in France. Bernal and Co. also produced some groundbreaking works in the history, sociology, and politics of science a heady mix of Marxism and scientic humanism. The coming of the Second World War gave these leaders of the scientic Left an opportunity to help in Hitlers defeat, and also to demonstrate what could be achieved when science was planned. Their hopes for a post-war social and scientic reconciliation were then overshadowed by the Cold War. Nonetheless, they held true to their socialist convictions, and took pride in their scientic and political legacies. Thirty years on, how well does the book hold up? Whatever its strengths, it inevitably reects leaving aside wider inuences its timing, the state of contemporary scholarship, and my own political views. Haldane aside, I was dealing with living subjects, and



often with recent and painful life experiences. Levels of trust varied over time and between individuals.2 Collections of personal papers were either not organized or were still under wraps. Scholarly appraisal of British science in the rst half of the twentieth century had barely begun. As a young scholar and biographer, I was attempting to understand spans of life and history far greater than my own. Furthermore, for much of the decade, I wrestled hard to balance my growing dissonance with my subjects politics against the need to honour their lives. These tensions are clearly evident in the text of my book. If I were now to set about rewriting VC, I would anchor the narrative in a more explicitly Marxist framework. Lacking a role model, I originally prepared separate chapters on British science, and on the British Left and Soviet Communism, only to abandon them as huge encumbrances on the narrative. My solution was to nesse the connections between individual and historical circumstances. This read well enough at rst, but was not so plausibly on second reading. Since then, in the course of preparing a conference paper on radical science movements of the 1930s and 1970s,3 I have found in Eric Hobsbawms Age of Extremes and his Interesting Times just the model I needed to dene the context and to situate the British scientic Left comfortably within it.4 In recasting VC, I would also dwell more on my subjects science - their scientic education, contributions, style, and networks. For these shaped the mentalities that underlay their later ideologies and their views of the social function of science.5 In this light, Bernals famous equation of science with communism was as much a projection of his own professional practice in the 1920s as it was a political statement. My failure to read these connections
2 Ah, you must be the young man from the CIA, was Lancelot Hogbens aable greeting on our only meeting, which took place in 1968. 3 Gary Werskey, The Radical Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements, prepared for a Conference on Science at the Crossroads: Geopolitics, Marxism, and SeventyFive Years of Science Studies, Princeton University, 31 March1 April, 2006. A revised version of this paper, The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements?, has been posted on Robert M. Youngs website: werskey.html, and accessed on 28 March 2007. 4 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 19141991 (New York: Pantheon, 1994); and Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (New York: Pantheon, 2002). 5 Theodore Geiger has suggested a useful distinction between individuals mentalities and the subsequent ideologies they may more easily adopt, adapt, or even drop in later life. See Klaus Hentschl, On the Mentality of German Physicists, 19451949, XXIInd International Congress of the History of Science, Beijing, July 2005.



correctly led me to overlook otherwise surprising similarities between Bernal and his greatest antagonist, Michael Polanyi.6 Another omission that I would make good relates to the inter-connections between private lives and public commitments. Personal sensitivities aside, I wish I had said more about the women whom the ve loved, and the children they fathered. Apart from anything else, these relationships help explain the motivations of these extraordinary men. My last regret is not to have included Patrick Blackett as the sixth man. His scientic stature and political inuence, especially at the Cavendish, were exceptional. Blackett was as Red in his sympathies as Bernal. But his preference for insider activity bridged government, science, and politics. His public interventions on the development and use of nuclear weapons exposed him to the same paranoid reaction that Bernal experienced following Lysenkos ascendancy. Blacketts inclusion would have completed the VC, as well as achieving a better balance between thought and action on the Left. What I would not change about VC is the chance that it gave a biographer to expose the political dissonance between author and subject. Paradoxically, this served to enhance rather than reduce my empathy for these men and probably helped to energize the narrative. But, with the aid of more recent scholarship, I would alter VCs storyline in three signicant respects. First, I would oer a more nuanced account of the state of British science, including the role of the liberal humanists and the scientic establishment. Lacking much in the way of secondary literature, I tended to rely too much on what the Left scientists themselves had to say. Subsequent research by Roy MacLeod and, more recently, David Edgerton suggests that Bernal and Co. were swimming with the tide when it came to the scientic overhaul of British capitalism and the State.7 Second, Noel Annans account of our age helped me to understand the anti-establishment sensibilities of interwar intellectuals, and to see how much these values were shared by the Visible College.8 Third, our understanding of their trajectories requires
6 Bernal and Polanyi were united in their concern about the post-war commercialization and militarization of science, and for the need of patent reform. On the latter issue, see Adrian Johns, Intellectual Property and the Nature of Science at the Onset of the Information Age, XXIInd International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, Beijing, July 2005. 7 See, for example, Roy MacLeod, The Social Function of Science in Britain: A Retrospect, in Helmut Steiner (ed.), J.D. Bernals The Social Function of Science, 19391989 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1989), 342363; and David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 19201970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 8 Noel Annan, Our Age: Portrait of a Generation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1990).



much closer attention to science and politics in the decades following the Second World War. Room is needed for the short-lived radical scientic internationalism represented by UNESCO and the World Federation of Scientic Workers; the anti-nuclear and peace movements; the engagement of leading Left scientists with the developing world; and, not least, Bernals and Needhams magisterial contributions to the history of science.9 With these benets of second sight, what might we hope to nd in these two recent biographies of Bernal and Blackett? Ideally, they would be adept at: 1. Situating their subjects within the historical and political contexts that Bernal and Blackett tried to understand and inuence; 2. Depicting the scientic communities within which Bernal and Blackett operated, and describing how their professional practices inuenced their world views; 3. Portraying the personal relationships that mattered most to them, and showing how these conditioned scientic and political commitments; and 4. Engaging critically yet sympathetically with Bernals and Blacketts world views and choices, not least their commitment to socialism. Anything less would fail to do justice to these complex gures.




Andrew Brown is an English medical doctor who leads a double life as a scientic biographer. Ten years ago, he wrote a biography of the nuclear physicist James Chadwick.10 On the strength of this,

9 See Patrick Petitjean, Needham, Anglo-French Civilities and Ecumenical Science, in S.I. Habib and Dhruv Raina (eds.), Situating the History of Science: Dialogues with Joseph Needham (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998) 152197; and idem., The Joint Establishment of the World Federation of Scientic Workers and of UNESCO after World War II, XXIInd International Congress of the History of Science, Beijing, July 2005. See also Aant Elzinga, UNESCO and the Politics of Scientic Internationalism, and David Horner, The Cold War and the Politics of Scientic Internationalism: The Post-War Formation and Development of the World Federation of Scientic Workers, 19461956; both in Aant Elzinga and Catharina Landstro m (eds.), Internationalism and Science (London: Taylor Graham, 1996), 89131 and 132161, respectively. 10 Andrew Brown, The Neutron and the Bomb: A Biography of Sir James Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).



and his current work, I would say he has inherited the mantle of the late Ronald Clark. Like Clark, Brown approaches his subject like a portraitist one whose narrative sticks fairly closely to details, depicting social and historical background in fairly broad brushstrokes.11 He is not, in other words, an historian, but a writer of history; nor does he seem to be aware of the most basic secondary literature that might have enabled him to anchor Bernal in time and place. Brown is most at home in relating Bernals scientic career, his chaotic personal life, and his wartime adventures. The book is good at sketching in Bernals critical experiments and theoretical breakthroughs, his characteristic generosity towards younger scientists, the atmosphere of the labs in which he worked, his eorts at international organization, and, of course, his status as one of the godfathers of modern molecular biology. However, Brown oers no new information or insight into Bernal as a sage of science. He neither explores any of Bernals principal contributions in useful detail, nor does he draw on any of the burgeoning literature about the pre-history of molecular biology.12 While Brown clearly respects and even admires the sweep and depth of his subjects science, he fails to connect scientic practice to other aspects of his life most notably, his politics. Browns book helps to disentangle the many strands of Bernals love life, and arranges them in a clear chronology. But having done so, he was unable to dig deeper into the relationships between the Sage and his many mates, or to discover why he needed restlessly to move on to new ones. Women were important to Bernal; so was being in love. These aairs begot not only children but also important shifts in the Sages geography and politics. What then were the connections? Brown does not explain, perhaps because, like me, he failed to give due attention to the lives and thoughts of Bernals extraordinary women.

11 See, for example, Ronald Clark, J.B.S.: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane (London: Hodder and Staughton, 1968); and idem. The Huxleys (London: Heinemann, 1967). Cf. Paul Gary Werskey, Haldane and Huxley: The First Appraisals, Journal of the History of Biology, 4 (1), (1971), 171183. 12 See Pnina Abir-Am, The Biotheoretical Gathering, Transdisciplinary Authority, and the Incipient Legitimation of Molecular Biology in the 1930s: New Historical Perspectives on the Historical Sociology of Science, History of Science, 25 (1987), 171.



Where this biography moves into high gear are in its chapters devoted to the Second World War. More than 100 of 500 pages are occupied by Bernals wartime exploits. Why does Brown dwell so long on what was, for Bernal, the most atypical phase of his life? Of course, there is an abundance of material in the Bernal archives and elsewhere to document the Sages war work from his early days as an adviser to Sir John Anderson on civil defence, to his advising senior commanders (initially Lord Mountbatten) on DDay operations, and becoming a senior adviser (along with Blackett) on the future of military weaponry. Many incidents are grippingly good reads. But I suspect the reason for including them is that Bernals war becomes a convenient comfort zone for Brown a sphere of activity that the author can wholeheartedly endorse. By contrast, Brown is completely at sea in his treatment of Bernals politics which he nds patently distasteful and his social thought, subjects in which Brown apparently has limited interest. In dealing with these matters, Brown might have drawn upon accounts written by those who knew him best.13 Instead, Brown tries to make sense of Bernals communism by relying on an assortment of outdated conservative tracts (Neal Wood, Andrew Boyle, etc.) and on the testimony of scientists who were as indierent to Bernals political commitments as Brown appears to be himself. Bernals adherence to Marxism and loyalty to the Soviet Union are dismissed as irrational and religious, or disgraceful (pp. 77, 96, 103, 113, 486 487) What is amiss is not that Bernals politics are beyond criticism far from it. It is that, as a biographer, Brown has failed to accompany his disdain for his subjects politics, with a convincing interpretation of the contradictions that run through Bernals life. As it stands, Browns biography diminishes Bernals stature. Certainly, his judgments contrast starkly with those of Linus Pauling, who observed in 1971 that Bernal showed a depth of understanding and brilliance of thought possessed, in my opinion, by no other living man. He is one of the greatest men in the world.14 Perhaps Browns respect might have increased had he taken more seriously Bernals huge body of work on the history, social function, and political direction of science. Certainly, as Sir Aaron Klug
13 See particularly Fred Steward, Political Formation; and Chris Freeman, The Social Function of Science, in Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian (eds.), J.D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics (London and New York: Verso, 1999), 3777 and 101131, respectively. 14 Bernal Papers, Cambridge University Library, J. 175: L. Pauling, 70th Birthday Tribute to Bernal: as cited and quoted in Brown, 473.



acknowledged to Brown in 2003, Bernal regarded Science in History and other such projects as equal in importance to any of the experimental research going on at Birkbeck at the time (p. 364). Yet, Brown devotes no more than a few pages to The Social Function of Science and Bernals other major works. In fact, Bernal was more than a Sage of Science. For he wanted scientists to become more self-conscious about their enterprise, and to have a conscience about what became of their science. As he declared, quoting Rabe de ric Joliot-Curies funeral in 1958, Science lais at his friend Fre without conscience is nothing but the ruin of the soul.15 What really made Bernal stand out was that he was, above all, a Socialist Sage of Science. But this is not a conception that Brown seems to comprehend. Ironically, Brown cites an aphorism of Alexander Pope the most positive men are the most credulous (p. 317) as a clue to a deeper understanding of his subject. Brown oers Popes saying as a damning indictment of Bernals attachment to Marxism. But if credulity can be a defect, it can be useful as well. Brown is not the rst to see in Bernals conversion to Marxism a substitute for his earlier Catholicism, a continuation of religious faith by other means. Somehow, in this transition, political beliefs and commitments become not only religious but also irrational, starkly contrasting with the rational pursuit of science. Yet it was precisely Bernals capacity for wonder supported by his fertile imagination and social conscience that was the source of his considerable achievements and blind alleys not only in his science and politics, but quite possibly in his personal relationships as well. How he used his capacities was a function of historical circumstance and personal choice. Had Brown adopted this perspective, he could have made far more of the material available to him. The keys to understanding Bernals formation are to be found in the rst 100 pages of Browns biography. The author ably summarizes the early inuences: the comfortable life of Bernals gentried family; his closeness to his IrishAmerican mother; the awakening of his Irish nationalism; his devout Catholicism; his curiosity about nature; and, perhaps most unusually, his capacity for self-reection. But what truly galvanized Bernal and propelled his development was his time at Cambridge between the First World War and following a brief stint in London the Great Depression.


From The Daily Worker, 21 August 1958, as quoted in Brown, 415.



He blossomed as an intellectual omnivore, feeding his insatiable desire in the University Library. His early conversion to socialism superseded his nationalism, moving rapidly to embrace both Marxism and Communism. He took to Freud as wholeheartedly as he did to an unconventional marriage and an enthusiastic sex life. His brilliance as a theorist and strategist began to emerge only in the mid 1920s, by which time he was using the emerging discipline of X-ray crystallography to explore a range of problems at the boundaries of biology, chemistry, and physics. What is more, he felt the need and found the time to stand back from the welter of life and record his reections about how he saw himself, his science, and in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1929) the future. Had Brown Bernals ability to stand back from the narrative, he might have grasped the sources of his subjects perennial marginality partly chosen, partly imposed. He was an Irish Catholic in an Anglican society; a middle-class intellectual on the far Left of a working-class movement; a theorist in a decidedly experimentalist community; a man of science who doubled as a man of letters; and a married man who aunted social conventions. Far from being disabled by these social ambiguities, Bernal used his position as a boundary rider to foster novel and often, insightful connections between science, politics, and competing world-views. Had Brown been able to suspend judgment long enough to hear Bernals own views on his ideological transformation, he could also s that litter his text. Compare have risen above the Cold War cliche his pejorative assertions about Bernals conversion from Catholicism to religiose or pseudo-scientic Marxism with Fred Stewards matter-of-fact observation that religious upbringing had legitimized both morality as a principle and the importance of a worldview which in turn facilitated a dynamic and universalistic outlook.16 What is more disturbing about Bernals Marxism is that it took its lasting shape during one of the most sectarian phases of the Comintern, resulting in his highly illiberal reading of Marx and his dogmatic defence of the Soviet Union up to and beyond 1956. In consequence, Bernal was, as Chris Freeman has observed, blinded to the need for pluralism and toleration of organized groups of dissent and disagreement and for political and social


Steward, in Swann and Aprahamian (eds.), op. cit. note 13, 39.



institutions that promote open critical debate appealing to fact, experiment, experience and logical argument. Bernal did recognize this, but mis-specied [the conditions under] which it could be realized.17 Here is where Bernals credulity was his political undoing. However, after all the eorts of Brown, myself, and others to understand and appreciate this complex man, perhaps we should leave the last word to Bernal himself. Here is how, at the age of twenty-ve, he summed up the essentials of his experimental life: There is the driving force, leading anywhere, everywhere, but, with me, two things guide it. Science and people.18 Far more than many, Bernal was hugely open to learning from books, nature, and those whom he most loved and admired, synthesizing his knowledge into a coherent world view, and acting in accordance with it. Had he maintained that openness throughout his life something he feared even as a young man he would be unable to do Bernal would today be even better known and more greatly honoured.

BLACKETT: THE SIXTH MAN At rst glance, P.M.S. Blackett would seem to have been a more congenial subject than Bernal for Andrew Brown. Like James Chadwick, the subject of Browns earlier biography, Blackett was a member of the Cavendish Laboratory, a leading nuclear physicist, and a Nobel laureate. He was also a decorated naval ocer and devoted father, happily married and apparently monogamous. Although a declared socialist, he was generally far more discreet than Bernal in his public utterances, preferring to work behind the scenes. Throughout much of his career, Blackett was regarded by, the scientic establishment and government insiders as a thoroughly sound man. His installation in the 1960s as President of the Royal Society sealed what, to all outward appearances, was an exemplary scientic career. Hence, Blackett has often been cast as the scientic Lefts good guy moderate, reliable, decent, and

Freeman, in Swann and Aprahamian (eds.), op. cit. note 13, 130131. Ann Synge, Early Years and Inuences, in Swann and Aprahamian (eds.), op. cit. note 13, 116, at 15.




sound in contrast to the Communist Ratbag Bernal.19 A man far more to Andrew Browns taste.20 While there were marked dierences between Bernal and Blackett in personality, scientic discipline, and lifestyle, their politics were strikingly similar. Kingsley Martin converted both men to socialism at Cambridge. Like Bernal, Blackett was introduced to Marxism and found it persuasive. Although never a Communist, Blacketts sympathies were on the far Left of the socialist movement. As he made clear in a BBC broadcast in 1934, the coming struggle for power was very real for him.
I believe that there are only two ways to go, and the way we now seem to be starting leads to Fascism; with it comes restriction of output, a lowering of the standard of life of the working classes, and a renunciation of scientific progress. I believe that the only other way is complete Socialism. Socialism will want all the science it can get to produce the greatest possible wealth. Scientists have not perhaps very long to make up their mind on which side they stand.21

As Mary Jo Nye notes, some people regarded Blacketts radio lecture as the reddest talk ever transmitted from ... Broadcasting House.22 While he was rarely so blunt in public about his political convictions, there was no question of the depth and colour of his socialism. Blacketts actions often in solidarity with Bernal spoke far louder than his words. In the 1930s, the two took the lead in: founding For Intellectual Liberty (a popular front group set up to publicize the repression of German Jewish intellectuals); transforming the Association of Scientic Workers into a militantly left-wing trade union; and establishing the British Associations Division for
19 Blackett was anxious to maintain and cultivate this image, as I discovered in my only interview with him in May, 1968. Sitting behind his presidential desk at the Royal Society in Carlton House Terrace, his manner was Olympian, even wintry, and his replies to my prepared questions, extremely terse. I left his oce with the very clear impression that he would not be taking any further part in my research. Eighteen months later, I learned from David Edge in Edinburgh that Blackett had contacted him to inquire whether David regarded me as a sound man. Edges reassurances were apparently not sucient. 20 See Andrew Brown, Patrick Blackett: Sailor, Scientist, Socialist, Physics World, 11 (April 1998), 3538. 21 P.M.S. Blackett, The Frustration of Science, in Frederick Soddy, et al., The Frustration of Science (London: Allen & Unwin, 1935), 129144, at 144. 22 Mary Jo Nye, Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 12. This is the only distinction I share with Blackett. On 21 September 1972, I delivered a BBC Radio 3 talk on A Historical Side-Bet: Science in Socialist Thought. Within minutes of its broadcast, my producer was rung up by his boss, Radio 3s Controller, vehemently demanding that the BBC was not to be a platform for Marxist propaganda. While the transcript looks pretty tame today, perhaps Blackett was right, after all.



the Social and International Relations of Science. After Hiroshima, Blackett and Bernal lobbied strongly but unsuccessfully for Britain to become a neutral in the Cold War, abstain from developing an atomic bomb, and support eorts to bring the peaceful and military uses of nuclear power under UN control. Internationally, they were closely identied with the newly formed World Federation of Scientic Workers and, later in the 1950s, Third World development. For these and related eorts, Blackett and Bernal found themselves not only on George Orwells list of Communist untouchables, but also banned as subversives and Soviet sympathizers from travelling to the United States of America (whose government had, in 1946, awarded both men its highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal for Merit). While Bernal was never to recover politically from the anti-Communist onslaught, Blackett rebuilt his reputation as a trusted government adviser. In the 1960s, the two men joined forces, politically, for the last time in the framing of the Labour Partys science policy and the launch of Harold Wilsons white-hot technological revolution. Looking back at Blacketts inuence and Bernalist politics, there is no question that he should have been the Visible Colleges sixth man. Nyes account of Blacketts life is welcome, if only because it puts on the public record most of the essential facts about the early development, scientic contributions, public service, and political interventions of this remarkable man. Blackett was born in 1897, and seemed destined for a career in the Royal Navy. He attended Osborne and then Dartmouth Naval Colleges, where he received an education in science and engineering. Despite, or possibly because of his wartime service, Blackett resigned his commission just three weeks after arriving in Cambridge in 1919. By 1921, he had become a committed socialist and decided on a career as a nuclear physicist. For the next twelve years, he established himself as one of the outstanding experimentalists of his generation. He modied the Wilson cloud chamber in a study of cosmic rays and ultimately conrmed the existence of the positive electron. In 1933, he moved to Birkbeck College where he continued his cosmic ray research. It was in London that he became more politically engaged, not just in popular front activities, but also as a scientic insider. He joined Solly (later Lord) Zuckerman in the famous Tots & Quots and Sir Henry Tizards Air Defence Committee. In 1937, Blackett left Birkbeck Bernal was his successor to take up the Langworthy Chair in physics at Manchester, where he remained until 1953.



From the onset of war in 1939, it was obvious that Blackett would be heading back to London, where he eventually became the Admiraltys chief scientic adviser. His greatest wartime achievement was to develop and champion the new science of operations research; his greatest notoriety came with his opposition to socalled precision or area bombing. A staunch critic of the ecacy and morality of bombing civilian populations, he opposed the development, after 1945, of British nuclear weapons. This stand publicly enunciated in his tract of 1948 on The Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy resulted in his being attacked as a dangerous leftie and na ve professor, by the likes of Edward Shils and I.I. Rabi, and in his marginalization by the Attlee government. This furore coincided with the announcement of Blacketts Nobel Prize for his work on cosmic rays. By this stage, however, Blackett had abandoned nuclear physics for the study of geophysics. As his interests turned to terrestrial magnetism, he became a signicant advocate of the theory of continental drift. These shifts coincided with other changes in Blacketts life. In 1953, he returned to London to become Rector of Imperial College. He also widened his circle to encompass science in postcolonial societies. He worked closely with Nehru as a scientic adviser to the rst government of independent India, and became a trenchant critic of the Wests parsimonious aid programmes. Blackett also returned to his earlier criticisms of nuclear strategy, many of which had been vindicated by the conduct of the Korean War. His political rehabilitation within the Labour Party followed, and when Harold Wilson came to power, Blackett found himself contributing as counsellor to the white-hot Ministry of Technology. Ocial honours followed he became PRS in 1965 and, four years later, Lord Blackett of Chelsea. He died in 1974. In telling Blacketts story, Nye turns her back on the traditional chronological narrative, slicing his life into a succession of recurring themes: science, politics, and war. Read as separate studies, her chapters have both interest and integrity. But it is obvious that what is happening to Blackett in one domain at any given time is being conditioned by his many other interests. A lesser problem with Nyes organization is that it requires her reader to do a lot of backtracking and fast forwarding to comprehend each piece of her jigsaw. A greater concern is that both she and we constantly lose sight of the whole man his complexity as well as what made his life coherent and meaningful. When Nye does try to pull her



strands together and make sense of them, she tends to resort to d formulae that ill suit her subject. cliche The strongest sections of Nyes book, as bets her training as an historian of science, relate to Blackett the scientist. She has some useful things to say about the inuence of his time in the workshops of Osborne and Dartmouth and on his approach to experimental physics at the Cavendish. But she also notes that contrary to his mentor Rutherford Blackett cared deeply about a priori theories based in fundamental principles, his imagination kindled ... by relativity theory and quantum electrodynamics. Blacketts combination of experimental skill and theoretical knowledge, coupled with intellectual courage, [made] him not only a versatile physicist but an outstanding one (pp. 4243). In her later chapters, Nye usefully brings both Kuhnian and Popperian perspectives to bear on her discussions of Blacketts geophysical interests. There are also useful commentaries on his scientic style as team leader and laboratory director. Unfortunately, other aspects of the book are less successful. Nye has little to say about Blacketts personal life and interests, or about his wider circle of scientic and political friends. Nor does she attempt to situate Blackett in the wider context of his times, especially with respect to the institutional development of British science and postwar international aairs. But the gravest deciency of the book is its reluctance to engage with Blacketts political world view. Like Brown, she fails to draw from the available secondary literature on the history of the British labour movement and Marxism. As a result, she misreads Blacketts politics as a kind of middle-of-the-road Fabianism. Otherwise, she trivializes the controversies surrounding Blacketts political activities as merely examples of the tension between the scientic ethos of value-free objectivity, on the one hand, and the scientic imperative for social and civic improvement, on the other (p. 12). Yet, as she later acknowledges, his was a life of physics, war, and politics in which one passion was never separate from the other (pp. 182183). If there were any latent tension between his science and his politics, it was certainly not apparent to Blackett: why I should stick to Physics ... I cannot quite conceive.23 Ultimately, Blacketts science sat comfortably with his socialism, as was the case with his great friend, Bernal. We still await biogra-


As quoted by Nye, op. cit. note 22, 9091.



phies that comprehend this conjunction, and do full justice to these two great socialist scientists.




Gary Werskey, after taking his PhD in History at Harvard in 1972, held teaching posts in science studies at Edinburgh University; in sociology at the University of Bath; and in industrial sociology at Imperial College London. Since 1987, he has worked in Australia as a university executive and management consultant. He served for three years as Minervas Reviews Editor.

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