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JD Bernal

A history of violence?

JD Bernal - War Critic

In 1939, as World War 2 approached, J D Bernal publicly criticised the standard of civilian air-raid shelters. His book 'The Social Function of Science' was published that year. In his book Bernal described the changing character of science in the 20th Century, from a solitary and gentlemanly pursuit of knowledge to a collective pursuit, driven by economic and political forces. 

Challenging ideas still strongly held at the time he said,

Open Quote:It used to be believed that the results of scientific investigation would lead to  progressive improvements in conditions of life; but first the [First World] War and then the economic crisis have shown that science can be used as easily for destructive and wasteful purposes…Close Quote:

  What is mustard gas?  Why was it developed by German scientists? Why was it so destructive and wasteful of human life?

Science and War

Bernal observes that the link between science and war has a long history, for obvious reasons.

Open Quote:The urgency of war needs, expressed in willingness to incur expenditure, are greater than those of any civil needs… in war, novelty is at a premium. A change in technique leading to the production of new or better weapons may make a critical difference between victory and defeat.Close Quote:

Physicists made such important contributions to the fighting capacity of both Axis and Allied powers that WWII has been called ‘the physicists’ war’. The development of nuclear weapons was directly linked to work by both German and UK/US scientists during WWII.

 This claim by Bernal is huge:

Open Quote:…the majority of significant technical and scientific advances owe their origin directly to military or naval requirements.Close Quote:

Does it stand up? What’s the evidence for it? ‘Significant technical and scientific advances’ in the 20th century would include radar, microwave communications and ovens, devices using transistors. Can you add to this list? Now check which of these advances were invented for military purposes. 

Next: Scientists make ethical choices

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