In my name?

I don’t usually write personal blogs – but something’s about to happen that makes me feel I really want to write about.

My grandfather was JD Bernal – he was quite a famous figure in his day, a scientist of great reputation, one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography and the mentor of amongst other Nobel Prize winners Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin – his wikipedia page (here) is a reasonably accurate reflection of his life and significance. He was ‘one of Britain’s best known and most controversial scientists’ to quote that page. He was controversial primarily because of his politics – he was an unashamed communist, right until he died in 1971.

His political activism shaped his life – and his work. Some of his best writing was as much political as scientific – The Social Function of Science and Science in History give you a flavour of what he was interested in.

He spent the latter part of his career as a professor at Birkbeck – and after he died, there has been an annual ‘Bernal Lecture’ in his name. The speakers are generally either scientists or people with some connection with the kind of radicalism and progressiveness that my grandfather was associated with. Two years ago we had another Nobel Prize winner, Harry Kroto, last year Professor Jim Al-Khalili on the hidden history of Islamic Science.

This year, we had a surprise: a ‘hush-hush’ email arrived, telling us that the speaker was going to be a government minister, but that we weren’t allowed to know who, and shouldn’t tell anyone for ‘security’ reasons. At the best of times the idea of a government minister as speaker would be highly suspect – but this government? A government that has presided over some of the worst decisions for universities in living memory – and one that seems to regard education and science as only tools for generating cash and supporting business.

The speaker, it turns out, is David Willetts – ‘Two brains’ – and relative to others in the cabinet he’s probably one of the most open and the most interesting. It might at least be an interesting debate, a chance for the more radical people who still remember my grandfather to question government priorities – but no. We’re not allowed to know the title to his talk, he won’t be available for questions before or after or take questions during the talk. He won’t even have a chair or anyone to respond to his speech – just a tiny introduction. We’ll be expected to listen, applaud, and let him walk away doubtless surrounded by his ‘security’ people.

…and all this in my grandfather’s name. In my name. Frankly, I’m very disappointed by Birkbeck for allowing this to happen – and I’m not prepared to keep it confidential. The lecture is on April 17th, at 6pm, at Birkbeck. Tickets can be booked by eventbrite, here

I’d be delighted if people came – I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to ‘protest’, but I’m going to do something.

10 thoughts on “In my name?

  1. Good work sir. Sadly this seems to be protocol for the government – my law school had Jonathan Djanogly come to give a talk about mediation. The lecture was recorded but question time was not and he would only take questions for a limited period and only if they were about mediation. Any mention of government cuts to legal aid and access to justice or the involvement of insurance companies in creating policy and the talk would be stopped. Political accountability? I think not.

    1. I’m still trying to get things to change – that’s one of the reasons for this blog, to build a little pressure on Birkbeck by making people aware. They may see sense and try to negotiate for a chance to respond….

  2. If this were my grandfather (who was a communist party member and vicar in the Church of England), he’d be spinning in his grave at the thought of a Tory minister coming to speak at an event named after him. Someone at Birkbeck appears to have taken leave of their senses.

    Maybe you could circulate to the audience the recent paper that proved conservatives are more stupid than non-conservatives.

  3. I was tipped off about this by Jane; we have run occasional Bernal events in Ireland. I have sent the Birkbeck people a neutral enquiry, but have had no response. I would consider going over if it showed signs of being a contact-occasion for an international ‘science in society’ networking opportunity.. It seems now to be looking like some sort of demolition job. What is going on? Bernal’s Marxism was genuine; he managed to keep his distance from the Stalin legacy.

  4. @Paul And what would your redoubtable grandmother have said? Best wishes, I do hope life’s treating you well… (Remember Highsett? I live in Cork these days).

    @Roy I am guessing the events are in Dublin but if you do anything in Cork please let me know.

    1. Great to hear from you Imogen – would you believe I’ve actually moved back to Highsett after 20-something years away. I hope you’re enjoying Cork – I like it there: I’ve visited UCC for conferences each of the last three years, at the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights.

    1. Ah, sorry, I should have posted an update: David Willetts asked for the lecture to be postponed, whether as a result of our pressure or for some other reason – but the good news is that Birkbeck confirmed that when the lecture is rescheduled he WILL be willing to take questions and engage in debate!

      I’m not at all sure whether he’ll actually reschedule at all – or whether the promised debate and questioning will take place, but it is at least some kind of a result!

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