One of the most infamous relationships between a scientist father and an artist son was that of Philip and Edmund Gosse (1849-1928). The father observed and documented a wide range of marine animals and plants, but he was cruel to his son in the name of the Plymouth Brethren. After Philip’s death, Edmund retaliated with an angry biography (Father and Son 1907) and the literary world gained a famous critic. In Britain, this was when scientists and artists were moving apart, helped by the deep class divisions and the First World War.
In more recent times, other families have made more positive joint contributions to art and science. Martin Bernal (who died this month aged 76) was a classicist and gained notoriety in 1987 with Black Athena, an unpopular theory that Egypt and Phoenicia played a big part in the formation of Greek culture. The implication that not only Socrates but also Cleopatra was black, didn’t go down well in Establishment academia. In 1996 The Times called it “an intellectual horror story” in which “fact and reason play little part”.
But Martin’s father had been even more outrageous in his time, living astride art and science as well as the two political extremes of the Cold War. Some people say he was a spy, but for certain he was a crystallographer and played an important part in the elucidation of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. The Bernal home was awash with artists and eccentrics, and Martin’s mother was artist and Egyptologist Margaret Gardiner. Their friends WH Auden and Barbara Hepworth were frequent visitors and
This atmosphere encouraged Martin in the theory that Hebrew, Greek and Phoenecian and Egytian languages had a common root. Even Heroditus had hinted that “Egyptians came to the Peleponnese and made themselves kings.”