Fred Scharmen

Under the Beach, the Bernal Spheres

July 17, 2019

A beach is the intersection of two surfaces: one, slanting and solid, meeting another, flat and liquid; both globally smooth but locally uneven. Though each is relatively unchanging in the short term, they are constantly moving in the immediacy of any given moment. Neither is even barely static over the scale of decades or centuries.

These surfaces and substances are embedded in another blustery fluid: the atmosphere, an ocean of air. At this meeting place of water, air, and ground, little can be taken for granted. Water and sand mix and become turbulent; they interact in complex, unpredictable ways. The wind drives the sea into the air and onto the land in regular and irregular patterns. In the 1930s, the physicist and materials scientist J.D. Bernal was on vacation in the French seaside town of Arromanches, swimming in the surf just off the beach, when he encountered pieces of peat floating up from the sand below him, torn by the undertow and the tide. He would recall this encounter later in Quebec, where he was invited to take part in the planning conference of August 1943 for what would become Operation Overlord, the invasion of the French beaches—including Arromanches—to repel the Nazis on D-Day.

In Jules Verne’s novels, the anti-war, anti-imperialist Captain Nemo took the motto “Mobilis in Mobili”—‘moving in a moving field’—for his submersible ship, the Nautilus. The Nautilus is a miniature moving world, designed by the captain, waging war on war itself and rescuing the refugees displaced by a turbulent world. The problems of the beach, of moving through an unstable medium that is itself in motion, were the problems that Bernal was asked to tackle as part of his work on Operation Overlord. Though as a pacifist, an activist, a Marxist socialist and scientist, Bernal was an unlikely Captain Nemo, he was an equally unlikely recruit to the World War II effort his contributions helped bring to an end. His recollection of the presence of peat below the beach at Arromanches—codenamed Gold Beach by the Allied forces—set off a program of investigation and experimentation that would result in the intentional intervention and re-design of both the ground and the water at this beach. In Overlord, Bernal practiced a way of working with systems that Stewart Brand might have been thinking of years later when, in 1968, he opened his Whole Earth Catalog with the purpose statement: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This process—of the re-design of processes—is not just about beaches: it goes straight to the issues and questions about the nature of worlds.

During the lead-up to D-Day, Bernal worked under Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations in 1943. This position gave Mountbatten authority over the convergence of the British Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force—the antagonists of the combined forces of land, sea, and air respectively—that would come together at the beaches of Normandy. According to “Bernal at War”, Ritchie Calder’s account of the period, Bernal—known to his friends as “The Sage”—was to act as Mounbatten’s “troubleshooter” and “tame magician.” As such, he was responsible for, if not making sense, then at least making use, of the land, sea, and air the Allied soldiers would encounter across the British Channel. He spent the year after the meeting in Quebec and leading up to D-Day learning everything he could about the nature of the natural forces on that remote, now-inaccessible French beach at Arromanches where he had once vacationed. Ancient records of peat-harvesting, as well as older geological traces of ancient, sunken forests, verified his memories of peat in the water and beneath the sand at Gold Beach. Subsurface peat would mean that tanks and heavy equipment would have difficulty getting inland. After sending a diver and a mini-sub to France in the middle of the night to collect sand samples, Bernal verified that Gold Beach had analogues in England that could be used for experimentation. Studying records of the tides, topographic maps and soundings in charts enabled him to estimate the thickness of the sand at Arromanches and, thereby, its ability to hold up tanks. He then made recommendations for where to spread tensile mats to augment the strength of the sand, and where to direct vehicles to keep them away from historically treacherous ground.

Bernal understood that this landscape—as, indeed, all worlds—are only, at a given moment, the record of the processes and systems that are continuously making and un-making them. Unable to visit the beach itself, he studied its past in order to infer its present and to make predictions about its future. The invasions in Normandy would depend on the state of the land, sea, and air at H-Hour on D-Day. The weather, the tides, seasonal erosion and replenishment of the sand would all affect how far up the beach the landing ships could get the ground troops.

This was another aspect of the beach’s status as a place of flux: it was an open space, exposed to enemy fire. The less of it they had to cross, the better. A difference in sea level of 5 centimetres could add or subtract up to 10 meters to the travel distance through this fraught zone. Through the analysis of historical records and aerial photographs, this was the level of accuracy targeted, and met, by Bernal and the other scientists at work on the landing. He also participated in decisions about another intervention at the beach, the Mulberry-B artificial harbour project for the second phase of the invasion. Bernal and others explored engineering that would calm the waters of the open beach, using materials that could be brought by Allied ships across the English Channel, and allow supplies to be off-loaded from deep water to the re-engineered beach, once the initial part of the battle was over. Mulberry-A was at an American landing site, Omaha Beach, and had to be abandoned after a storm. Mulberry-B, though, was in use for almost ten months after the landing. The Mulberry systems made use of deliberately sunken ships and portable caissons as breakwaters, and a modular set of floating pier heads and pontoon bridges to access the newly calm depths these breakwaters provided, bringing in the material and technology from the water to the land—over the unstable beach. This transfer would end the World War and re-make France.

These kinds of questions and methods—analysing flux to determine, and design, a state, therein a world—were familiar to Bernal. His primary occupation had been in X-ray crystallography, inferring the composition of molecular structures by passing high-energy pulses of X-rays through them, which would calm and scatter in new patterns, like the waves at Arromanches passing through Mulberry-B. As a lab head at Birkbeck College London in the fifties, he had worked alongside Rosalind Franklin, the co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure through X-ray crystallography.

Early in his career, Bernal had already tried to synthesise the micro and the macro in a work of speculative futurism. Short on pages but grand on cosmic scale, his 1929 work The World, the Flesh and the Devil; An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul was an ambitious attempt to imagine the future directions of his own material science, of biological engineering and, eventually, the wholesale design and production of entire artificial worlds. Extrapolating from the work of Freud and other theorists in politics and education, The Devil of his title was the “inner confusion[s]” of human nature and psychology. The Flesh was the potential for re-making the body and biology, imagining discoveries to come, like Franklin’s of DNA. And though possibly influenced by the speculations of the Russian Cosmists, The World, however, was his own invention, meant to solve the problem of how humans would go to, and live in, outer space.

Bernal’s designed worlds are spheres, ten miles or more in diameter, built—like his re-engineered beaches at Arromanches—from a series of material layers, and conceived as “an enormously complicated single-celled plant.” Each layer in Bernal’s sphere serves a distinct function in a system of combined forces: the first is energetic, active defense from micrometeorites; the second is sealed, to keep gases from exiting, and transparent, to let solar energy in; the next is made to absorb this energy, either through chemical solar cells or biologically engineered photosynthesis. Then come the layers of basic, material reserves for life, followed by a mechanical layer with all of the machines, laboratories and workshops necessary for the habitat. Finally, there is the living space, which Bernal imagined as a kind of foam of reconfigurable rooms and voids through which the new human residents could fly with strapped-on wings, in zero-g. As a re-imagining of “the World,” these habitats would allow humans to no longer take the nature of the planet Earth for granted. Bernal’s speculations about changing The Flesh, and The Devil, would look for ways out from under the default status of bodies and minds as givens. In his book, he characterises these default, status quo modes of existence as results of accident and randomness that can be improved by intentional intervention: “The cardinal tendency of progress is the replacement of an indifferent chance environment by a deliberately created one.” For Bernal, these interventions would be needed to ensure the long-term existence and extension of human (or at least post-human) life.

In 1980, the astronomer and planetary scientist Carl Sagan invoked the metaphor of the beach to talk about space exploration in his influential book and television series Cosmos. “The surface of the Earth,” he said, “is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting.”

At the other end of Britain’s World War II involvement was another French beach, 200 miles northwest from Arromanches, very near the Belgian border. In an action codenamed Operation Dynamo, British forces evacuated Dunkirk when Nazi troops surrounded the town in 1940. In this case, there was no time for a J.D. Bernal to help design the interaction of land, air, and sea power; or for a Captain Nemo to create the ideal vessel for waging war on war and rescuing her refugees. The harbour facilities were crippled and the British soldiers, having “waded a little way out” into this cosmic ocean, found the waters less than inviting. Many waited for hours, standing in the rising tides, until a hastily improvised flotilla of civilian ships could pick them up and ferry them to the larger transports waiting in the deeper waters just beyond the beach.

Bernal enjoyed a long and storied career in science and in politics. Having helped design the conditions for the certain death of a few in order to forestall the inevitable death of millions more, he was able to devote a large portion of his energies later in life towards the end of war itself. In 1958, he published another work in the field of speculative political and social science, World Without War, to make the case that science’s potential to improve human life was being drastically curtailed by its then-current turn towards the production of war and war machines. He was instrumental in conferences convened by the World Peace Council throughout the fifties, and served as said organisation’s president from 1959 until his incapacitation by a stroke in 1965.

Bernal’s body of work—in the design of life, the design of worlds and the design of peace—is cogent. His effort to design a stable ground that works with (rather than against) the unstable confluence of forces at the beaches of France, the tangle of Cold War politics, and the turbulence of outer space, is a coherent model for some manner of future practice. McKenzie Wark has called Bernal a new kind of designer, who practices what Wark calls a symbebekotecture. This is a way to design with accidents, which is to the Anthropocene what architecture was to the now-superseded Holocene. For Wark, this way of working may point to an even more appropriate mode, a kainotecture that is yet to come and that could design processes, and accidents, within the unfolding time of an era characterised by crisis; that is, by the making and unmaking of worlds.

Bernal, however, saw himself as working actively against the destructive power of the accident. When he arrived again, finally, on the beach at Arromanches, on the day after D-Day, he helped landing boats navigate the water, avoiding submerged rocks with his memory of the charts he had traced. Echoing his own antagonism towards the existing default condition of an “indifferent chance environment” from The World, the Flesh and the Devil, he noted with sadness that some of his advice about the historic location of bad ground had been ignored. Tracked vehicles had gotten stuck in the peat, “like flies in amber,” slowing the advance. “I may be right, I may even know that I am right, but I am never sufficiently ruthless and effective to force other people to believe that I am right and to act accordingly. All this was so unnecessary: it all could have been avoided if people had not thought that my objections were just theoretical and statistical and that they were practical people and need pay no attention to them.”

Bernal had been a theorist of new worlds, arguing for their production in advance, he was only ever been able to practice world-design in the middle of an “indifferent chance environment”—the French beaches of World War II. His story suggests that, in the Anthropocene, deliberate, intentional world-making, on and maybe even off of Earth, will have to be undertaken to avoid even more death and suffering. The resonance between the evacuation of Dunkirk, in hundreds of small private boats, and the recent arrest of Captain Carole Rackete for rescuing climate refugees from sinking, improvised ships in the Mediterranean underscores the urgent need for the intentional design of crisis mitigation.

Who is a contemporary Nemo if not Captain Rackete? And who might the contemporary Bernal be? What is a beach, if not a set of statistical likelihoods? Considering large portions of humanity are on the beach again, we may as well get good at designing it. Our era opposes statistical objections to seemingly “practical people.” In the chance environment of an ongoing climate emergency, any reactive world-design will look more like the mired tanks in the peat bogs at Arromanches, the soldiers hip-deep off the beach at Dunkirk or the sinking rafts of present-day asylum-seekers, than the careful dipping of a toe into the waters off the cosmic ocean’s shore.


Fred Scharmen teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning. His work as a designer and researcher focuses on how architects imagine new spaces for speculative future worlds and who is invited into them. Recent projects with the Working Group on Adaptive Systems include a mile-and-a-half long scale model of the solar system in downtown Baltimore in collaboration with nine artists, and a pillow fort for the Baltimore Museum of Art based on Gottfried Semper’s Four Elements of Architecture. He has recently published Space Settlements with Columbia University Press.