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Bernard Lovell: An Archival Anecdote August 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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The death of physicist Sir Bernard Lovell on August 6th at the age of 98 has been widely reported.  I thought I would mark his passing with an anecdote about some correspondence by and about him, which I ran across in December 2000 at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) on my first ever archive trip.*

To set the scene a bit, at the time I was still an undergrad, and was impressed by the wonderful circular reading room at the IWM situated right beneath the building’s cupola, and by having to do things like acquire permission from someone named Noble Frankland to see the Sir Henry Tizard papers there.  (And I didn’t even know this was a former site of Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam!)   I was trying to come to grips with the very loaded topic of “operational research” (OR).  I gathered that wartime OR had to do with the “coordination” of research with the military’s “operational” goals, but I didn’t have a very good sense of how coordination actually happened in bureaucracies, or the complicated politics of the subject.

It turns out most people don’t, but I was particularly ill-informed.  I distinctly remember telling the staff member escorting me to the reading room that I was interested in “why Britain didn’t develop a military-industrial complex as America did”.  I was duly informed it was because there was no money.  That wasn’t exactly what I meant — what I had in mind, but couldn’t express, was why British R&D hadn’t been more strongly coordinated with military planning as it had been in America even to a fault: RAND, McNamara, and all that.  That position was also wrong-headed in its own way.  I did not realize that I was caught up in deep tropes populating the rhetoric of science in Britain, which were designed to explain its failures (as well as America’s successes and pathologies).  It was believable, though, because so much evidence, including a letter written by a young Lovell, seemed to corroborate Britain’s difficulties coordinating its scientific resources — I did not appreciate that he and others were bearers of the rhetorical tradition that had already shaped my thinking.

Lovell had received his PhD in physics in 1936, and then came into the circle of Patrick Blackett at Manchester.  Then in 1939 he, like many others, was shipped off to do war research.  He was instantly appalled by the research conditions at the radar development facility in Perth (outside of Dundee, Scotland) to which he was assigned.  On 14 October 1939, having been at Perth for two weeks, he wrote to Blackett (already well ensconced in war research), offering a laundry list of the problems he had encountered (IWM, Tizard Papers, HTT 32):

To begin with the general organisation and method of work used by the [Air Ministry] makes my head swim.  It leads to persistent and inevitable bungling.  I find it illogical and without the elementals of commonsense….

Even worse is the story of the apparatus.  In 6 tests out of about 12 it has caught fire in the air, due to extremely bad design.  The power packs flash over, thin flex leads break off etc. etc.,  The tester knows exactly how to put this right in future designs, he is never consulted, and has given up trying to be helpful in sheer despair.  It is designed by men sitting in secluded offices here, who to be frank have no social sense and no vestige of organising ability.  By the peculiar [Air Ministry] system they have attained positions for which they are in no way fitted.  (Please do not think I refer explicitly to [E. G. “Taffy”] Bowen.  I like him immensely)….

And recently we have reached the climax of fantasy, in which only 4 planes have been fitted because NO MORE APPARATUS HAS COME FROM THE MAKERS!!  This is due to contradictory orders being issued and generally messed up by men of the above group in their offices…..

Now, one should generally be aware that criticizing bureaucratic arrangements is something like a national pastime in Britain (cf., the run-up to the Olympics).  In the case of “science”, it is traditional to connect such criticisms to a broader critique of whether or not offending parties have, in some sense, gotten “science” wrong.  The tradition goes back at least as far as Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), 34 pages of which (out of 212) were devoted to a criticism of the Admiralty’s closure of its Board of Longitude, and the short-lived committee of scientific advisers that replaced it.

Lovell’s letter is a superb window into this tradition, if you’re attuned to the rhetoric.  The following passage particularly rewards an unpacking:

You may remember from my book how keenly I felt the disillusionment and frustration in science.  But when even frustration is being frustrated by inefficiency, it is very hard to sit under!

Book?  Earlier that year, Lovell — remember, only a few years removed from his PhD — published a book with the lofty title Science and Civilization.  Lovell’s reference to the “frustration of science” was to a contemporaneous critique supported by scientific leftists like Blackett (who had written an essay called “The Frustration of Science” appearing in a volume of the same name) and, most prominently, J. D. Bernal, the communist crystallographer.  This “frustration” had two key components: 1) academics treated “science” like a secluded activity; and 2) in fact, science was crucial to society, and was deeply impacted by its social context.  Thus, by imagining themselves apolitical, academic scientist cut themselves off from influencing the political (i.e., capitalist and militaristic) ends to which the world’s scientific labor was being put.  Now, Lovell’s opportunity to overcome the frustration of science by actually engaging in applied research for the good of the nation was being frustrated by poor management.

Despite the fact that Lovell was confiding in Blackett, Blackett instantly passed the letter on to Henry Tizard, a major science adviser to the Air Ministry, and A. P. Rowe, who was in charge of the Ministry’s radar development effort.  According to Blackett (19 October 1939, same file):

[Lovell] is a rather impatient person and perhaps a little conceited, but the impression he has got of conditions at Perth is depressing.

However, Tizard and Rowe were concerned that Lovell might not have an appropriate attitude for work in a government facility.  Rowe visited with Lovell, and on 26 October (same file) he wrote to Tizard:

Judging purely from the letter you quoted me, I expected to find that Lovell was a nasty piece of work who should be removed from the work.  I find, however, that this is not the case.  Many of the criticisms he raises are associated with the simultaneity of research, development, production and installation and with the natural alterations of mind of [Commander-in-Chief, RAF] Fighter Command as he feels his way towards an operational solution [i.e., dealing with Fighter Command’s fluctuating demands as they figure out how to use radar].

When a man comes to me with the statement that everything is all wrong, I usually start by suggesting that he should put it right.  This policy has worked in this instance and Lovell has gladly accepted the job of organising a test room and taking over contract procedure at St. Athan [an RAF aerodrome in Wales] to which Perth is moving next week….  I feel convinced that we shall make something of Lovell after his tactless start.

There is an important issue of principle at play here.  Lovell imagined himself an informed outside critic of the inefficiencies of government research, but the higher-ups (who also understood themselves to be informed critics) believed that failures of coordination were most apt to come from the failure of research teams to cohere internally, and to function effectively as part of a larger, well-established government apparatus.  During and after World War II, Blackett and Tizard would themselves repeatedly use their own successes and failures in getting research teams to work well with others as a standard for how well the state was making use of “science”.

The reason why the story jumped out at me in 2000 was because the exact same questions informed discussions about OR’s identity and its significance in history.  The basic idea would also be integral to the parables of C. P. Snow circa 1960.  It also deeply informed Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969), which was a staple of history and sociology of science reading lists in the 1970s and ’80s.  And, as I have argued on this blog, the idea (albeit in modified form) that society has gotten science somehow wrong informs even the most recent work in science studies.

Now all of these points about the proper coordination of science in a bureaucracy, and their rhetorical link to whether state and society have gotten science right or wrong, are very difficult to pick up on if you fail to realize that the rhetoric does not provide reliable descriptions and diagnoses of the problems of policy and bureaucratic coordination in which they are ostensibly interested.  One of the reasons why I am such a big fan of my colleague David Edgerton’s work is because he was the one who really keyed me in to this point.  Once you stop believing that gross fallacies like the “linear model” ever existed in history (despite polemics insisting such naive notions are the root of various evils), once you realize that how research has been organized has always turned on much more nuanced ideas and concerns (e.g., “the simultaneity of research, development, production and installation…”) than on big “science and civilization”/”science and society” questions, you start wanting to understand what those ideas and concerns actually were.

*I later learned from a video interview with Lovell at Web of Stories that Lovell had himself seen this correspondence at the IWM.  According to him, his complaints actually did lead to some substantial reforms.  But, as we can see, it was important that reforms never be perceived to come from youthful outsiders, and he never knew until much later the knock-on effects his complaint to Blackett had.


1. The Giant’s Shoulders: The Fiftieth Anniversary Edition | From the Hands of Quacks - August 16, 2012

[…] Finally, I would like to finish off this carnival with a token of respect to physicist Sir Bernard Lovell who passed away on August 6 at the age of 98. Here’s an obituary as well as a lovely anecdote. […]

2. ridlerville - September 2, 2012

Dear Will,

New to the site. Very nice. I understand you have an interest in Omond Solandt. I wrote his biography (up to 1956) for my doctoral thesis. Feel free to contact me at jason.ridler@gmail.com.

Jay Ridler

Will Thomas - September 3, 2012

Hi, Jay. I am indeed interested in Solandt, and defense research in general. I’ll email you about your thesis, as it definitely sounds like something I will want to reference in my forthcoming book on WW2 scientific advising, operational research, and systems analysis.

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