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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.

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