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Polemical Structures: Enthusiasm, Delay, and the Frustration of Bureaucracy June 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, British Science-Society Critiques.
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Enthusiast or gadfly?  Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell in 1948; photograph by William J. Sumits, from the LIFE photo archive

In Paul Lucier’s article on science and the professions in 19th-century America, one point relating to the California oil controversy caught my eye.  In discussing the controversy’s historiography, Lucier observed that one interpretation “popular among business historians and modern scientists” seemed to support a “delay” thesis.  Since chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., working on a sizable capitalist contract, was ultimately proven correct that oil would be discovered in California, his science was “vindicated”.  Meanwhile, Josiah Whitney, who criticized Silliman “with all the power of a government position behind him” had his “vindictiveness” revealed.  As Lucier explains, Whitney’s attitude could thus be taken to explain “why California, with its rich oil fields, did not take off sooner.”

I do not think it’s inappropriate to retroactively judge whether one side or another was justified in their claims, either by contemporaneous or later standards, and regardless of later discoveries.  I would, however, like to leave the issue aside here.  (Personally, I have no idea who, if anyone, was justified in the Silliman-Whitney case.)  I also don’t want to make a warmed-over point about the relationship between scientific credibility and political interests.  Instead, I want to concentrate on just how common the polemics of obstruction and delay, and a counter-polemic of enthusiasm, are in history and historiography.  To talk about the issue, I want to move to a territory I know a bit better: World War II.

In the years prior to his becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Winston Churchill positioned himself as a robust opponent of Nazism.  His friend, adviser, and the director of Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, physicist Frederick Lindemann (1886-1957), was of like mind.  Both were wary of bureaucratic mediocrity, and they understood it as their duty to awaken the state apparatus from its sloth in order to combat the Nazi threat.  Churchill routinely inserted himself into the details of military planning, and both he and Lindemann were aggressive proponents of technological game-changers.


Primer: Leo Szilard June 11, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

I had another post planned for today, but got waylaid when, working on my physicist web project, I had to piece together the career of Leo Szilard.  The idea behind the project is to gather skeletal information on physicists to help trace career paths, but this doesn’t work very well for Szilard, who was a sort of a physicist vagabond who seems to have cobbled his career together out of temporary and part-time positions, meager patent revenues, and a penchant for a modest existence.  So, I’ve been spending my day immersed in journalist and policy analyst William Lanouette’s Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard (1992), trying to sift out what I can.  Since I’m learning more than enough for a post, I thought I’d just write something up on him while I was at it.

Szilard, the son of an engineer, was born Leo Spitz in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1898.  (His family changed their name in 1900.)  Out of a sense of practicality, Szilard aimed to become an engineer himself, enrolling in the Technical Institute of Budapest, but was drafted into the army during World War I.  After the war, political conditions became difficult for Szilard, on account of his Jewish heritage, and he moved from Hungary to Berlin to continue his education there, first at the Technical Institute and then the University.  In Berlin, Szilard decided to indulge his intellect and study physics in an environment rich in the some of the greatest talent of his day, notably Max von Laue and Albert Einstein.  Submitting a manuscript detailing a new conceptualization of thermodynamics that impressed both these men (and was decades later recognized as a contribution to the integration of thermodynamics and information theory), he was granted his doctorate in 1922.

The key characteristic of Szilard’s work and career was his restless and penetrating intellect, which accepted no boundaries and precious little institutional restraint, and drove him to travel constantly.  He devoted his thinking to (more…)

The Two Cultures at Fifty May 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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On May 7, 1959, C. P. Snow gave his famous lecture on “the two cultures”.  The event took on such resonance that there are now 50th-anniversary events taking place in some major institutions of science to acknowledge its significance.  See the New York Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the latest Nature, and the folks from my old neighborhood.

The event is taken as an opportunity to reflect on and question the relevance of Snow’s message.  But for me Snow has taken on the sort of red-flag qualities that other people in the history of science see in intelligent design or bad pop science.  Why am I so exercised by Snow, of all people, and not these other things? Aside from his direct (albeit marginal) place in my research, I think it’s because Snow exists in a somewhat uncomfortable space between the uncontrollable bazaar of public ideas and the coherence of useful conversation.  The bazaar will always be with us.  But Snow helps experts who should know better think they’re having a good conversation, when it’s not the case at all.

The way Snow did this was through a shrewd combination of good-but-obvious advice, bad history, and issue advocacy.  As UVa New York University prof Guy Ortolano details in his new (and lamentably expensive) book, The Two Cultures Controversy (2009), when Snow made his argument, he had specific (more…)

Primer: The Tizard Committee November 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click to go to the Official Portraits of the Imperial College Rectors)

Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click for the Official Portraits of Imperial College Rectors)

The Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence (CSSAD, a.k.a. the “Tizard Committee”) was instituted by the British Air Ministry in late 1934 to consider new technologies that the Royal Air Force might use to defend its territory against attack by bombers.  The committee was initially comprised of its chair, scientist and longstanding government research administrator and Imperial College rector Sir Henry Tizard, the Air Ministry’s Director of Scientific Research Harry Wimperis, academic experimental physicist Patrick Blackett, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist A. V. Hill (who had been the head of a World War I research group responsible for improving anti-aircraft gunnery), and Wimperis’ assistant A. P. Rowe, who served as secretary.  Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann was added soon thereafter on the insistence of his close friend Winston Churchill, who was at that time a backbench Conservative MP.

The formation of this committee was not unusual, as government R&D work was frequently informed by standing and ad hoc advisory bodies.  Henry Tizard was already chair of the high-level Aeronautical Research Committee, of which Blackett was also a member.  Lindemann’s addition was engineered by Churchill as a part of his vocal campaign (more…)