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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.

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