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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: Lawrence’s Cyclotron December 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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In the early 1930s, the acceleration of electrons and protons was a popular project.  While the spectacular theoretical developments in quantum mechanics had stolen the show in physics in the 1920s, the problem of understanding the atomic nucleus had also become a subject of renewed interest following on experiments performed by Ernest Rutherford and his coterie at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.  They had shown that bombarding nuclei with the natural radiation of radioactive materials could transmute the subject nuclei into different elements.  However, natural radioactive materials were expensive, and their ability to provide incident particles was uncontrolled and inefficient.  It was understood that providing some artificial source of high energy (high velocity) particles would make bombardment easier, and the exploration of atomic nuclei more systematic and reliable.

Edwin McMillan and Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Fermi Film Collection

The obvious means of creating a source was to send particles streaming across a high electrical potential difference (high voltage).  Lightning accelerated electrons in an uncontrolled way between the sky and the ground—and had, in fact, been marshaled as a source of ephemeral high voltages.  The electrical industry had been vigorously seeking ways of creating high voltages so as to transmit electricity over long (more…)