Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth
Century. Mary Jo Nye. x + 255 pp. Harvard University Press,
At the heart of Mary Jo Nye's thought-provoking biography of British
physicist and Nobel laureate Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett is the
question of whether science and politics mix. In exploring
Blackett's life, Nye portrays a researcher, political adviser and
scientific leader willing to take risks, move into new areas of
research and speak out on matters of politics and war. In doing so,
she addresses the important question of how (and at what price) one
can reconcile a scientific career with political activism.
Born into the "kindly security" of the middle class in
Edwardian England, Blackett entered the Royal Naval College in 1910
at barely 13 years of age. War broke out in 1914 as he was finishing
his exams, and he then began serving on board warships. He witnessed
the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and seeing the few survivors from the
1,200-man crew of the HMS Queen Mary floating in
oil-stained water gave him a visceral appreciation of war's cost.
However, he was never a pacifist, although he did later become a socialist.
Blackett entered the University of Cambridge in 1919, and in 1921 he
began postgraduate work at Ernest Rutherford's famed Cavendish
Laboratory. In addition to studying physics and mathematics,
Blackett showed a growing interest in politics. Nye smartly places
him amid the intellectual and political milieu of Cambridge between
the wars and notes that he soon became known as someone unafraid to
speak out on controversial issues. In talks he gave as part of a BBC
radio series on science, he argued that scientists could not
separate their work from politics, and as Hitler expanded his grip
on Europe, Blackett urged his colleagues to prepare themselves for war.
Even before World War II broke out, Blackett was applying his
research skills to defense efforts. He helped develop Britain's air
defense network through the establishment of radar stations, and in
the process he became a staunch advocate of operations research,
which he defined as "the analysis of data in order to give
useful advice." With information gained by studying the effects
of U-boat attacks, shipping convoys and aerial bombing, he helped
shape Allied military strategy and save soldiers' lives, often
struggling with military officers who resisted advice from civilian "boffins."
His analysis of data also sowed the seeds for his disagreements with
others regarding American nuclear strategies. Blackett, who served
on England's Advisory Committee on Atomic Energy and its successor,
the Nuclear Physics Committee, as well as on the Chiefs of Staff
Subcommittee on Future Weapons, opposed British development of
atomic weapons and favored a neutralist foreign policy and
cooperation with the Soviet Union. His objective analysis of the
overhyped effects of Allied bombing made him skeptical of U.S.
postwar plans to deter Soviet aggression by threatening to
incinerate civilian targets. He achieved notoriety for suggesting
that the United States had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki primarily
to intimidate the Soviets. His stances, publicized in his 1948 book
Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy
(which was published in the United States as Fear, War and the
Bomb), earned him the enmity of politicians and military
leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, but by the 1960s some of his
controversial views had entered mainstream thinking.
In separate chapters, Nye carefully addresses Blackett's scientific
career. While at the Cavendish, as part of a research program in
nuclear physics he experimented with cloud chambers, which detect
high-energy particles passing through a supersaturated vapor. With a
young Italian scientist, Giuseppe Occhialini, he designed a cloud
chamber controlled by Geiger-Müller counters, a valuable tool
for cosmic-ray research. In 1933, Blackett and Occhialini confirmed
the discovery of the positron by Caltech physicist Carl Anderson.
Blackett and Occhialini's work was said by some to constitute an
independent discovery of the positron, but Blackett's habitual
caution and skepticism delayed publication of their research, and
Anderson was awarded priority and given the 1936 Nobel Prize in
Physics for his work. Blackett had to wait another 12 years for
recognition of his accomplishments: In 1948 he received the Nobel
for "his development of the Wilson cloud chamber method, and
his discoveries therewith in the fields of nuclear physics and
cosmic radiation." Nye goes behind the scenes to illuminate the
politics of the Nobel selection process.
Blackett linked his military work and his scientific research.
Cosmic-ray experiments, like operations research, required one to
see patterns in data on a global map and to coordinate research on
global and local scales simultaneously. His wartime experience paid
off even as he turned away from cosmic-ray research to explore new
scientific topics such as geophysics and the study of continental drift.
Blackett believed that a physicist "must be enough of a
theorist to know what experiments are worth doing and enough of a
craftsman to be able to do them." Nye, in addition to
describing Blackett's scientific successes (as well as his failed
attempt to demonstrate that the magnetic fields of the Sun, stars
and Earth are a fundamental property of their rotating masses), also
illuminates his style as a researcher and scientific leader.
Blackett favored "small science," carrying out research
with modest-sized magnetometers and cloud chambers rather than the
massive tools of postwar Big Physics. He believed that a good lab
was "one in which ordinary people do first class work,"
and he worked hard to ensure that his own institutions at Imperial
College and Manchester University were such places.
Blackett's charisma as a scientific leader reminds one of another
scientist who did valuable war research only to be pilloried for his
postwar views—Robert Oppenheimer. The two men met as members of a
Cambridge science club in 1926, and although they were not particularly
close, they remained friends for the rest of their lives. Blackett, much
more so than Oppenheimer, emerges as a character of great inner
strength. Through his willingness to disavow his own grand theory of
magnetism and to speak out on atomic weapons and America's foreign
policy, Blackett put his personal interests at risk to preserve his own
convictions and integrity. By displaying his commitment to science and
society through his moral courage, Blackett exemplified the modern
scientist acting as a good public citizen.—W. Patrick McCray,
History, University of California, Santa Barbara
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