Thursday, August 6, 2015

the physicists' war

Nature Magazine just dropped a great historical commentary (open access!) on the "Physicists' War," that would be World War II, and which today is the 70th anniversary of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. World War I is known the "Chemists' War" due to the prevalence of chemical weapons such as phosgene, chlorine, and mustard gas. So clearly, WWII was the "Physicists' War" because of the development of radar and the atom bomb right? You and me both were wrong, and this article details the (reverse?) misnomer.

The misnomer began shortly after WWII. Because the deployment of the atomic bomb needed to be explained to the American public, while protecting the top secret information used to make it, the declassified "Smyth Report" detailed not the nuts and bolts of engineering and manufacturing an atomic bomb, but rather the theoretical physics behind its operation, which was unclassified and widely known by the physics community at the time. A 1949 Life magazine profile of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "Father of the Atomic Bomb," highlighted the importance of physics in winning this effort. That and the development of radar at MIT's Radiation Laboratory cemented the notion of WWII as the Physicists' War. 

But the term was actually coined four years earlier by James Conant, Harvard President and chair of the US National Defense Research Committee. And far be it for a highly ranked official to give the game away about the Allies plans regarding wartime physics, especially given that MIT's 'Rad Lab' was a year old and the Manhattan Project wasn't a project yet, he actually meant something quite different. He meant education

Knowledge not nukes [Technique/MIT Museum]
Specifically, the education of servicemen in the basics of electricity, circuits, optics, and radio was imperative for the US to compete in modern warfare. For a taste of the other skills in demand, "[the] army, for example, wanted the new courses to emphasize how to measure lengths, angles, air temperature, barometric pressure, relative humidity, electric current and voltage. Lessons in geometrical optics would emphasize applications to battlefield scopes; lessons in acoustics would drop examples from music in [favor] of depth sounding and sound ranging." So much so that courses in atomic and nuclear physics were suspended for the remainder of the war, for not being "essential." Oh that and physics instructors, like many other natural resources, found themselves subject to rationing. Poaching and hoarding of physics teachers was discouraged to the point of criminality, and quality control was mandated by ratios of proper to converted instructors. And there were even teaching-related deferments for said instructors.

Well that's a nice historical curiosity and all, but I'm sure the lasting effects were short-lived and inconsequential. And that would also happen to be wrong! After the war, physicists both benefited from increased government funding of laboratories and training, and suffered at the hands of anti-Communists during the Red Scare. Many decades following (and I've heard this from more senior coworkers), the practice of physics was associated with war. The increased government funding also altered the relationship between national defense and academia, and the way scientific research is organized and funded to this day. And historical decisions continue to be fascinating.


  1. Bronn, I consider myself something of an amateur historian of atomic weaponry. I can't recommend highly enough Rhodes's "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and Kay/Martin's "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer." There's plenty of other great books on the subject, but these two are two of my absolute favorites (and both won the Pulitzer Prize).

  2. Thanks for the recommendations! They have been added to "the list."