Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics, by Graham Farmelo

A. W. Purdue on the leader who saw the nuclear future but let it slip

October 10, 2013

At the age of 23, Winston Churchill took part in the famous charge against the Dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman; as prime minister in his eighties, he would deal with a very different weapon from the cavalry lances and sabres of the Sudan, the H-bomb. In July 1954, he made the decision that the UK should follow the US and the Soviet Union in acquiring this nuclear device, a weapon even more powerful than the atom bomb inherited from the Attlee government. This enormously powerful weapon and the prospect that the Cold War could end in a nuclear holocaust unless agreement on nuclear arms could be reached was the subject of Churchill’s last important speech as prime minister in the House of Commons in April 1955.

As Graham Farmelo demonstrates in this splendid and original study, Churchill had been interested in nuclear energy when it was just a distant possibility. In his speech, the elderly PM was able to quote from an essay he had written in 1931, “Fifty Years Hence”, for The Strand Magazine, in which he expressed confidence that scientists would one day be able to harness nuclear energy and pondered the challenges its “tremendous and awful” powers would present to mankind. He had been fascinated by the subject since reading the science fiction of H.G. Wells, who coined the term “atomic bomb” and whose novels did much to increase public awareness of science’s potential to shape our world. Intrigued by new and exciting ideas and inventions, Churchill went on to investigate science’s impact on future developments and to foresee the nuclear age long before other major politicians.

Churchill’s virtues were many, including a grand vision and ability as a war leader, but his faults were just as numerous

Churchill’s Bomb probes an aspect of Churchill that few of his many biographers have focused on. What emerges is not Churchill the scientist - for as Farmelo recognises, he was essentially a man of letters and a politician, and had had little scientific education - but a Churchill absorbed in science’s potential for human society. His interest in scientific discovery and new technology helped to shape his outlook; if his command of history provided the context from which he surveyed the present, his enthusiasm for stimulating developments made him conscious of the protean nature of change.

The path from Churchill’s early interest in nuclear fission at a time when the splitting of the atom was something only a few scientists deemed feasible to his swansong speech of 1955 was far from direct, and this book describes in graphic detail the winding road and its halts, crossroads and setbacks. That the man who had so early appreciated the potential of nuclear energy failed to secure Britain’s lead in the field and had by the end of the Second World War allowed the US to develop and control the atomic bomb needs some explanation. He was, of course, in the midst of fighting a world war, but Farmelo observes that he also showed “poor judgement in his choice of advisers, and demonstrated none of his fabled vision and imagination until it was too late”.

One problem was that he received his knowledge of science second-hand. He needed an adviser, a grand vizier who could interpret the latest scientific knowledge to him, and his early choice of Frederick Lindemann, an “acid tongued professor of physics” at Oxford, was not a totally happy one. For Churchill, Lindemann was “the Prof”, the nation’s best scientist; this was, however, a view not shared by many leading academics. But in Churchill’s eyes he could do no wrong, and he became a lifelong member of the leader’s inner circle, a curious coterie of courtiers and favourites. Farmelo writes of Lindemann that he “was a distinguished scientist with a gift for summarising complex arguments simply and accurately, but not a deep or imaginative thinker and certainly not an expert on nuclear science” of the order of Ernest Rutherford or, later, Rudolf Peierls and Rutherford’s protégé, Niels Bohr. Academic rivalries can be bitter, and Lindemann and chemist Henry Tizard (who had once bested him in a “friendly” boxing match) clashed fiercely over the development of radar, about which Lindemann was lukewarm. Meanwhile, Churchill, then in opposition, seethed as his favourite scientist was ignored.

Churchill’s greatest blunder came in October 1941, during his second year as prime minister, when he received a message from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US president: “we should soon corres-pond or converse concerning the subject which is under discussion by your MAUD committee”. This was an offer of close collaboration, perhaps partnership, in developing the atom bomb. Britain was then well ahead of the Americans in nuclear research. Otto Frisch and Peierls, working at the University of Birmingham, had discovered a viable way of making a nuclear bomb, and the MAUD committee had been considering whether to put significant resources into developing it. The interventions of “the Prof” were not helpful, for Lindemann, who was busy quarrelling with his scientific rivals, was still sceptical about the feasibility of the project and had certainly not impressed its importance upon Churchill. Roosevelt had to wait almost two months for a perfunctory cable in reply and, after Pearl Harbor, went on to pursue the Manhattan Project with minimum collaboration with Britain.

Farmelo recognises that Churchill had many concerns at the time and attributes his lukewarm response to Roosevelt’s offer to his reluctance to give British secrets away without assured returns. Yet the response seems out of line with Churchill’s at times rather fawning behaviour towards Roosevelt, with whom he (wrongly) believed he had a close personal relationship. Indeed, the Quebec Agreement the two reached in 1943 was far less advantageous to Britain when it came to collaboration and the exchange of information, and even Lindemann was critical. After the war, the US reneged on the loosely worded agreement, and it was left to Clement Attlee to order the development of a British atom bomb.

Churchill’s virtues were many, including a grand vision, determination and ability as a war leader, but his faults were just as numerous. He tended to place his trust in men who promised much, flattered him and had charisma and dash rather than quieter, more awkward or more professional men: Mountbatten rather than Alanbrooke and, in science, Lindemann rather than Rutherford or Bohr. In 1944, Churchill thought the prospect of post- war nuclear proliferation posed no long-term problems that could not be “amicably settled between myself and my friend President Roosevelt”. Perhaps the implications of the “special relationship” he so cherished doomed Britain to a subsidiary role that even he had to accept.

Churchill’s Bomb is at once a tribute to Churchill’s foresight in seeing clearly in the inter-war period both the potential and the dangers of a form of energy that few believed would ever be harnessed, and a criticism of him for having allowed leadership in nuclear technology for industrial and military purposes to pass to the US. In the mid-1950s, Churchill returned to his earlier views and aimed belatedly to secure Britain’s place as a major nuclear power and to use that position to persuade the US and the Soviet Union to find ways of averting a catastrophic nuclear war. His failure, Farmelo concludes, was “one of the tragedies of his political career”.

In interweaving the political and the scientific, Farmelo succeeds in making the latter beautifully clear even to readers with scant background in the subject. His book also shows that the quarrels between scientists can be just as fierce as those between politicians.

THE AUTHOR

His birthplace, says physicist and coffee connoisseur Graham Farmelo, holds few clues to his personality. “Neither my gadfly temperament nor the Kant-like predictability of my daily routine can be blamed on Camberwell in London, where I was born, or on Orpington, where was I raised. I am very happy to live in Richmond, London, which has virtually everything one could wish for, even the best espresso bar in southwest London, Taylor St Baristas. If only Heathrow were not so close.”

Encouraged by his non-academic parents, he was “a studious child, though I took scholarly work a bit too seriously for their taste (my father advised me on a career as a customs and excise officer, and my mother still doesn’t know what physics is). At school in the 1960s, I was among students who were discovering not only science but life outside it. As I say on my website, grahamfarmelo.com, some of the most influential lessons I had were spent studying Twelfth Night.”

Now a by-fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge and senior research fellow at the Science Museum in London, Farmelo took a BSc in mathematical physics and then a doctorate in theoretical particle physics at the University of Liverpool. “I loved my time there – it is where I first fell in love (not only with physics) and realised I wanted to be an academic, albeit a better one than my capabilities allowed.”

After completing his PhD, he went on to lecture at The Open University. Of the OU’s recent foray into massive open online courses (Moocs) via FutureLearn, Farmelo observes: “Since the inception of the OU, it has warmly embraced new communications technology. The internet is the best-ever gift technology has given to distance learning, so it’s no surprise that the OU is already making extensive use of it. But I’m old-fashioned enough to hope that students will always be able to meet their teachers face to face once in a while, if only to verify that they are real people, not cyborgs.”

Farmelo’s 2009 The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius won the Costa Prize for Biography that year. There is no secret to writing a great biography, he says; it is simply a matter of “having the good fortune to find plentiful new material (usually deep in archives, often misfiled) and the ability to weave the finds into a compelling narrative”.

If he could live anywhere else in the world, Farmelo says, it would be Princeton, New Jersey, the location of the Institute for Advanced Study and “a truly wonderful place to work. I have many good friends in the town, which also has the virtue of being reasonably close to New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and my favourite US city, Boston.”

He recounts: “I have visited the IAS every year for almost a decade, having been initially invited by the mathematical physicist Peter Goddard (then the institute’s director) who was extremely generous in supporting my work on his hero, Paul Dirac. Contrary to occasional reports that the institute is a cold environment, I have always found it exceptionally welcoming and supportive. Its stellar theoreticians have always been no less friendly to me than the guys who drive the shuttle buses.”

His love of coffee, detailed in an Off Piste article for Times Higher Education, has seen him pursue the perfect cup around the world. Asked to recall the most memorable espresso, he says, “I remember a vacation in Sicily in 1997 when I fetched up one lunchtime at a dive of a convenience store deep in the middle of nowhere, expecting the coffee to be terrible. They served me an espresso worthy of a three-Michelin-star restaurant.” And the worst? “That would be in all the places where the ‘baristas’ think that an espresso is simply a puny Americano.”

Farmelo has also spent many years as an undercover restaurant critic. “I received an unsolicited approach and thought it was a joke. But it was not, and proved to be the beginning of a quarter of a century of peripatetic culinary pleasure. I have always aspired to be as fair to the chefs as I was to their customers.”

Karen Shook

Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics

By Graham Farmelo
Faber, 250pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780571249787
Published 3 October 2013

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