Frosty face of a white-hot intellect

Blackett: Physics, War and Politics in the Twentieth Century
January 28, 2005

Over the past century, British science has produced no more enigmatic a figure than Patrick Blackett. A down-to-earth experimenter fascinated by high-flown theory, he was an insider who revelled in taking on the establishment, a frosty individual who could be extremely kind to his colleagues and a left-winger who openly disdained some of the political beliefs of his closest allies. Although "mad as a hatter", according to at least one of his colleagues, the MP Tam Dalyell described him as "the most personally formidable man" he had ever worked with. That is saying something.

Blackett's life was so rich and controversial that one would expect him to be a popular choice for biographers. Yet this is the first account of his life. Mary Jo Nye, a historian of science at Oregon State University, has written a concise scholarly biography of this remarkable man, giving the detailed background to his achievement while unsentimentally describing the traits that made him so controversial.

A person's upbringing is the key to their behaviour as an adult. Blackett recalled that he was "brought up in the kindly security of an Edwardian middle-class home", though he and his siblings were not shown overt affection and not praised "lest they became conceited". By 1910, he was studying at a naval college alongside an elite group that included the future King George VI. He received "an excellent education" at a time when he was fully expecting that "the naval arms race with Germany then in full swing would inevitably lead to war".

Blackett served in the Navy during the First World War and witnessed the battle of Jutland. After the conflict, Blackett was sent to Cambridge University for retraining and, after wandering into the Cavendish Laboratory, settled there as student of a Ernest Rutherford. Nye sensitively describes the strange relationship between them: they respected one another, but the famously blunt Rutherford was too domineering for the individualistic Blackett. It was no surprise when he left Cambridge soon after he did his Nobel-prizewinning work on confirming the existence of the anti-electron and discovery of the production of electron-antielectron pairs. He was never to return permanently, preferring a more metropolitan life.

Although Nye writes accurately of Blackett's science, she is most sure-footed when describing his political development. I was surprised that he voted Tory in the Khaki election of 1918 ("the natural thing to do") and was fascinated by Nye's description of the locus of his subsequent turns to the Left. By 1934, when he was one of the star experimenters in Rutherford's laboratory, he was active in left-wing politics, like many of his colleagues. Yet Blackett was no fellow traveller. He had no patience with the pacifist Left and its strategy of appeasing Hitler.

During the Second World War, Blackett worked to support the Allied military. He is now widely regarded as the founder of operational research, which he defined as the analysis of data to give useful advice. A master of what might also be called military phenomenology, he brought his prodigious practical and analytical skills to bear on every problem the fighting forces presented to him. He also brought a moral clarity and determination that led him uncompromisingly to support the development of radar, to oppose fiercely the Allies' aerial bombing strategy and the participation by British scientists in the Manhattan Project. This did not endear him to his American colleagues.

After the war, Blackett returned to science. The growth of large-scale experiments in particle physics was not to his taste, so he moved into the field of geomagnetism. Nye tells an anecdote that illustrates the risk he was taking. The young Freeman Dyson was disgusted to hear Blackett talking about "measuring the magnetisation of mud and rocks on the seabed". Dyson decided that "too may years of working for the Navy had addled his brains".

Only much later did it become clear that Blackett was pioneering techniques that would produce vital evidence in support of the theory of continental drift.

Blackett did this work while at Imperial College, London, when he was also a pillar of the establishment. Although his frosty personality won few close friends, he was widely respected for his intelligence, integrity and his passion for unpopular causes. He was fearless in opposing the nuclear weapons research and in combating indifference to supporting developing countries. About the only conventional thing about him was that, like so many senior scientists, he disdained honours and awards while collecting them by the trunkful.

His was a remarkable life, and we are fortunate that a scholar as meticulous as Nye is the first to write it. She has done an excellent job in researching Blackett's archive and has diligently investigated a wide range of other sources, giving her study considerable depth. Many readers will welcome her brevity. It is quite a feat to describe such a rich and eventful life in 255 pages, especially when a quarter of them are devoted to carefully documented references.

My only reservation about the book concerns its structure. Nye takes a semi-chronological approach, departing from strict chronology and presenting her findings in a set of themed essays. This is reasonable, but it leads to some rather contorted narration and to quite a few repetitions (I twice found myself checking that the pages had been printed in the right order). Scholars will especially appreciate the excellent index, which makes it easy to locate the book's many factual gems.

We are unlikely to see anyone quite like Blackett again. Such a career as his - distinguished in technical fields, in back-room politics and public life - is now possible only for scientists with a good deal more charm, tact and media friendliness than he had. That, I fear, is our loss.

Graham Farmelo is senior research fellow, Science Museum, London.

Blackett: Physics, War and Politics in the Twentieth Century: Mary Jo Nye

Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 255
Price - £25.95
ISBN - 0 674 01548 7

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