Built on Facts

On Veterans Day we commemorate the living veterans of the American armed forces. On Memorial day we commemorate those who lost their lives. We should also spend a moment to remember those who helped make sure more soldiers fit into the first category. Though I’ve made the point before on this blog, I’d like to commemorate two men in particular who between them likely saved the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers during the Second World War, simply by doing brilliant science. Their names are Alan Turing and Robert Watson-Watt.

Turing was a mathematician and computer scientist who lead the British code-breaking efforts which broke the Nazi Enigma code and various other forms of wartime message encryption. Though it’s impossible to accurately judge counterfactual history, I have read more than one historian speculate that the Allied codebreaking successes may have shortened the war in Europe by a year or more.

Watson-Watt was one of the early pioneers of radar, and the first person to develop it into a practical means of finding range and direction of enemy aircraft. The Battle of Britain might have been a very different story if his invention had not allowed the vastly outmanned and outgunned Royal Air Force to hold its ground against the Luftwaffe. (In a cute coda, many years later he was cited for speeding in Canada by a policeman with a radar gun)

We owe these two men a lot more credit than they get. May their names never be forgotten.


  1. #1 NoAstronomer
    November 11, 2009

    Ten of thousands of people worked behind the scenes in the cause of freedom, very few of whom are known to the public.

    I’d nominate Dr RV Jones.

    Using his knowledge of radar and radio-wave propogation RV Jones was instrumental in countering the navgiation and bombing aids that the Luftwaffe used in nightime raids over England. The massive destruction in Coventry on 14th November 1940 was direct result of a problem with disruption of the X-Gerät signal that night.

    Jones’ understanding of the technology was such that he was quickly able to deduce what the Germans would try next and take steps to thwart it even before they themselves had though of it.

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    November 11, 2009

    And let us also not forget how terribly Turing was treated after the war as a result of his sexual orientation.

  3. #3 Rob
    November 11, 2009

    I wholeheartedly agree that these men (and unnamed women) who contributed scientifically to our ability to prevail and to prevail as soon as we did over the axis powers deserve our gratitude.

    That said, it is a different sort of gratitude than that I have for veterans. Veterans put their lives on the line (though, in the end, Turing did too in a way) and subjected themselves to inhumanly harsh conditions in many cases. The willingness to sacrifice comfort, convenience, and life for the benefit of a greater good is what is being honored today.

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    November 11, 2009

    @2 is the main reason Turing’s fame is mostly limited to his eponymous test.

    BTW, it should be noted that the Enigma was broken by Polish mathematicians without the use of computers. They were able to duplicate the machine without ever seeing it. Turing’s work was a tool for reading a specific message more quickly, but even then much of the success with the Naval Enigma was based on stealing code books. It was the other (less well known) codes where his work was more important.

    But I think of WW I when I think of Armistice Day, and the role of science in that war was not so pretty – particularly that of chemists such as Fritz Haber and Otto Hahn.

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    November 11, 2009

    Nazi Germany made a terrible mistake by pissing off French chemist Eugène Houdry. He had Houdry’s catalyst, the first fuel reforming scheme, in the US. Allied aviation gasoline ran as much as 20 octane points higher than German aviation gasoline from lignite through Fischer-Tropsch. Allied pilots could fly higher, harder, and got better mileage.

    Some selectively dirty clay bumping around in refineries killed a lot of Nazis.


  6. #6 Gerry Rising
    November 11, 2009

    Peter Hilton, a University at Binghamton, NY mathematician, was a coworker with Alan Turing in the British Coding Office.

  7. #7 Matt Springer
    November 12, 2009

    Re: Uncle Al’s point about Germany driving off good scientists, Hitler’s vicious hatred of the Jews and Jewish scientists was ironically one of the important reasons the Allies had such a scientific advantage. Some of those driven out by persecution were very instrumental in allied technological advances – Einstein certainly not the least of which.

  8. #8 Dave
    November 12, 2009

    a good read on the subject of technology advancements in WW2 is “scientists against time” by James Baxter.long out of print it provides a lot of detail of what went into the development of not only “the bomb” but radar,proximity fuzes,fire control computers,the Dukw and Weasel,blood plasma and many others.published in 1946 it’s a great view into how the organization of science help win the war.just the proximity fuze part is worth tracking the book down for.

  9. #9 Dave
    November 12, 2009

    by the way Germany not only drove off good scientists but they drafted 1,000’s of them!-you really need to read Baxter’s book on the war effort.great photos of guys in rumpled suits with odd electronic gear trying to pull rabbits out of the hat during 12-16 hour days in hole-in-the-way labs.

  10. #10 Dave
    November 12, 2009

    oops–hole in the wall labs-sorry

  11. #11 Kaleberg
    November 14, 2009

    From the point of view of fixing nitrogen for use in explosives, WWI could be seen as the battle between two Jewish chemists, Chaim Weizmann versus Fritz Haber. Haber worked for the Germans and developed a process that combined nitrogen and hydrogen gases at high temperature and pressure. The Haber process is still the workhorse process used in fixing nitrogen for synthetic fertilizer. Weizmann worked for the British and developed a process to extract nitrogen compounds from seaweed. I believe the process was based on acetone, but I don’t remember the particulars. The process is not used very often these days, but it was referenced in the charming movie Local Hero. Weizmann was instrumental in getting the Balfour Declaration made after the war and was later president of Israel.

  12. #12 bbzippo
    November 16, 2009

    Kolmogorov calculated tables for artillery and bombing for Soviet Army in the beginning of WWII.
    Let’s never forget those who helped save and protect our lives.

  13. #13 Anonymous
    November 23, 2009

    There is a famous story of the Bell Labs scientist who had been working on a potentiometer to control a pen writing a graph on a temperature recorder. At some point in 1940, his and his colleagues were called in and asked for ideas on how to help the war effort (the US was not in the war, but was already beefing up its capabilities).

    This scientist went home and dreamed he was standing with a soldier beside an anti-aircraft gun that seemed to be aimed and fired automatically, but worked with perfect accuracy. The soldier gestured him closer and there beside the gun he saw his potentiometer. When he awoke, the idea struck him: if a potentiometer could control a pen, it could also control the aiming of a gun.

    His boss ok’d his proposal and he started work. The next step was to link radar data to his potentiometer, and with the proximity fuse, what was known as the Bell Labs Predictor came into use in 1944 in time to defeat the V1 flying bomb.

    The scientist’s name was David “Parky” Parkinson, and he was one of the unsung heroes of WWII, along with his fellow scientists.

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