Winston Churchill and Science

Yet another anniversary for Winston Churchill has just past, with the 49th anniversary of his death falling on January 24th. I am, inevitably, more conscious of this than I would have been in times past, but it is interesting to note that my childish diary for 1965 notes, in appalling handwriting, both his death and what I refer to as his ‘Memorial Service’. I assume this was actually his funeral (on January 30th). Indeed I do in fact remember the events surrounding his death because, as it happened, I went to the Albert Hall on January 23rd that year and en route walked past the end of the road where he was dying – Hyde Park Gate – and this has stuck in my mind. My diary tells me, something I certainly had not remembered, I was going to see the British Trampoline and Gymnastic Championships; I even recorded the names of some of the winners!

One of my aims over the coming months must be to get more familiar with the life of Winston Churchill, since I will now be so closely associated with his name and his legacy. (If you don’t know why, see here.) So I have set myself a diet of appropriate reading including a formal biography (by Roy Jenkins, which I did actually read some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed, but it’s time to refresh my memory); a gossipy biography (by Mary Lowell, which covers the more extended family and their affairs, in all senses, which I have just finished); the personal view (by his daughter Mary Soames, still to be tackled); a more informal biography (by Nigel Knight, Fellow and Director of Studies in Economics at Churchill College, whose book is subtitled ‘The Greatest Briton unmasked’  which I haven’t touched yet); and the more scientific Churchill’s Bomb which I have recently finished reading, This last is by Graham Farmelo, who is a bye-fellow of the College and who has delved thoroughly into the Churchill Archives there .

I don’t intend to write book reviews of any of these, nor rehash Churchill’s life story, but I wanted to explore some of the issues and things I learned from this last book, which was quite an eye-opener on many fronts. I already was well aware that Henry Tizard and Frederick Lindemann, two senior scientists involved with policy during the 2nd World War, loathed each other. In Farmelo’s book Lindemann (aka Lord Cherwell) does not come out as a particularly attractive character. Tizard, because he wasn’t within the Churchill charmed circle, does not feature much at all. But Lindemann, the ‘Prof’ to Churchill, had immense influence and was the conduit for much of what Churchill did, and did not know, about nuclear physics.

Churchill seems, in some senses, to have been an ‘early adopter’ of the principle of the potential power of nuclear fission for stimulating Armageddon, largely due to conversations with his friend HG Wells. Wells’ fiction introduces the idea of an ‘atomic bomb’ as early as 1913 as he wrote The World Set Free, but it was of course just a dramatic fiction at that point. During the 1920’s and early 1930’s Churchill thought – and wrote – a lot about possible future weaponry derived from science, and in particular nuclear physics. By 1931 he could say

It would be much better to call a halt in material progress and [scientific] discovery rather than to be mastered by our own apparatus and the forces which it directs.

Nevertheless, by the time he was Prime Minister during the war he seems – perhaps understandably given the number of crises he was contending with on a daily basis – rather to have taken his eye off the nuclear ball. He didn’t seem to notice what was going on as the UK obfuscatingly titled ‘Tube Alloys’ project morphed and was consumed by the many-times-larger US-based Manhattan Project, with the UK scientists marginalised and UK oversight and control ceded almost by default although many of the basic principles originated with research in the UK.

What I found most interesting of all, because I had least appreciation of it, was what happened after the war, not only about the further developments in cataclysmic weaponry but also as regards civil nuclear power. So many of our current problems with the nuclear industry are tied to the poor decisions taken back then. For a detailed discussion of this issue take a look at a recent post by Richard Jones who explains the different potential variants of reactor design and their consequences in some detail. But, as he spells out, the technology we have ended up with in our power stations is ‘locked-in’ technology, tied in with past military needs in large part because of Churchill’s actions (and inactions) during and after the war.

Churchill wanted the UK to have its own nuclear know-how, without dependence on the Americans, although he seems to have vacillated as to whether this also meant pursuing having the weapons themselves, an uncertainty which seems to have irritated Lindemann beyond measure. By 1953, as a programme for developing civil nuclear power was being worked up, with the man who was to be Churchill College’s first master (John Cockcroft) playing a pivotal role at Harwell, it was decided that the civil and military developments would go hand in hand, with new reactors to be built with the dual capability of producing both weapons-grade plutonium and the energy for the nation. Priority was given to the military aspect, despite the acute need for enhanced energy production.

Perhaps if Cockcroft’s own position had taken priority (he wanted the civil side of things to dominate), things would have panned out very differently and the UK would not be where it is now. Churchill may have believed in the atomic bomb only as a deterrent, rather than wanting actually to use one, but he certainly seems to have been unconcerned with any potential energy crisis during the to-ing and fro-ing – with the Americans as well as internally within in the UK – that took place over the months of his last Premiership. Cockcroft himself became an increasingly influential scientific advisor to Churchill, and had a hand to play in the creation of what went on to become CERN. Additionally, he had the challenge/opportunity of taking Churchill round the Harwell site where he was based and he continued to be involved with the tensions over whether an H-bomb should be constructed by Britain.

Like so much about Churchill, his views towards science and scientists seem to have been very complex. Despite ending up with a college named after him which, by Statute, requires 70% of its members to be scientists and engineers, his views about universities convey a desire of putting some sorts of restraints on these personnel. For instance, when receiving an Honorary Degree from the University of Copenhagen in 1950 he remarked:

The first duty of the university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities. We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers. We want some scientists, but we must make sure that science is our servant and not our master. It may be that the human race has already found out more than its present imperfect and incomplete structure will enable it to digest.

This was a man, after all, who was no natural when it came to numbers; his Nobel Prize was for literature. Nevertheless, during his life he did support much scientific research and he was also happy that science did not always have to serve society as master. His remarks when in 1959 he visited the college founded in his honour, show that he would not necessarily have been in tune with the current impact agenda, believing that fundamental research may pay dividends in ways as yet unknown, saying

Let no one believe that the lunar rockets, of which we read in the press, are merely ingenious bids for prestige. They are manifestations of a formidable advance in technology. As with many vehicles of pure research, their immediate uses may not be apparent. But I do not doubt that they will ultimately reap a rich harvest for those who have the imagination and power to develop them, and to probe ever more deeply into the mysteries of the universe in which we live.

I am sure these are both quotes I will be using in future after-dinner speeches in the college, but I need to garner a lot more in the coming months….




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3 Responses to Winston Churchill and Science

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    If you haven’t (re-)read it recently, Freeman Dyson’s autobiography “Disturbing the Universe” has an interesting chapter “Little Red Schoolhouse” on General Dynamics reactor design for a safe reactor (TRIGA), which he worked on. This fits well with Richard Jones’ posting and the ideas of small rather than large reactors.

  2. Ursula Martin says:

    Churchill’s attitude to the UK’s amazing WW2 computing achievements was described as a “terrible mistake” by some of those involved. He ordered the Colossus machines, built at Bletchley Park to crack German codes, to be broken up and all documentation burned. And why? The UK was selling coding devices to overseas governments, and did not want these governments to know that GCHQ was capable of breaking the codes they produced. No contemporary resonance there …..

    Even though the Bletchley Park work was classified, the general know-how gave the UK a lead in commercial computing during the 1950s. See

  3. Thanks for the fascinating overview, Athene. That is quite a daunting reading list you’ve assembled. What about Churchill’s own autobiographical works describing his early years?

    I am too young to have experienced anything related to his death and funeral, but even so the enduring image of the Thames docklands cranes being lowered as the funeral boat passed sticks in my mind.

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