Thursday, June 26, 2008

radar days

It is generally agreed that the quality of German radar was superior to that of British radar. German radar had been built by engineers, British radar had been lashed together by physicists. In part this represented a deliberate choice of a force march towards a new technology (Watson-Watt's motto of 'Second best tomorrow' rather than 'Best, but next week'), but in part it reflected Britain's industrial weakness and in particular the lack of sufficient suitable engineers.* The strength of the British system lay not in the radar itself but in its integration into the air defence system. (Thus the British refused to believe that the Germans had radar because German fighters took so long to scramble, whilst the desultory German search for a possible British radar was restricted to a system using the single figure metre wavelength which a radar 'ought to use' rather than the primitive 25 metre wavelengths that the first chain actually used.)

* R. V. Jones gives an account of the attempt during the 1930s by the self-made millionaire Lord Nuffield to found an Oxford Colege devoted to engineering. 'According to what I heard at the time this prospect alarmed the strong humanist element in Oxford, headed by the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Lindsay, who sought to palliate the engineering onslaught by persuading Nuffield to broaden his objective. There would be less opposition to the foundation of a new colelge, he said, if Nuffield could disguise his intentions by replacing spcific mention of engeering by some more subtle wording. Engineering was a science, but it made a more direct impact on society, and so it might be fairly described as "social science". Therefore if Lord Nuffield would specify social science as the primary interest, there would be much less opposition to its creation. It was only after the college had been founded and staffed not with engineers but social scientists that Lord Nuffield realised he had been outwitted.

rereading T. W. Körner, The Pleasures of Counting, which has been in storage for some time.

Körner describes the book as 'meant, first of all, for able school children of 14 and over and first year undergraduates who are interested in mathematics and would like to learn something of what it looks like at a higher level.' He adds, 'Listening to a mathematician talking to mathematicians about things that interest mathematicians may well be more enlightening than listening to mathematicians speaking to non-mathematicians about things that they hope may be interesting to non-mathematicians.'

I had taken the book to Yorckschlößchen, where I ordered pommes (pr. pom-mess) and a beer. Sparrows flew down to the table and hopped cautiously at the other side of the plate. I tossed one a chip. It flew off, bearing the chip in its beak. I tossed a chip to another sparrow, which flew off, chip in beak. Soon the Biergarten was full of sparrows flying through the air carrying chips, pursued by other sparrows which had not yet managed to get a chip.

I was reading the book for a piece the LRB may take on information design and James Wood's piece on hysterical realism.

Körner went on:

The methods Tizard had used to discover how radar could be used came to be called 'oeprational research'. Those who used the phrase found it hard to define what exactly it meant and to explain what was new about it. Certainly it involved the application of science not merely to the invention of weapons, but to the choice of tactics in their use. However, it also required the kind of collaboration between scientista dn military typified by the radar 'Sunday Soviets' in which senior scientists, Staff Officers, junior research workers and serving officers 'straight from the heat of battle' met informally and where anyone could say anything to anyone. Whatever 'operational research' meant precisely, it was something that could be copied, and the idea of operational research spread through the British and then the American armed services. Nothing comparable occurred in Germany....

In January 1943, the Germans shot down a British bomber carrying a new radar. Examination showed it to operate at an incredible ten centimetre wavelength. Göring commented bleakly, 'I expected them to be advanced, but frankly I never thought they would get so far ahead. I did hope we could at least be in the same race.' The German military had not asked for such a radar and, since the proper role for German science was to supply what the military asked for, it had not produced such a radar.


1 comment:

Andrew said...

If you write something for the LRB, perhaps you can ask them not to assign articles on American politics to people who don't seem to know much about the topic and who say meaningless things such as, "But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable". . . .