Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Physics, Politics, Pride, and Moral Failure

Which scientist had the greatest political influence of all time? the greatest influence on government policy?
Oppenheimer? Any suggestions?

Not Schrodinger, but arguably Frederick Lindemann.
Until last week I had barely heard of Lindemann. I knew of the Lindemann criterion for estimating the melting temperature of a solid. At Oxford, I had been in the Lindemann building (the front of the Clarendon lab) many times, but had not bothered to find out who Lindemann was.

Last week I listened to a fascinating podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, The Prime Minister and the Prof, that recounts Lindemann's long relationship with Winston Churchill. The podcast draws heavily on two sources (interestingly both written by physicists). The first source is three lectures that C.P. Snow [of two cultures fame] gave at Harvard in 1960, and published as Science and Government.
The second source is a book, Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II by Madhusree Mukerjee.

Lindemann was a lifelong friend and advisor of Churchill and his main scientific advisor. It was largely his advice that led Churchill to implement policies that literally led to the deaths of millions.

One disaster, considered by Mukerjee, was the Bengal famine of 1943, which resulted because the British refused to send food supplies to their colony in India, even though they had bountiful supplies and shipping at the time.
The second disaster, considered by Snow, was "strategic bombing" of German civilians. Lindemann argued the bombing would break morale, even though the data he had actually supported the opposite view.

I highly recommend the podcast. It is stimulating and disturbing. I thank my daughter for bringing it to my attention. It was great listening in the car on a recent holiday together.

What other scientists can you think of who have exerted such great political influence, for better or for worse?


  1. Linus Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize in addition to the Nobel Chemistry Prize:

    1. Linus Pauling UG is in Chemical Engineering, the wiki reference.

    2. David,

      Thanks for the comment. I had not thought of Pauling. He and his wife were leaders of the movement that led to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
      [Arguably, his wife should have shared the prize.]
      However, this probably was his only real impact on policy.
      In contrast, Lindemann had a vast influence on a wide range of policies implemented (or not) by Churchill.

  2. Bengal famine 1943, is highly controversial subject of study. Here are some web sites of interest . Prof Tauger ( agricultural historian) vs Prof Amartya Sen who in the web site below calls musings of plant biologist ( All would agree with A Sen if he had called musings in this dane age of metrics, h index and citation crazy scientists, but not in the premetric era, 1942. There was no rush ro publish then)

    Then you have Brian C, Madhushree Mukerjee and Joseph L chipping in A Sens reply in the web site below.

    Last you have Peter Bowbrick with huge 109 page pdf file about the Bengal famine of 1943.

    Did plant disease play a role in shortage, did hoarding or overeating lead to shortage, or was it mismanaged by the authorities including the shipment of wheat not arriving from Australia as Madhushree points out??? Did all these factors mentioned abov result in the chaos and famine of 1943 in Bengal

    1. Thanks for the helpful links.
      Indeed, there is arguably a high "casual density" (i.e. many contributing factors) to the famine.

  3. Alan Turing. He helped create the current world order. He leads the work to speed up the process breaking German's Enigma has helped the allies won WWII, which has create the current world order. His subsequent work in trying to put a concrete definition of intelligence in Artificial Intelligence (AI) has helped advance, and eventually lead to today's AI. On a more practical note, his work on AI also leads to a method (CAPTCHA) commonly used to separate human from bots that I'm sure if you read this blog, chances are you've used it at some point or another.

    1. Thanks for the comment.
      I would agree that Turing's Enigma work was very influential on the course of the war.
      However, I was wondering more about scientists who had a direct influence on policy.

  4. I listened to that very podcast a few weeks ago. I had an office in the Lindemann building for more than three years, but had no idea of his relationship with Churchill! I have found Revisionist History riveting listening.

    I would like to recommend episodes 4-6 of season two for anyone interested in equality in education.