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Science and war

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As the centenary of its outbreak approaches, Nature looks back on the First World War.

Safe in the twenty-first century, it is easy to look back at the terrible events of 1914–18 and wonder how the world turned on itself with such ferocity. Despite a century of continued conflict, the images of the First World War remain branded on our collective consciousness — the trenches, the barbed wire, the gas masks, the mud, the misery, the slaughter on an industrial scale.

Nature at War: A special collection of articles originally published between 1914 and 1918

The Great War was more than a clash of armies. It was a fight for supremacy in Europe and a battle to harness applications of science and technology. For the first time, machines gave the bulk of the advantage to the defenders. Science set about correcting that — an effort that climaxed in fire and fury with the dropping of atomic bombs in 1945.

Almost a century since the war broke out, Nature this week publishes intriguing takes on the conflict. In a Comment on page 25, Patricia Fara analyses the implications of the wartime move to recruit women into laboratories and factories. And on page 28, David Edgerton applauds writer Taylor Downing’s effort to delve beneath the clichés of history and unpick how the conflict built on science from many fields. Much of that work was described in this journal, and Nature this month delves into its treasure trove of an archive to publish a collection of articles from the time, including editorials, news, correspondence and book reviews, available at go.nature.com/zhlclo. Most are directly relevant to the war, but some report on other events that have entered history: the Antarctic voyage of explorer Ernest Shackleton, for instance, and work on “gravitation and the principle of relativity” presented by one “Prof. A. Einstein”.

Others give a flavour of academic life. Surprisingly (or not), little has changed. There are squabbles about advertising for staff while candidates are at war; grumbles about a lack of resources (only poor-quality rubber was available for research balloons, so many burst) and a sniffy response to suggestions that scientific societies cancel their meetings. Perhaps most pertinent are articles that show how central science was to the war effort: a few days after allied troops were first gassed at Ypres, for example, a Nature analysis pinpointed chlorine as a probable culprit.

A warning: Nature at the time was rooted in the British Empire. That, and a wartime anti-German sentiment, means that some opinions and terms are not in keeping with today’s enlightened internationalist attitudes. Apologies for any offence but, well, there was a war on.

The articles are bookended with striking editorials. The first, from September 1914, pointed out that Britain must restructure its industry “broadly based on science”. The final piece, published days after the Armistice in 1918, presciently warned that morals must advance with scientific knowledge, “for it is possible to conceive of a time when the forces at man’s disposal will be so strong that a hostile army or an enemy’s city may be destroyed almost at the touch of a button”. The war to end all wars was only the beginning.

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Women in science: A temporary liberation 2014-Jul-02

Effects on health of mustard gas 1993-Dec-02

Nature at War: A special collection of articles originally published between 1914 and 1918

Scientific American: World War I special

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Science and war. Nature 511, 6 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/511006a

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