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PastCast: Secret science in World War 2

In the Nature PastCast series, we delve into the archives to tell the stories behind some of Nature’s biggest papers.

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July 1942: Science during wartime

This year, Nature celebrates its 150th birthday. To mark this anniversary we’re rebroadcasting episodes from our PastCast series, highlighting key moments in the history of science.

During the Second World War, scientists worked on secret projects such as the development of radar. Their efforts were hinted at in the pages of Nature but the details, of course, couldn't be published. In this episode, historian Jon Agar explains how war work gave physicists a new outlook and led to new branches of science. We also hear from the late John Westcott, whose wartime job was to design radar systems.

This episode was first broadcast in July 2013.

From the archive

Nature Volume 150 Issue 3794, 18 July 1942

Sound effects courtesy of daveincamas, piet.candeel@pandora.be, guitarguy1985 and acclivity at freesound.org

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Transcript

July 1942: Science during wartime

Kerri Smith

This is the Nature Pastcast, each month raiding Nature’s archive and looking at key moments in science. In this show, we travel back to the 1940s.

Music: Sunny Day on Broadway

Voice of Nature: John Howes

Nature, Saturday, July 18, 1942.

John Agar

In 1942, it’s one of the darkest periods of the Second World War for Britain. The War with Germany is still ongoing, there’s bombing, there’s the Blitz, great destruction. My name’s John Agar. I’m a historian of science at University College London and I’m fascinated by how science fitted in with the wider world in the twentieth century. Wars in general are very important for science because they call for new weapons, they call for new defences and scientists, as experts, are brought into that process. In the twentieth century, which was a century of global conflict, the scientists were brought into that process like never before, and the Second World War I think is particularly crucial because during the First World War, plenty of scientists were involved but many people felt that they weren’t used effectively and there was a determination in the Second World War to change that, and you can see that coming out in how Nature covers the Second World War.

Voice of Nature: John Howes

Page 65. Scientific men in War-Time. From the outbreak of war in 1939 – and indeed for a long time previously – it was obvious that the knowledge possessed by scientific men and engineers would be of decisive importance in the coming struggle.

John Agar

It’s fascinating reading Nature in the Second World War. One of the first things you notice when you see them on the shelves is that the volumes for 1942 and 1943 are half the size of the pre-war and post-war volumes. That’s because people are doing war work. Nature stays at St Martins Lane in the centre of London throughout the Second World War and they do so because they are convinced that science depends on communication and that carrying on, even though people have to travel through blacked out areas, even sitting on the train you can’t read your scientific papers because you’ve got to keep the lights out, and editorials in Nature complain about that. They also say it’s essential for science to keep on talking, which is why you have Lawrence Bragg talking at the Royal Institution in 1942 in the centre of London.

Voice of Nature: John Howes

Page 75. A lecture at the Royal Institution by Sir Lawrence Bragg. While scientific men of all kinds have been called upon to use their skill and knowledge for the nation’s service in the present War…

John Agar

Bragg is a very eminent scientist in his own right. It’s interesting because he can say some things but not other things.

Voice of Nature: John Howes

Physicists are now being used to develop and use all the lighter apparatus of war, the instruments for communication, for detection of aircraft and submarines, and for direction of our batteries. They are increasingly applying their analytical technique to operational research into the most effective way of using our weapons.

John Agar

He’s reflecting on the fact that physicists are a crucial resource for war, and we know in retrospect what they’re doing. We know that they’re involved in radar, which is top secret. We know that some of them are involved in the atomic bomb project as well, but of course he cannot say that, but what he can say is talk in generalities about just how important physicists are.

John Westcott

I’m John Westcott and when war broke out, I was 18. When this offer came around of a job as a researcher in the south of England, I went straight up to the apprentice department and asked them, what about this job, and they said oh, well we can’t tell you, it’s secret. But I thought, well, I think perhaps that’s a fairly good gamble. If it’s secret, it must be something fairly interesting. So, I agreed to take it and that’s how come I became part of this little unit of three people that were literally designing radar sets, and that was great. That was a great experience.

John Agar

The image of the radar we have is one of those round screens with a little line that goes round and little beeps and little spots appearing – well, that’s the kind of system that was developed so that someone on the ground could have an overview of what was in the air. You use electromagnetic waves, radio waves, and by measuring the time between emitting a pulse and receiving it back again from an object that’s far away, you can determine where it is, how far away it is, how high up it is, and therefore it gives you a new way of seeing.

John Westcott

In effect, before the war, they were relying on listening to find out where people are and of course, trying to spot where things are by sound is a very imprecise thing.

John Agar

What physicists brought to radar development was new techniques, new ideas, in particular, using shorter wavelengths. Now, wavelengths are crucial with radar because the size of the object you’re spotting roughly correlates with the size of the radio wave. Now, early radar had very long waves, so you could not spot small objects like, say, a U-Boat conning tower or an aircraft very well. And what the physicists were able to do was to find new techniques for generating and measuring and handling short wavelength radio waves in radar.

John Westcott

Well, this is – it’s what you’re not supposed to do – a record of what we were doing. This is a block diagram of all the details of the radar set. I don’t know how I got away with it. Laughs. Here are some accuracy tests. In fact, the test we used to do was on the cathedral at the nearest place. It had a tower with four spikes and we could discriminate these four spikes so it was that good. The great feature about it was instead of being a standard sort of 10-centimetre wavelength, it was a 3-centimetre wavelength, which meant that it was far more discriminatory.

John Agar

And that was absolutely crucial to defend, for example, Britain in the Battle of Britain. It was crucial to the success of the war against the U-boats. It’s up there with, for example, codebreaking as one of the technical innovations and developments that turns the War in the Allies’ direction.

Music: Sunny Day on Broadway

John Agar

There’s a story, an anecdote, and I’m not too sure how true it is, but it goes like this: the success of the British in shooting down German bombers was accredited to the sharpened eyesight caused by a forced diet of carrots. Now, it’s a wonderful story and it was a story that circulated at the time. I think it tells you that people knew something was up. It may have been spread as a useful, if implausible, cover story for radar. And I suppose the other thing it tells us about is food. One of the things that you notice if you look through the wartime issues of Nature, is just how often there are editorials and papers about nutrition.

Voice of Nature: John Howes

Page 91. Parsley is a rich source of Vitamin C. Parsley can be grown by anyone with a garden or allotment. It is not unsightly as an edging to a flower border. If the population could be induced to grow more parsley and include it in their diet, it would be of great benefit to their health, and also a wise step to take. If there were a shortage of potatoes, parsley would act as a valuable source of Vitamin C.

John Agar

It’s important because vitamins lead to healthy bodies and healthy bodies lead to harder work. People are having to work immense amounts of overtime in factories. It was important to feed people well.

Voice of Nature: John Howes

One of the best ways to use it is to make ‘parsley lemonade’ in the following simple way. Take 1 oz. of picked leaves and press down in a jug; pour on to this ½ pint of boiling water…

John Westcott

The access that one had to food was pretty restricted really. It left one rather deficient really, and particularly with vegetables and things of that sort. I can remember during the war, once being driven to eating grass. Laughs. Horrible, actually.

Music: Sound of Big Band

Voice of Nature: John Howes

Page 75. In the War, the pure scientist has to join the applied scientists and become a technician … and for the university scientist in particular this has meant a change of outlook and of occupation of a very revolutionary kind.

John Westcott

Yes, in the war, the pure scientist has to join the applied scientist and become a technician. Absolutely on the nail – that’s exactly how it was. Although one had an urge to be a purist, if you like, it was quite impossible under the conditions of the War. You inevitably had to be involved with the technicalities of the thing and in our case, even to the extent of supervising the manufacturer of the resultant product, and that wasn’t really our cup of tea. We were good at science but we weren’t terribly good at manufacturing. You would have difficulty explaining why you wanted some peculiar thing because it was so secret and the secrecy really was, well, overwhelming, you might say, but that’s the wartime thing I think. I’m not grumbling. It was very good experience.

John Agar

In 1945 when the war ends, these secrets can come out. So, radar is revealed in all its intricacies and its effectiveness and of course, the nuclear physics and everything that went into the atomic bomb.

Extract from Winston Churchill speech

Yesterday morning at 2:41 a.m. at General Eisenhower’s Headquarters, the representative of the German High Command signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German Land, sea, and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force. Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!

Music: Sound of Big Band

John Agar

When the war ends, you have a generation of young scientists who, for five years, a really important period of their lives, have been working closely with the government, closely with military personnel, closely with industry, and they take that knowledge, that ambition and those contacts, and they use that to change the sciences in the post-war period. So, the early development of electronic stored-program computers comes out of this, so the Computer Age. Another science that I’m particularly interested in is radio astronomy. During the Second World War, radar scientists spotted all kinds of strange signals that they knew weren’t to do with aircraft – turns out they are to do with all kinds of astronomical phenomena. So, at the time, they were noting this and thinking there’s an interesting branch of astronomy that could be developed there and yeah, as soon as the War ends, teams of physicists at Cambridge and at Manchester call up their mates in the military and say have you got any war surplus radar equipment, can I use it, and yeah, that’s what brought into places like Jodrell Bank and at Cambridge and that’s used to launch radio astronomy in Britain, creating the sciences of the post-war period.

Music: Sound of Big Band

John Westcott

I suppose that was the exceptional thing about wartime, that there were no constraints of limitation on finance or anything of that sort. It was straight ahead regardless, which we certainly did with gusto. It was a great time to be involved really. There’s no doubt about that.

Music: Sound of Big Band

Voice of Nature: John Howes

One thing has been clear. It has been of immense advantage to Great Britain in this struggle to have a reservoir of scientific researchers on which to draw. It will be found that our men of science have played no small part at more than one critical time.

Kerri Smith

You’ve been listening to the Nature PastCast, produced by Charlotte Stoddart and with contributions from historian John Agar and scientist John Westcott, who after his wartime work on radar, established the new field of control systems at Imperial College London. Next month, we fast forward to the 1970s, and a story of blockbuster drugs from the early days of biotechnology.