Britain’s Oppenheimer?

By Jon Agar, on 25 February 2016

Winston Churchill considered Patrick Blackett, the Nobel-winning physicist and future President of the Royal Society, to be a security risk. New evidence for this suspicion can be found in files recently released at the National Archives, having been closed to public eyes for 63 years.

Patrick Blackett was one of the stars of the Cavendish, the physics laboratory of the University of Cambridge where so many significant discoveries in sub-atomic physics were made under Ernest Rutherford’s leadership before the Second World War. Blackett’s area of research was cosmic rays, and it was for techniques he developed in the early 1930s to record automatically the passage of these particles that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948. Before Cambridge, Blackett had served in the Navy, a fighting forces experience that would later prove significant.

Blackett was a socialist as well as one of the most accomplished experimental physicists working in mid-twentieth century Britain. His political convictions were not unusual. Indeed the late 1930s saw a considerable movement of scientists who wanted to ally science for social responsibility, left-wing politics and planning. There was, however, an equally articulate opposition, who argued that science must be autonomous, free to plan its own scientific agendas, if it was to flourish. This division was deep, and deeply important for framing debates about science and government.

Blackett’s expertise gave him a place on two crucial committees that shaped military technology, one on radar and the other on the military applications of nuclear fission. The second of these, known as the MAUD Committee, examined the consequences of the calculations of Frisch and Peierls that a relatively small quantity of uranium could be used to make a bomb of enormous destructive power. When the MAUD Committee reported positively in 1941, Blackett was the only member who dissented from the view that a British atomic bomb could be made in wartime Britain (Nye 2004, p. 74). Indeed the bomb project subsequently moved to the Manhattan Project in the United States, again against Blackett’s advice.

In 1948, Blackett made public his views about the subject in a dense but corruscating book, The Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. As historian Graham Farmelo (2013) has argued, public attention to Blackett’s arguments was amplified by the fact that, quite contingently, he had been awarded the Nobel Prize that year. Its publication prompted George Orwell to include Blackett’s name in a list of 38 ‘pro-Communist writers and intellectuals’ he submitted to the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (Farmelo 2013, Nye 2004 p. 92) in 1949.

By then Blackett had already been investigated by the Security Service because of his association with Communists. Four fat files released in 2010 (National Archives KV 2/3217-3220) contain the paper trail from the 1930s until the early 1950s. In 1941, at the time of the MAUD Committee, Winston Churchill had asked MI5 to “‘see if they had anything against’ him, but had been told that he was ‘entirely harmless'”; Churchill, unassuaged, had lobbied to keep Blackett away from Britain’s atomic bomb project, codenamed “Tube Alloys” (Farmelo 2013).

The new evidence is in keeping with this pattern of suspicion. The file released in January 2016 come from Winston Churchill’s peacetime administration. In June 1952, Peter Thorneycroft, President of the Board of Trade, had written to Churchill reporting on ‘two cases where individuals known to have close associations with Communists hold apppointments on statutory bodies’ for which Thorneycroft was responsible (National Archives PREM 11/263). One was the economist Joan Robinson, a member of the Monopolies Commission. The other was Blackett, as a member of the National Research Development Corporation, a public patent-holding body. Robinson was less of a concern – she was about to retire. Blackett’s case was therefore different. Nevertheless, Thorneycroft was satisfied that Blackett was not ‘dealing with work involving information of security value’, and possessed the confidence of his colleagues, and therefore there was no justification in taking action to remove Professor Blackett from the Corporation’s Board.

Churchill, however, again was not satisfied. ‘I should like to have the Home Sec’s opinion’, he scribbled on Thorneycroft’s note. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, quickly responded. He discussed the matter with the Director General of MI5 and advised Churchill that Robinson should be allowed quietly to retire, but that

I think Professor Blackett must be regarded as a security risk: he seems ingenuous and has active Communists about him. But for the reasons given by the President I agree that he should remain a member of the Board of the National Research Development Corporation.

Churchill then wrote back to Thorneycroft saying:

I sent your minute of June 17 about two people known to have close associations with Communists to the Home Secretary and he and I agree with your conclusions.

The conclusions being, presumably, that Blackett was both a security risk but also someone who could be tolerated, just about, to work for the non-sensitive Corporation.

Blackett continued to have an influential career, building up physics departments at Manchester University and Imperial College, where he oversaw the beginnings of Jodrell Bank and contributed geomagnetic evidence that would be crucial to establishing the later theory of plate tectonics, respectively. He was an active supporter of science in newly independent India. And he served as President of the Royal Society from 1965 to 1970.

Blackett’s treatment during the years of anti-Communism, during which physicists such as Klaus Fuchs were revealed as atomic spies, can be compared to the fate of his American contemporary J. Robert Oppenheimer. The charismatic Oppenheimer had been the civilian scientist leader at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. But during the late 1940s and 1950s he too had been dogged by suspicions of Communist sympathy. These corrosive doubts culminated, in 1954, in the ‘Oppenheimer Trial’, in which the physicist was also declared a security risk while also being “loyal”. Oppenheimer’s judgement was made in public – indeed it was front-page news in the New York Times – while Blackett’s was kept secret.

(Incidentally, there is one other, extraordinary, point of connection between Oppenheimer and Blackett. The younger American had visited the Cavendish in 1925 and Blackett had been one of his tutors. But this period of European travel was also one of intense personal, psychological trouble for the highly-strung Oppenheimer. He felt so “miserable in Cambridge, so unhappy, that he used sometimes to get down on the floor, groaning and rolling from side to side”. At the peak of this crisis, Oppenheimer, consumed ‘by feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy, … “poisoned” an apple with chemicals from the laboratory and left it on Blackett’s desk’ (Bird and Sherwin 2005 p. 43, p. 46))




National Archives KV 2/3217-3220. Patrick Maynard Stuart BLACKETT

National Archives PREM 11/263 Request from Prime Minister for advice on Dr Joan Robinson and Professor Blackett

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

Graham Farmelo, Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics, London: Faber & Faber, 2013

Mary Jo Nye, Blackett: Physics, War and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004


Seabed caverns and nuclear fracking

By Jon Agar, on 21 April 2015

How British scientists pondered the “peaceful uses of nuclear explosives”

For a decade from 1969, experts in the United Kingdom researched what they called the ‘peaceful uses of nuclear explosives’. The project, based at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, was never a large one, indeed the annual resources devoted to it never exceeded three person-years, but it does reveal the outer boundaries of what was considered to be feasible and perhaps justifiable.

The investment in expertise in peaceful detonations of nuclear devices was needed, argued the project’s proponents, so that the UK Atomic Energy Authority would be able to assess other countries’ plans. The immediate need might be to analyse, in a critical and informed way, such plans, as well as offer advice on demand to industry. But the door was left open to the possibility that the UK might be involved in these jaw-dropping schemes. Expertise to understand could thus morph into expertise to carry out…

Here’s two plans watched carefully by the Aldermaston team.

The first seems to have been a French proposal originally.  North sea oil, it was suggested, might be stored in a ‘seabed cavern’ formed by a nuclear detonation. ‘Although in this densely-populated country the use of PNE [Peaceful uses of Nuclear Explosions] was improbable, the technique might be proposed for use by other countries for, say, the seabed cavern storage of North Sea oils’, summarised one of the Aldermaston scientists, ‘In that event, the availability of expert UK advice or opposition could be important’. The French spent 60 million francs (about £5 million pounds) investigating such a project, many times the scale of any UK interest. But the French, via a panel meeting of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), did sound out the UK informally on the possibility of co-operation:

In discussing the use of PNE for North Sea oil storage – at the field, close inshore or on land – the French expressed the view that any project would have to be an international one, possibly involving most of the littoral States. They expressed themselves eager to co-operate in such a scheme, particularly with the UK, and are prepared to enter formal or informal discussions at any level.

The Scottish Office and the Department of Trade and Industry also asked the Aldermaston team for similar advice, and a report, “Cheap oil storage beneath the bed of the North Sea in cavities/chimneys created by contained nuclear explosions”, was written. In fact a ‘site on one of the uninhabited islands of the Shetlands’ was even identified as the ‘best immediate prospect for PNE’.

For a while momentum seemed to be gathering. PNE might not only be used to form vast spaces for storage but also be used to stimulate the flow of hydrocarbons – a form of nuclear fracking, if you like. The Russians reported that they had successfully operated a gas condensate storage unit ‘created by a 15 kton contained nuclear explosion’ in a salt dome. However, by 1973 other investigations, ironically also from within the nuclear state, poured cold water on the scheme: ‘PNE would be uneconomic in shallow, offshore waters simply due to the small size of the storage market’ – although perhaps the project might return in the 1980s as deeper waters were explored and the market had further grown.

When not studying other countries’ schemes, the Aldermaston scientists busied themselves on subsidiary research: estimating the production of radioactivity, predicting fallout patterns and investigating methods of ‘reducing eventual hazards to consumers’. They also assisted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in thinking through the consequences of a Comprehensive Test Ban regime.

The second project examined closely by the Aldermaston team was an American one called PACER, proposed by Los Alamos and the consultants R&D Associates. A spherical cavity some 200m in diameter would be leached out of a salt dome nearly a mile underground. The giant hole would be filled with a million tons of water. Then a 50 kiloton thermonuclear device would be detonated, producing immense quantities of high pressure steam, which in turn would drive turbines powerfully enough to produce 2000 MW of electricity. And this process would be repeated 750 times a year. Read that last sentence again.

The quick appraisal of PACER produced by an Aldermaston scientist is remarkably matter of fact. The construction of the cavity presented no ‘insuperable difficulty’. Even when the scale of the detonation is discussed – 30,000 explosions over a 40 year life span, all in one hole in the ground – the ‘big technical uncertainty’ of stability only provoked a deadpan note that any ‘failure would have a catastrophic effect on the economics’. But the production of explosives was deemed eminently feasible: the ‘United States has deployed 7000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe since the mid-fifties and so they could clearly produce 750 50 kton explosives of one type per year’.

And if the United States could do it, how about the United Kingdom? ‘The first step in ascertaining whether PACER is of interest to the United Kingdom’, concluded Parker, ‘could be to survey the salt formations which occur in and around the British Isles’. And if they did occur, why not? ‘The sponsors of this project appear to believe that public acceptance is the major obstacle’. Indeed.

Source: The National Archives, AB 48/1777, 1973-1979. Record opening date: 6 February 2015

a List of STS Journals

By Jon Agar, on 24 February 2015

Here’s a list of journals within the broad STS field, including history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, history of mathematics, history of medicine, history of technology, science policy. It’s useful to have all the links in one place. Good for a browse to catch up on what’s new!

It’s updated from a “journal article listing” that I used to regularly do for the mersenne jiscmail list. If there are any missing journals, then let me know and I’ll add them.


Of Pahoa, pahoehoe and people

By Steven Miller, on 23 November 2014


Senior scientists often (used to?) say that, when talking to their fellow citizens about matters scientific, the public need facts, certainties, and anything to do with uncertainty should be kept well away from them. More nuanced takes on science communication aver that what people really need to know about is how science really works, and that involves notions that scientists are people just like them, with their various falibilities, their doubts and their uncertainties.

I’ve felt for a long time that genuine science communication had to adopt a much more intermediate and pragmatic approach: citizens do look to scientists to give them facts and reliable information – otherwise what is the point of paying them a salary, often from the public purse; but they can cope with the ideas of uncertainty and the limits to existing knowledge and what is knowable without going into a blind panic. Until now, however, I had not really seen it work in practice quite like that.

Whilst the rest of the USA is preparing for Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, November 26, this year), the little town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawai’i is wondering just how many Thanksgivings they have to come – including this one.

Hawai’i is an active volcano, and the Pu’u O’O vent on the eastern flank of Mauna Loa has been steadily pouring lava downslope into the sea for decades. Normally the lava flows east or south-east. But on June 27 this year, the flow turned dangerously north-eastward, toward Pahoa. And it has been heading for the town ever since.

The lava approaching Pahoa is known as pahoehoe. It is a smooth, sticky lava that generally flows slowly downslope. This is in contrast with the explosive pyroclastic flows of the sort that engulfed Pompeii in 79AD, which move so fast no one has a chance to get out of the way.

The main flow cut through Cemetery Road on the outskirts of town some time ago, burned down its first house earlier this month, surrounded the $3 million-plus, state-of-the-art, Waste Transfer Station, and is now stalled just short of the main road through the town centre. Given the relentless approach of the lava, one might imagine the townspeople to be giving a pretty good impression of Corporal Jones and Private Frazer in “Dad’s Army”. No.

Local citizens have been getting together with scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on a weekly basis since August 24 this year. I went to the meeting on November 20 along with some 300 Pahoa inhabitants – about half of the adult population. The update from the USGS started with a quiz about the three factors controlling lava flow – what is happening at the summit of Pu’u O’o, what is happening with the lava tube that carries the lava down towards the town, and the nature of the terrain over which the lava finally pours when it emerges from the tube.

November 20’s update was that although Pu’u O’o was producing about one third more lava than it had been two weeks ago, a break-out near the crater summit had robbed the lava tube of its lava and led to surface flows far upslope from the town. The terrain there was tending to take that lava away from Pahoa. But – and here the USGS were very clear – the future was highly unpredictable. Would the lava tube refill, leading to flows resuming towards the town? Not sure. If so, how soon would the flow nearest the town restart? Not sure.

The approach of the local USGS scientists as well as public bodies such as the health and rescue services, the National Guard, and the Mayor’s office has been to let local citizens know what they know and tell them what they do not know. Locals are also encouraged to use their own eyes, ears and – given the various smells of sulphur dioxide and burning that accompany the lava wherever it goes – noses. Representatives of the various relief bodies mix freely with the Pahoans to discuss, listen to eye-witness accounts and answer the questions that their expertise is best suited to answer.

Schoolchildren who have been forced to move school because of the poor air quality are to be among the first to be taken to see the main flow itself, when the situation is deemed safe enough to do so. That way they can appreciate at first hand why their island home makes so many demands on those who live there.

The result is that the people are generally well informed and, at the same time, feel involved with, and even in control of, their situation, insofar as anyone living with an active volcano can feel in control. Any Corporal Joneses have learned that “don’t panic” means just that. Any Private Frazers have been reassured that, whilst we are all ultimately “doomed, doomed”, it is “just not quite yet”.

In the meantime, Pahoa residents are also preparing for Thanksgiving. As Mayor Billy Kenoi said: “We just want some normalcy here.”

The Imitation Game

By Jon Agar, on 20 November 2014

The Imitation Game is film about the life of Alan Turing, ‘based on real events’ and taking as its main source Andrew Hodges’s biography, The Enigma of Intelligence. It is mostly set at the Government Code and Cypher School, also known as Bletchley Park. It was there that Turing, and many others, gathered to attack German coded messages.
The cultural interest in Bletchley Park has several motivations. There is the tragic story of Turing himself. Most powerfully Turing’s life and work has become an icon and rallying point in LGBT politics. This interest has motivated the best historical work on Turing in the form of Hodges’ extraordinary biography. (Here’s my UCL LGBT history week public lecture on Turing, very much in praise of Hodges’ account.) Second, there is the attraction of the secret, compounded by the fact that a silence, partly officially but also partly self-imposed, around Bletchley Park activities lasted until the 1970s (not the ’50 years’ after 1945 claimed by the film). The subsequent rush of information, all the more emotionally-charged for having been pent up so long, has given Bletchley Park extraordinary prominence. Third, there is a narrative, inflected with nationalism, that celebrates Bletchley Park as a distinctively British contribution to the defeat of Nazism: it was by brain-power not brute production (undercutting claims that it Russian and American contributions that were decisive), it is presented as amateur (it was anything but), and it is nostalgic.
At Bletchley Park, the signals intelligence, collected by outlying stations was channelled, and made subject to cryptanalytical attack. The messages coded using the Enigma machines were subject to human and machine (‘bombe’) analysis. The messages encrypted using a cipher machine codenamed ‘Tunny’ were processed by Colossus, the extraordinary electronic valve-based symbol-manipulating machine designed and built by the General Post Office team under Thomas H. Flowers. The first Colossus was built in 1943. Ten Colossi were in operation by 1945.

We should remember that Bletchley Park was an industrial operation: large-scale, a focus on speed and flow, with innovation and mechanisation at reverse salients. I made this observation in The Government Machine (2003). Other historians agree. Aldrich writes of the wartime sigint sites: ‘All of them were symptomatic of an industrial revolution in secret intelligence: both Bletchley Park and the outstations operated like factories, with three gruelling shifts each day’. Copeland describes the ‘two vast steel-framed buildings’ that housed the Colossi as ‘a factory dedicated to breaking Tunny’.

The Imitation Game gives little sense of this scale of operations.

But most of the complaints about the film’s inaccuracies have focussed elsewhere. Alex von Tunzwelmann has written an ace (pun intended) take down of The Imitation Game in a Guardian blog piece. She says, rightly, that the film missteps in many ways: presenting the revelation of the death of schoolfriend/object of desire Christopher Morcom to Turing as cold and brutal; misrepresenting Turing’s honesty with Joan Clarke about his homosexuality; inventing that Turing called the Bombe and later machines ‘Christopher’; and, by placing the spy John Cairncross in Turing’s team, suggesting that Turing was suspected at Bletchley Park as a Soviet spy.

There are plenty of other factual errors, from the major (Turing did not build a replica Manchester Mark I computer in his home, let alone call it ‘Christopher’) to the minor (Hugh Alexander, cryptananalyst and chess champ, did not attack the Bombe with a spanner).

But, I asked on twitter, do the historical inaccuracies matter when the bigger dramatic points work?

So far everyone – @rmathematicus, @HPSGlonk, @JamesBSumner, @NicksFlickPicks and @alexvtunzelmann – has said ‘yes’.

I think ‘no’, for this reason. The Imitation Game, aside from tragedy, is a dramatisation of Hodges’ central argument, that the cause of Turing’s profound inquiry into the materialisation of mind was the trauma of Morcom’s death. The scenes with ‘Christopher’ the machine, however much invented, run with this insight and present it as a cinematic, not documentary, truth. It is present too in the final scenes – also fantasy – in which the conflicted police detective (played by Rory Kinnear) has Benedict Cumberbatch take the Turing Test, an imitation game in which the impossible bind of hiding or revealing homosexuality is equivalent to saying or not saying a mind can be a machine.

If that was the biggest point, then The Imitation Game, despite its inventions, dramatised it well.

GCSA at 50 – some thoughts

By Jon Agar, on 12 November 2014

I enjoyed speaking at the Royal Society/CSaP event last night on fifty years of the post of Government Chief Scientific Adviser. I don’t think I’ve ever been on such a daunting and illustrious panel – mine had Lisa Jardine, Sir Robin Nicholson (GCSA under Thatcher), Sir William Stewart (GCSA under John Major) and Lord Wilson (Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary under New Labour). The other panel was equally luminous: Jill Rutter (Institute of Government), Geoff Mulgan (NESTA, and another key New Labour figure), Robert May (ex-GCSA) and Mark Walport (the current GCSA, arriving just in time from a meeting on ebola).

I talked about the history of the GCSA from Solly Zuckerman (appointed 1964) to John Ashworth (who stepped down as Chief Scientist, CPRS in 1981). If you are interested in what I said, I’ve copied my notes below.

It would have been great to have longer time to hear more of the personal experiences of offering scientific advice to power. Nevertheless there were some great anecdotes, sound criticism and useful advice. Stewart, for example, told a story about Major’s encouragement to pitch for more money for science. Wilson made eyebrows rise when he recounted the demise of the chief scientific advisor for energy, Walter Marshall, when he, more or less independently, sold four PWR nuclear reactors to Iran. (I didn’t know this extraordinary episode, but a quick search shows that it appears in a modified form in Benn’s diaries.) Wilson also told us how he had to coach Hermann Bondi to not start drawing equations when he gave politicians advice.

I was also struck by the fact that reminisences can conflict with what we, as historians, know from documentary records. I have a collection of advice offered by Nicholson to Thatcher in the 1980s, recently released at the National Archives, that are quite incendiary and paint a very different picture from the slightly rosy memories that surfaced. It did make me wonder for a moment about the uses of memories as testimony. If you formed your view of the GCSA merely from recollections the picture would be very different from one reconstructed from historical documents. It is a sharp reminder that historical memory is political.

I was also struck by the character of Whitehall’s institutional memory. Sometimes this can be very deep – Walport, for example, said twice that we are still in confict between the vision of Northcote-Trevelyan (the two authors of the report on the civil service that established the generalist-specialist split, see my book The Government Machine for some consequences) and the failed reforms of Fulton (which tried to raise the status of specialists in the civil service). But elsewhere, it was clear that Whitehall can forget what it once knew. Lord Wilson recalled Margaret Thatcher’s astonishing 1988 speech on climate change as if this was the first entry of this issue. But in fact, as I have researched, three 1970s chief scientific advisers had given the issue attention, and by the end of the decade ministers knew.

Finally, as always happens, I had plenty of things to say which were not, because the discussion went in other directions. One of these was Zuckerman’s list (compiled by me from from various sources) of characters of the ideal GCSA. Here they are:

1) Offer up sensible, reasoned, dispassionate advice
2) Be independent of vested interests
3) Keep in touch (in civil service and in science)
4) Answer requests for information. CSAs play this role in departments
5) Anticipate information that will be needed, and therefore commission research if necessary
6) Sometimes (!) manage staff
7) Should not be excluded from key discussions (cf Tizard*)
8) Be personally trusted by Prime Minister
9) Be personally trusted by Cabinet Secretary
(1-7 from Royal Institution address, 1984; 8-9 from Dialogue I)

Also there was much more to say about the specific issues each GCSA encountered, and what their influence in each had been. It would be fun to compare the record of GCSAs against Roger Pielke, Jr.’s four different roles he suggests science advisers can take: pure scientist, issue advocate, science arbiter and honest broker. (James Wilsdon at SPRU might be already doing this as part of his interviews with past GCSAs.)

A good event, but perhaps the historical memories, as we should always do, are best read critically.

As promised, here’s my notes (I had seven minutes):


Between the Cherwell-Tizard period Lisa has talked about and the appointment of Robin Nicholson (on my left) in 1981, there were four men who can be considered Chief Scientific Advisors.
Solly Zuckerman was a South African-born zoologist who had conducted the gory but necessary work of investigating the effects of explosives on bodies as well as operational assessments of bombing during the Second World War. He had already performed specific, sometimes informal, advisory roles to parts of Government, before he was appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence in 1960. From then on, “No one ever more completely stormed every bastion of the British establishment” said Roy Jenkins. Interestingly he insisted on a change of name from ‘Chief Scientist’ (‘inappropriate, he thought, for someone who knew little about “hardware”‘**) to Chief Scientific Advisor. Zuckerman repeatedly stressed the requirement of an adviser to challenge received opinions and intrenched interests. His views could be ‘heterodox’, rejecting battlefield nuclear weapons for example against the view of chiefs of staff. In 1964 Harold Wilson wanted to make Zuckerman a minister of state, leading on disarmament issues. Zuckerman declined. But his role as CSA for MoD was also soon untenable, perhaps because Denis Healey and Zuckerman never quite saw eye to eye. The role of GCSA was therefore created for him. He also, and he never tired of telling people, was made Head of the Scientific Civil Service, a managerial responsibility (albeit an empty title) for 10,000 people – larger than the body of 3,000 administrative civil servants.

Zuckerman retired in 1971, but he continued to chip in his views about science and government right up through the 1980s (indeed he retained rooms in the Cabinet Office). His style was to be the trusted consultant, the challenger of received views, and relied on good, wide, informal networking. He was, as Henry Tizard had predicted on hearing of Zuckerman’s appointment, been the ‘courtier’ GCSA.
The technocratic Heath government brought in the era of the Central Policy Review Staff, the “think tank”, assigned the general task of wide and deep critical review. It was also led by a scientist, Victor Rothschild. Therefore it was a moot point whether there should be another GCSA after Zuckerman. The Treasury were against. So was Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, who smoothly said Zuckerman was “sui generis”. Zuckerman insisted. Alan Cottrell, like Zuckerman a defence science adviser, was appointed, albeit as Zuckerman noted at a rank ‘one pip lower than mine’. It was the CPRS – a team of talents – rather than the GCSA that mobilised specialist expertise for the guidance of government.
The down-grading continued with Robert Press, who succeeded Cottrell. Also from the world of defence, appointed unofficial caretaker CSA between 1974 and 1976. In 1981 Zuckerman would write to Robert Armstrong saying Press was ‘really a note-taker … kept on to deal with nuclear weapon matters’, ‘he merely became a mouthpiece of the Aldermaston interests’

By now Rothschild’s customer-contractor principle had supposedly framed science’s role in departments, and in consequence more departmental CSAs were in place so that departments could better understand the contracts they would place. The dramatic expansion of the departmental chief scientific advisers had been Cottrell’s suggestion to Rothschild, and he remembers it as a proud moment in his oral history recorded by the British Library (at 50.55)

So in 1975 there was considerable debate about what to do when Press too retired. Was there no need for a GCSA? The Prime Minister – Harold Wilson again – was asked whether he wanted the GCSA replaced, the staff dispersed, replaced with someone even lower in rank. Wilson’s view – and this speaks to the relative insignificance of the GCSA – was that the post could be usefully sacrificed to counter impressions of empire building around the Prime Minister. Indeed the CPRS was enough. Word leaked out. There was a concerted campaign from MPs on the science select committee, Royal Society and Tam Dalyell. Stung, Wilson offered an avowedly cosmetic change. The new man, John Ashworth, could be called Chief Scientist, CPRS.

The authorised biography of Thatcher by Charles Moore records the following first meeting:

Thatcher: Who are you?

Ashworth: I am your chief scientist.

Thatcher: Oh. Do I need one of those?


Ashworth continued until 1981, when he was replaced by Robin Nicholson. But the whole issue of Chief Scientist was caught up in the bloody demise of the CPRS in 1983 at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. Again there was a transition point when everything was up for grabs. The Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology wanted a minister responsible for science and the CS CPRS turned into a GCSA. Thatcher needed persuasion. She herself had rashly declared early on that she, as a scientist, could take care of science policy matters. Now her first preference was to consult a group of adviser, not a single person. Divide and conquer? Or belief that she had the scientific background to make sense of diverse advice? But Nicholson was politically in tune with Thatcher’s values.

Nicholson, as Chief Scientist CPRS now became Chief Scientist, Cabinet Office, a free-standing role that gives us, once an office is built around him, the current GCSA.


* Henry Tizard, a key character in the story of radar and the main science adviser in Attlee’s administration, was excluded from the decision to proceed with Britian’s independent atomic bomb, and, even though he was chair of the Defence Research Policy Committee, excluded from much nuclear discussions thereafter. Attlee’s decision was taken by a secret committtee, and was an extraordinary breach of normal Cabinet decision-making. Tizard’s exclusion had consequences for shaping post-war defence research, as this paper which I co-wrote with Brian Balmer explored.

** Solly Zuckerman, Monkeys, Men and Missiles: an Autobiography, 1946-88, London: Collins, 1988, p. 194.

UK archives of post-war science – notes towards a list

By Jon Agar, on 17 December 2013

I’m working my way fairly systematically through the catalogues of UK archives relating to post-war science, and thought it would be useful to me, and perhaps others, to keep a running list of scientists’ collections. Here’s the list so far, with links via Access to Archives, Janus and other pages. Let me know, via the comments, if you know more …



Plus a few corporate or group archives:

The list was mostly generated by using a keyword ‘science’ and restricting the search to 1945-2012, and then going through the 24,480 results. That might sound a lot, but I know for a fact that it misses some collections! After seeking suggestions, I have also trawled the Churchill Archives Centre for scientists, and used National Register of Archives.

I intend to keep this list updated.

Thanks to the following for suggestions: John Forrester, Peter Collins, Stephen Boyd Davis, Richard Noakes, Christoph Laucht, Mauro Capocci, John Faithfull, Simon Chaplin, Jean-Baptiste Gouyon, Chris, Dmitry Myelnikov, Dominic Berry, Alex Hall, Nancy Anderson, Clare Button, Joanna Corden, Jacob Hamblin, Tim Powell, and Jenny Shaw.

The rarest important books of the twentieth century?

By Jon Agar, on 27 November 2013

Red Data Book Vol 1 Mammalia (1966)In 1966, two books were published that have a claim to being the rarest important books (in their original form) of the twentieth century. Ironically, their subject was rarity itself.

Red Data Book, Volume 1: Mammalia and Volume 2: Aves were the brainchild of the wildfowl conservationist Sir Peter Scott. They were published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Scott was the chair of the IUCN’s Survival Service Commission. They are loose-leaf binders. Each sheet summarised the facts known about threatened or endangered species and subspecies. They are poignant and compelling compilations, aiming at comprehensiveness, of the next victims of the global, modern wave of extinction.

The reason why they are incredibly rare – in their original form – is that the books’ own readers were given instructions to destroy them, in part. To keep the books up-to-date, new sheets were posted every six month after publication. ‘To avoid confusion’, recommended the book’s introduction, ‘it will generally be found advisable to destroy original sheets removed from the volume when replacements are received’. This advice means that it is quite possible that no 1966 Red Book, in the form it was published in, has survived. Even the British Library’s copies have been updated. The first Red Data Books could be extinct.

The Red Data Books were extraordinarily influential. To say that a creature was a ‘Red Data’ species became a shorthand for rarity and the need for conservation. The template was copied. Volumes on plants, fish and invertebrates followed, as did national analogues. You can now find red data books of the lichens of Britain, the organisms of Malta, or the threatened birds of the United States.

The books were also read in surprising ways. For a listing of standardised data and references, the response of readers could be unexpectedly emotional. Here, for example, is the primatologist Russell Mittermeier, recalling his first encounter:

I still have fond memories of receiving in the mail my copy of the first Red Data Book… I was about 20 when I first received this publication, and it had a profound impact on me. I pored over every page, reading each one dozens of times, feeling awful about those species that were severely endangered, and resolving to dedicate my career to doing something on their behalf (quotation from 2000 IUCN Red List, p. xi).

The reason I am reading the Red Data Books is because I am tracing how science was used to redefine categories of threat to species in the twentieth century. The redefinition of the criteria for inclusion, basing them on quantitative population biology, is a later story, and is the main focus of my historical investigation. (Do get in touch – – if this sounds interesting to you.) Nevertheless, the Red Data Books of 1966 are the key texts of this project to assess and categorise the threatened wildlife of the world.

This is what a sheet from a Red Data Book – for Cuvier’s hutia – looked like (plus a pic I found on the web):

Cuvier's hutia RDB vol 1 sheethutia











Cuvier’s hutia (Plagiodontia aedium) is a medium-sized rodent that is spotted once in a blue moon in the forests of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As the sheet notes, the creature was not recorded between Cuvier’s description of the type specimen in the 1830s and its rediscovery in 1947. The sheet describes some characteristics, a few scattered distribution facts, and possible reasons for decline (assuming it was ever common). It is a standardised template, deliberately so: gaps were left in plain view to encourage others to fill them with data. The Cuvier’s hutia sheet is white, which means that it was relatively unusual in its scarcity. The Red Data Books were colourful texts: ‘Pink sheets are used to draw attention to those mammals which are believed to be the most gravely endangered. Green sheets are used for mammals whose survival was at one time in question but which are now regarded as out of danger’. There almost no green sheets.

I’m interested in classification, and the criteria used to pigeonhole species. (There are fifteen pigeons and doves pigeonholed in volume 2.) If you look at the Cuvier’s hutia page, down at the bottom left, there is a ‘status category’ made up of letters and numbers. The key for decoding these is as follows. There’s a Category number, (a) or (b) to denote species or subspecies, sometimes some qualifying letters, and, for the rarest, stars:

Category 1. ENDANGERED. In immediate danger of extinction: continued
survival unlikely without the implementation of special protective measures
Category 2. RARE. Not under immediate threat of extinction, but occurring in
such small numbers and/or in such a restricted or specialised habitat that it
could quickly disappear. Requires careful watching
Category 3 DEPLETED…
Category 4 INDETERMINATE. Apparently in danger, but insufficient data
currently available on which to base a reliable assessment of status. Needs
further study

Star listing: *** Critically endangered
(a) Full species
(b) Subspecies
E Exotic, introduced or captive populations believed more numerous than
indigenous stock
M Under active management in a national park or other reserve
P Legally protected, at least in some part of its range
R Included because of restricted range
S Secrecy still desirable
T Subject to substantial export trade

Cuvier’s hutia is a 4(a), a frank – and frequently found – statement of lack of knowledge. The weird lemur, the Aye Aye was a 1(a)***, the Orang utan 2(a)**, and the Asiatic lion, 1(b)*P. The thylacine, almost certainly already extinct, was a 1(a)***P. A similar system was used for birds, so the Maui nukupuu, for example, was a 1(b)P***, and the enormous Monkey-eating eagle of the Philippines was a 1(a)PS***. These symbols are rather important, since the difference of a single letter might mean serious conservation effort or regretful neglect. The assessment was by expert judgement, either by the compilers (Noel Simon in the case of Mammalia and Jack Vincent for Aves) or by specialists of locality and taxon.

In a world of conservation success, the Red Data Books would be empty, every form having been discarded and the books entirely destroyed. In fact, the IUCN’s Red List is now an enormous online resource, which monitors over 70,000 species and lists over 20,000 of them as threatened. The IUCN’s criteria are one of the central organising standards of international conservation, and are even used, in their version 3.1 form, to categorise rare species on their Wikipedia pages (look under the picture, on the top right hand side, for example here).

It is this significance that invites historians’ attention. Why did they take the form they did? Why was the template so successful? Can we trace how they were read and used? What was the place and roles of science in shaping conservation knowledge and practice?






What’s your CHOICE?

By Jon Agar, on 26 November 2013

Material culture is crucial to understanding the history of science and technology, right?

It’s a lesson I’ve taught in many places over the years. One class project that I’ve enjoyed running with students from Manchester, Oxford, Harvard and here at UCL has been to ask them to come up with designs for an exhibition on modern science and technology.

I give them the dimensions of space and an unlimited budget (it is a fantasy, I know). They propose 10 objects, a design and rationale for both. They have always responded with imagination and flair. We discuss the assumptions made, the stories that are possible (and impossible) to tell, how visitors might respond, and what messages about science and technology’s past are most important. It’s a great class.

However, I’ve begun to notice a recurrent feature. Most of the stories that we want to tell are those that are sourced, first and foremost, from written history – history that is built from engagement with primary documents and secondary literature. This, I feel, shouldn’t be the case if material culture is a key to interpreting the major themes of past science and technology. There’s a danger of paying pious lip-service to the notion of the importance of material culture unless we can point to examples of where it matters.

So let me ask a question: what’s your CHOICE?

CHOICE stands for Crucial Historiographical Object in Collections or Exhibitions. I propose that a CHOICE has two ideal features:

1) a CHOICE object reveals significant, otherwise inaccessible, knowledge about a significant historical narrative.

2) materially, either in total or in part, a CHOICE represents a ‘fork in the road’, a moment of significant historical contingency, revealing how history could have been different.

Let me pick out a few words from these features and explain my thinking. Let’s start with ‘inaccessible’. I tend to come to interpreting objects *after* having read about their history. What I rarely – ever? – see is an object that reveals otherwise inaccessible knowledge. Believe me, I’m aware of the tacit knowledge debate, and that is, of course, a kind of relevant, otherwise inaccessible knowledge. But where are the examples of how otherwise inaccessible knowledge contributes to the large-scale historiographical narratives? When have they done so in the absence of written interpretations of the objects?

The key word – I’ve used it three times – is ‘significant’. I would very much like to show an object to students and be able to say: ‘See that? Because we can see that thing we must think of history differently’.

As a naive historian of science, CHOICEs are what I would want to find in a science museum or object collection. Not the only things for sure, but there – and emphasised – nonetheless.

It might be a question that is most relevant to thinking about modern collections. Modern science and technology has generated an immense documentary (as in textual) record that is, in practice if not in preaching, historians’ first and sometimes only port of call. For earlier history fewer documents survive and objects necessarily become our traces of evidence of the past. For most of human existence – prehistory – objects are the only sources we have. If you are studying Magdalenian culture, everything is a CHOICE.

One candidate might be the Science Museum’s rebuilt Difference Engine, of Charles Babbage fame. Only by rebuilding the object with tools and practices matching Victorian ones could it be shown that the scheme was feasible. Of course, we are only prompted to ask the question of feasibility because we know from written documents about the struggle to engineer such a device. Nevertheless, it might pass the tests of historiographical significance, inaccessibility of knowledge and contingency. On the other hand, it is not (if we are worried about authenticity, which we might not be) an ‘original’ object, and I’d like other examples.

So, curators! historians of science and technology! Tell me your CHOICE!

Either CHOICEs exist, in which case we have examples. Or CHOICES do not, in which case what is wrong with my historiographical expectations of scientific or technological objects? Either way, it should be interesting…

GMOs as chimaeric archives

By Jon Agar, on 22 November 2013

I was reading an otherwise very dry and sober account of different definitions of rarity of organisms, written in 1984, and was struck by this odd aside:

Indeed a time can be foreseen when genetic engineering will allow huge numbers of valuable genes to be stored as part of a composite living organism, an animal with multiple features from many species or a vast polyploid plant bearing a hundred different flowers and fruits from its branches.1

The bizarre idea seems to be that in a world of disappearing species, genetic diversity could be archived by combining them in the body of a single organism.

It’s a fantasy of a universal genetic chimaera. It brings up pictures to mind of a monster with the claws of a Siberian tiger, the strength of a mountain gorilla and the carapace of a sea turtle. An animal or plant Frankenstein made to blunt extinction. An Ark made flesh. An Ark of living wood.

I was wondering whether anyone knew of similar or related concepts? Perhaps in science, but maybe more likely from science fiction? It would be fascinating to know whether this suggestion was a single flash of the imagination or whether it has counterparts, a history or a context. If this rings any bells, then please leave a comment below.


1. Paul Munton, ‘Concepts of threat to the survival of species used in Red Data Books and similar compilations’, in Richard and Maisie Fitter (eds.), The Road to Extinction: Problems of Categorizing the Status of Taxa Threatened with Extinction, Gland: IUCN, 1987, pp. 71-88, pp. 87-88.