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Science and the Cold War at UCL. 1. Surveillance

By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2017

When we think of the anti-communism of the early Cold War, we tend to picture the McCarthyism of the United States and the hunt for red influence in Hollywood. But science was under suspicion too. The most infamous case of a scientist becoming entangled with anti-communism, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “trial” in 1954, which led to the atomic scientist’s security clearance being revoked, is also American. In Britain, Alan Nunn May, the King’s College London physicist, who had worked on the wartime atomic bomb project, was arrested and convicted of espionage in 1946. Likewise, Klaus Fuchs, a German who had come to Britain in 1933 and who had worked at Los Alamos, where he leaked atomic secrets to the Soviets, was exposed in 1950. In 1955 there were at least 87 scientists in Britain who were Communist Party members (1).

It was in this context, of deep concerns about communists working within British scientific institutions, that we find the security service casting its net of surveillance wide, and paying close attention to scientists, including some at University College London. With the opening of the MI5 files at the National Archives, the extent and character of surveillance of university staff can be explored in detail. In this post I will open the files on three UCL scientists, each of whom was kept under surveillance because of their communist beliefs and activities. One is ordinary, one was a scientific superstar, and the last a reluctant controversialist.


(1) The Ordinary Communist

O/C call from ALAN to JOHN. ALAN asks when the Meeting is. JOHN says it has fallen through so he doesn’t know. ALAN wants to get the phone numbers and addresses of these people for letter writing. JOHN sounds as if he will be at University College tomorrow dissecting something. ALAN will see him tomorrow. (2)

The first set of files concern Alan Robin Ness. His story is perhaps typical of low-level local communist organiser and the state’s surveillance response. Yet it is the very everyday character of the Ness case that shows how inadvertently revealing the MI5 files can be to historians.

Ness was twenty years’ old when he first drew the attention of Special Branch in 1943. He had been noticed speaking and chairing at Communist Party meetings in Putney. A police sergeant, who knew Ness by sight, wrote the first report. Using the National Register, this policeman could quickly trace the past and present residences of his charge. (3) So we know that Ness had been evacuated, while at Wandsworth Secondary School, to West Byfleet in Surrey. There he took the Higher Schools Certificate in June 1940 and awarded a London County Council Senior County Exhibition to attend the Royal Dental Hospital in Leicester Square from that Autumn. Reserved from call-up, he volunteered as an Air Raid Warden. He lived with his father, a civil servant, at 158 West Hill, Putney. The sergeant described his physical appearance: height 5 foot 9 inches, slim build, ‘hair black, long and brushed back-wavy, eyes brown, swarthy complexion, large nose, thick lips, wears horn rimmed glasses, rather untidy appearance’.

By 1950, Ness had arrived at UCL as a student, later becoming a researcher and ultimately a member of staff in the Physiology department. He took on the post of secretary of the branch of the Communist Party at UCL, and, as we can see from the following letter to Sam Aaronovitch, tried to find Marxist speakers for faculty society talks. We can also deduce, from the negative images of correspondence in these files, that Ness’s paperwork was being caught up in the comprehensive interception and copying of Communist Party headquarters mail.


Ness to Aaronovitch

Letter from Ness to Sam Aaronovitch, 20 August 1950.

Ness CP member form

Alan Ness’s Communist Party registration form, 1952. He is listed as a ‘research scientist’. In addition to being a Party member he has joined the Association of Scientific Workers trade union.


Ness was a minor concern for MI5. He partook in the social and political activities of the Party: attending a World Youth Fair in Budapest, wrote letters to MPs as part of a British Peace Committee campaign, sent another letter to the US Ambassador about the Korean War, and protested at the Spanish Embassy in support of strikers in Barcelona. In the early UCL years we encounter him as he wanders into view during the surveillance of others. We overhear him complaining to the Party that he feels overworked and overtired, and that he wants to suspend being secretary of the UCL CP faculty branch so that he can get his first academic paper out. The subsequent discussion of possible replacements provides a map of communist staff at UCL in the early 1950s, including the physicist Franz Heymann and the biologist John Maynard Smith.

Ness attracted greater attention when he became a friend of Alan Nunn May. The atom spy had been released from prison (with hard labour) in 1952. Alan and his wife Christian (Hamp, whom he married in the same year) got on well with Nunn May and his partner, Hildegard. MI5 tapped the Ness’s phone and opened their mail. The surveillance net around the atom spy was intense. When Alan and Christine attended the Nunn Mays’ marriage, in Cambridge, it is clear from the report that an informant was even at the ceremony and reception.


Ness and Nunn May wedding

The surveillance of Alan Nunn May extended to spying on his wedding. Here the informant reports that Alan and “Christine” (Christian) Ness attended the wedding and sparse gathering that followed. The informant clearly pumped the Nesses for information, such as where they lived and what they did (in fact, only Christian was an architect)


The thorough surveillance means that intimate documents, ones which would otherwise have been guarded or destroyed, have been archived. Such documents reveal the tensions between personal, professional and political life, and make them accessible to historians. For example, in 1954 Christian’s father, Stanley Hinge Hamp (4), wrote a heartfelt plea to Alan which speaks of his paternal concern for his daughter, her potential as an architect, the stress that she was under, and, most interestingly his view that Alan had ‘already made her a fellow traveller, but sooner or later she will see through it all and tragedy may be the result’.


Chistine father letter 1

Christian’s father’s letter to Alan Ness (page 1). “Dear Alan, Thanks for your letter. I am glad that Christian is willing to fall in with the suggestions we discussed together last Sunday. I am certain that in the interests of your married life and her usefulness in the profession it will be found to be worthwhile and she will be happier within herself. The last 3 years have produced very little progress. She has been wandering from one thing to another without a definite purpose – unless she has a definite object and stocks to it there can be no satisfactory result, as I told you she has the making of a creative architect if she will not waste her energy – Remember she [is] trying to do architecture, domestic duties, as well as social engagements also trying to understand politics. Far too much for any man or woman. My advice to you is to leave her to develop her own personality. You can influence her which ever way you wish for she believes everything you say to her. You have already made her a fellow traveller, but sooner or later she will see through it all and in the end tragedy may be the result. Hers is a trusting nature but she will not do anything that has a doubtful and ulterior motives. If her eyes are opened she will and can be …”

Chrsitine father letter 2

Christian’s father’s letter to Alan Ness (page 2) “… very determined, and she may be made to become very unhappy. My only wish is that as you become more of a so called Capitalist you may change your own outlook – you can’t have it both ways. I have arranged a Partners meeting and I hope we may succeed in making a start towards better results, if all work towards the same end this should happen, all my interest is that Christian should be happy in her life and work. Nothing else really matters. Love to you both. Stanley Hamp”


Christian Ness would, in fact, combine all her so-called ‘duties’ successfully: she continued as an architect (with a brief interruption), and completed some significant commissions, notably the modernist Hampden Hill estate in Beaconsfield in the early 1960s, as well as work on the Russian Shop in Holborn in 1962. Already active in Architects Society for Peace and Construction, she joined the Communist Party in 1954.

In that year, Alan, wanting to focus on his PhD, passed on the post of secretary of the UCL staff branch of the Communist Party to John Maynard Smith, at which point the telephone and postal surveillance of Alan Ness was stopped.



(2) The Science Superstar

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane – JBS Haldane – had been tracked by MI5 and Special Branch since 1928, when he was at the University of Cambridge. He arrived at University College London in the early 1930s as Professor of Genetics (later Biometry). He was a tireless speaker for left-wing causes, and wrote regular science articles for the Daily Worker, back when scientific journalism was new. He was a very prominent, public Marxist, close to the CPGB leaders.


Haldane MI5 file

A page from JBS Haldane’s MI5 file. Note the portrait photographs cut and pasted from newspapers.


The surveillance of JBS Haldane is full of the ironies of the spy game. A 1946 letter from a M.B. Towndrow tipping MI5 off that Haldane had been invited to an international congress on philosophy in Rome, where he ‘might possibly be asked by the British Communist Party to make contact with the Italian Communist Party’, was addressed to Kim Philby, who would be revealed as the third man of the Cambridge spy ring when he defected in 1963.

In 1948, Haldane was at the centre of a failed British pseudo-McCarthyite witch hunt. In March, the Daily Express reported Haldane as saying:

I certainly am a Communist – as good a Communist as anyone. I am working on two Government scientific sub-committees, one of which deals with under-water physiology. They don’t pay me anything, and they can throw me off if they want to. … They can go on sacking people, but the only result will be that all sorts of people will be denounced as Communists when they are not. If I got orders from Moscow, I would leave the Communist Party forthwith. But sometimes I wish we did get orders from Moscow. I would like to know what they are thinking. The only group of people in this country who get orders from foreign Powers are Roman Catholics. (5)

In April, the fabulously named Sir Waldron Smithers (6), who urged the formation of a Select Committee for Un-British Activities, lodged a PMQ to Clement Attlee asking the Prime Minister ‘if he is aware that Professor Haldane, an avowed Communist, is working on two Government scientific committees; and what action he proposed to take’? (7) When Attlee responded that he had nothing to add to previous statements of policy, Smithers replied, citing the Daily Express quotation, asking whether Attlee was ‘not aware that purges, to be effective, must apply to people like Professor Haldane?’ (8). Attlee again refused to change course. When Smithers asked a second question in May 1948, this time urging Attlee to ‘extend the purge of the Civil Service to members of Government advisory committees and the BBC’, an (unidentified) honorary member of the House of Commons, heckled: ‘And to the Tory back bench’. (9)

The immediate threat of British McCarthyism receded. But following years would be a extremely difficult for Haldane – public figure, Marxist, geneticist – because of the great set-piece of Cold War science anti-communism: the Lysenko affair. Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who promised revolutionary new methods to grow crops to feed the Soviet people and who won Stalin’s personal support, was at the height of his baleful influence.

On 30 November 1948, Haldane appeared on a BBC Third Programme broadcast on “The Lysenko Controversy”, alongside R.A. Fisher, Cyril Darlington and Sydney Harland. (10) Haldane spoke last, after the first three eminent scientists had lambasted Lysenko. He also rejected Lysenkoism, although he ended his criticism with a compromised tone: it ‘doesn’t mean that we can neglect his work, or that of [the proto-Lysenkoist] Michurin’. The broadcast caused consternation in the offices of the Communist Party of Great Britain. We know this because the offices were bugged, and we have the transcript of what was said:

JAMES KLUGMAN was talking to BILL WAINWRIGHT. JAMES was critical of HALDANE’s speech on LYSHENKO [sic]. He said that his speech sounded liberal because it was made after three fire-eaters had had their say. He felt that there was danger of HALDANE being chased away from the Party… BILL said that he had listened to HALDANE’s speech last night and his opinion was that it was a step in advance of any previous position he had taken. JAMES did not agree, although he admitted HALDANE, knowing he was speaking to the enemies, was putting forward as much of the positive side of his attitude as he could. … JAMES said if he were in such a position he would either shut up or put forward the Party’s line with which he disagreed. Where he blamed HALDANE so much was that he had failed to do this. BILL continued to stick up for HALDANE… (11)

The problem, as most Party leaders saw it, was that Haldane was a public figure who was not following the Party line:

JAMES said that the fact that a well known Communist Scientist like HALDANE should have differed from LYSHENKO would give the reactionaries all over the world an opportunity to attack them. HALDANE must be persuaded to come and consult the Party before he took part in any future public debates or made any statements.

(The transcribed eavesdrop ends with Klugmann and Wainwright joking that perhaps they should advertise Lysenko’s book in The Times, The Listener, and the agricultural and gardening journals: ‘they could sell big enough quantities to enable them to retire on the proceeds for life!’)

For Haldane, however, the problem was one of independence. He fell out with J.D. Bernal on the question of Lysenkoism in 1949. He wrote (and withdrew) letters of resignation to the Party. Yet despite his claim that any political pressure from Moscow would prompt him to leave the Party, the Party nevertheless exerted such pressure. For example, in 1953, Haldane was called in to see Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of CPGB and Stalinist. The record (again a report from an eavesdropper, presumably via a bug), makes uncomfortable reading:

HARRY told HALDANE that the Soviet Academy of Science had asked him officially to approach HALDANE and invite him to go for a holiday to the Soviet Union. HALDANE said hastily with a lot of stammering that he would not be able to take a holiday this summer. HARRY said “You won’t?” in surprise and added that this was very important. HALDANE stammering more than ever, said he knew it was important but he had to keep his laboratory going… HARRY said rather rudely that he saw the sort of jam that HALDANE was in but “you are a Party man, you know”. He suggested September. (12)

Haldane was routinely tracked and surveilled. He also knew this to be the case. A delightful example comes from 1951. Haldane spoke at a Science for Peace meeting at Conway Hall, Holborn, on the topic of the Korean War. The meeting was packed: there were 300 in the Hall, and 150 more in an overflow room. The MI5 file has two reports of what was said. The first came from someone at the American Embassy, London. Haldane railed against ‘the futility and stupidity of the secrecy which cloaks the scientific endeavors in the Atlantic Pact [NATO] countries today’ (13). He illustrated the point with several anecdotes, one of which was on the sex lives of fungi, that the American spy thought only ‘allegedly humorous’. Haldane then turned to the subject of atom spies. “Nunn May”, he said, “was a fool”. Moreover, he

would not be surprised at all to learn that the United Kingdom had secret agents in the USSR trying to spy out Russian scientific achievements. Conversely, it was quite possible that the USSR had a few such persons in the United Kingdom (Laughter)

Indeed (and here we have to picture the MI5 officers reading this report), the problem was not scientists but their political masters:

With respect to security generally in the United Kingdom, [Haldane] commented as to the absurdity of the efforts of MI5 (British Counterintelligence). He [Haldane] assured the audience from personal observation and experiences over a period of years of association with classified government projects that the procedures and investigative methods of government agencies such as MI5 (“in this country and elsewhere”) are not really capable of uncovering really clever people. The people who are really responsible for so-called breaches of security are people in high places who whisper things to their friends to impress the latter.

Here the ironies start rebounding. The second, more detailed report of the meeting, probably by a Special Branch or MI5 officer, has Haldane defending scientists and also making a remarkable offer, which is worth quoting at length:

Leakages of information took place, not from scientists but from other high levels. He had had three personal experiences where in one instance a high ranking Government Official had informed him, although aware of his political opinions, of the development of radar, another … [of] nuclear fission. If there was a representative of MI5 in the audience who wanted these three names and addresses, Professor Haldane would be pleased to give them after the meeting.

He knew, as everyone knew, that scientists were not spies. They weren’t clever enough, and were too absent minded. They could never remember the code word, so MI5 were wasting its time restricting the legitimate activities of research workers and would do better to screen politicians, letting those whose business it was to develop and create to get on with it. Restrictions would kill science, and when true science died, the world would also perish. (14)

MI5 was not concerned with the question of whether secrecy would kill science, and thereby end the world. The counterintelligence organisation was in a quandary, however, about whether to take up Haldane’s offer of his own intelligence. At this point crucial parts of the file are redacted, and we don’t know what happened next.

(3) The Third Scientist

If Alan Ness was the ordinary communist and J.B.S. Haldane was the Marxist scientist superstar, then Eric Burhop was the middle-ranking UCL researcher who was unfairly suspected of a serious security breach and stepped unwittingly into controversy. Burhop was Australian, who had trained at the Cavendish and whom his fellow countryman, the physicist Mark Oliphant, had brought into the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, where he had worked alongside Harrie Massey, yet another Australian. When Massey returned to UCL in 1945, he brought Burhop back with him, first in the mathematics department and then part of the team that built up UCL’s post-war physics department.

Of all the UCL scientists, Burhop’s MI5 files are by far the most numerous and fattest (15). As a communist atomic scientist this scale of surveillance is not in itself surprising.  Initially, Burhop’s surveillance is low-level and routine. It was noted, for example, that he had appeared alongside J.D. Bernal at a British-Soviet Society meeting, where he spoke on the subject of atomic warfare, opposing the existence of American atom bombers being stationed on British airfields. When an Evening Standard reporter challenged Burhop, asking him whether he was a communist, Burhop declined to answer except to say “A man’s politics, like his religion, are a private matter”.(16)

But as the Fuchs case broke, so the surveillance of British atomic scientists stepped up, and permission was granted to tap Burhop’s telephone.


Burhop wire tap

Request for permission to tap Burhop’s telephone. Note the ‘temporary and special purpose’ has been asterisked as the ‘Fuchs case’. 3 February 1950.


But in 1951, state security interest in Burhop increased dramatically. The cause was the surfacing of old FBI tittle-tattle, which said:

As late as 1945, an Australian atomic scientist who worked on an Atomic Energy project was in close touch with Communist Party members in Brooklyn, New York, and through them with the highest Communist officials in the United States. The Australian atomic scientist passed on everything he knew about our Atomic Energy Programme including ‘the setup in New Mexico’ [ie Los Alamos]. The Australian scientist is no longer in the United States. He was in this country in 1943, 1944 and 1945, and made his contacts at the Thomas Jefferson School in New York City. He may be of the Jewish faith.

Attention now focussed on the group around Oliphant, including Oliphant himself, Massey, four others, Burhop, and (given that an American could hardly be expected to distinguish the accents) the New Zealander Maurice Wilkins.

Surveillance of Burhop was now intense. Not only was his phone tapped, but he was also followed by plain-clothed Special Branch officers as he travelled from home to UCL and back again.

One report, for example, records that Burhop – “Age 40, height 6ft 1 ins, well built, round face, ruddy complexion, eyes brown, hair brown, thin on top, thick at the sides, small nose, clean shaven. He walks with a slight stoop and takes noticeably short sides. He usually carries a small brown attache case and raincoat. Wears herring-bone tweed sports coat and grey flannels, brown shoes” –  had left his Surbiton home at 9am and walked to Surbiton station en route to UCL. Another report says

BURHOP was seen at 1pm making a telephone call and 55 minutes later was picked up leaving the Canteen. He walked to the Westminster Bank, Tavistock House, Upper Woburn Place. He was back at College by 2.5pm.

(Note the implication of this report that the Cold War security services were trailing Burhop within UCL itself. Another report detailed that Burhop had not left Gower Place up to 10.30pm, although there were ‘many exits and we cannot cover every one’ and there had also been a dance at the College that night, which suggests that, in this instance, plain-clothes officers were waiting at the gates.)

When Burhop decided that he wanted to travel to Moscow in 1951, the security services were sent into a flap. The Australian authorities were prevailed to cancel his Australian passport, but Burhop secured a British replacement. Herbert Morrison, the Foreign Secretary, decided to cancel the new document. The case somehow made the press, and controversy followed, with legal challenges and questions being asked in Parliament. Burhop, interviewed in the Daily Herald, described the situation as ‘awkward’.


Burhop in Daily Herald

Burhop: “It’s very awkward. Suppose I want a holiday abroad”. Daily Herald, 23 July 1951.


From the authorities’ point of view, here was an atomic scientist who wanted to visit Moscow and might be ‘persuaded to stay’. Yet the resolution of this affair was remarkably mild, in contrast, say to the Oppenheimer case in the United States. Burhop was eventually issued a new passport, but he also ‘gave his word’ to let the Foreign Office know if he was planning to travel ‘to any country in the Soviet sphere’. It seems very gentlemanly. But at least one astute observer within government, the civil servant B.K. Blount, of the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence, summed it up more critically:

The maintenance of personal freedom, and particularly of the right to leave one’s own country and to travel, is one of the main points in our “cold war” position. It seems to me that in our handling of this case we have provided our opponents with some welcome ammunition.

Yet the original cause of all this anxiety, the rogue accusation of an ‘Australian’ associated with the Manhattan Project, was never resolved. Further investigation took place, notably in 1953, but neither identification nor refutation were ever made. Certainly there was no positive evidence that Burhop was the spy. Yet the suspicion alone was enough to bring the Cold War to the UCL campus.



(1) The figure for scientists who were CP members in 1955 comes from reference to a list of 87 names to which the Communist Party Science Bulletin was mailed in May 1955. National Archives (hereafter NA) KV 2/4301.

(2) The Ness files are in NA KV 2/4300 and NA KV 2/4301.

(3) For the National Register, a compilation of names and addresses of the UK population against which identity cards were issued, see: Jon Agar, ‘Modern horrors: British identity and identity cards’, in Jane Caplan and John Torpey (eds.), Documenting Individual Identity: the Development of State Practices since the French Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001

(4) Stanley Hinge Hamp had a long career, in which he was first assistant and then partner with the architect Thomas Edward Collcutt, who designed the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. Collcutt & Hamp worked on the Savoy in the early 20th century, as well as the Wigmore Hall. Alan and Christian Ness lived at 126 Wigmore Street before moving to 37 Newton Street.

(5) ‘Haldane: let them sack me’, Daily Express, 16 March 1948.

(6) No relation to Waylon Smithers, of The Simpsons fame.

(7) The two bodies were sub-sub-committees of the Medical Research Council (MRC): the Protection Sub-Committee on the Medical and Biological Applications of Nuclear Physics, and the Underwater Physiology Sub-Committee of the Royal Naval Personnel Research Committee.

(8) Hansard, House of Commons, 26 April 1948. In March 1948, following discussion in Cabinet, Attlee had introduced a “Purge Procedure” ‘excluding both Communists and Fascists from work “vital to the Security of the State”‘. Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: the Authorized History of MI5, London; Allen Lane, 2009, p. 383.

(9) Hansard, House of Commons, 4 May 1948.

(10) R. A. Fisher was Professor of Genetics, University of Cambridge. Cyril Darlington was
Director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution (a successor to Haldane), and Sydney Harland was Director of the Institute of Genetics in Lima, Peru. All were Fellows of the Royal Society.

(11) Transcript, by F1A section of MI5, 2 December 1948. NA KV 2/1832. JAMES was James Klugmann, was a member of the executive committee of CPGB and later the Party’s official historian. BILL was Bill Wainwright, who had studied chemistry, would become Assistant General Secretary of CPGB in 1956.

(12) Transcript, by FIA section of MI5, 5 July 1949. NA KV 2/1832.

(13) Letter, Unknown (American Embassy, London) to John Marriott (MI5), 3 December 1951. NA KV 2/1832. Also speaking at the Science for Peace meeting were the botanist Frederick Gugenheim Gregory, the physicist C.F. Powell, and J.D. Bernal, who spoke from the floor.

(14) Excerpt (incomplete) of report on Science for Peace meeting, 1951. NA KV 2/1832.

(15) NA KV 2/3228 – KV 2/3239.

(16) ‘Atom scientist’, Evening Standard, 10th October 1949.

Did you study at a new university in the 1960s or 1970s?

By Jon Agar, on 10 May 2016

Were you studying, teaching or researching science or technology at one or the following universities in the 1960s or 1970s? Or do you know someone who did?

  • University of Sussex
  • University of York
  • University of Kent at Canterbury
  • University of East Anglia
  • University of Essex
  • University of Lancaster
  • University of Warwick
  • Brunel University

If so, I would very much like to hear about your experiences.

I am planning to conduct some research as part of a project on the expansion of the new 1960s universities and the conversion of the Colleges of Advanced Technology to university status, and am particularly interested in how these changes reshaped the teaching and research of science and technology in the UK.

If you are able to share your memories I would be very grateful if you could contact me. My email address is jonathan.agar@


My postal address is:

Professor Jon Agar, Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS), University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT



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?