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1/2 idea No. 33: Radar science/flash/pulse science

By Jon Agar, on 1 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This idea goes back to conversations about research collaboration Jeff Hughes and I had back in the 1990s. We were both interested in the mobilisation of scientists during the Second World War. Jeff’s research was on interwar nuclear science, and mine was on post-war radio astronomy. His scientists went into war labs and mine came out of them. We started drafting a paper on scientists at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), home of UK wartime radar. We argued that the scientists at TRE learned particular ways of working, and, not least, promoting, projects, as well as gaining entrance to influential networks of contacts across military, academia and government. These networks in turn shaped post-war science. We gave some talks on it at the time, but the paper was never published.

I drew on some of insights in the ‘radar sciences’ section of my Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond book.

But this idea is narrower.

Working on radar exposed scientists from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds to the techniques of manipulating “pulses”, loosely defined, of electrical current. The significance of this expertise in the manipulation and storage of discrete electrical current can be seen in, for example, the success of the team under F.C. Williams and Tom Kilburn, both ex-TRE, in being able to build the electronic, stored-program computer at Manchester University, working as early as 1948, ahead of other groups. The pulse-storage CRT “Williams Tubes” were at its centre.

The research question would be: by following technique, what were the consequences of shared, wartime, practical experience in pulsed electronics in the post-war sciences?

Another case study, for example, might be George Porter, radar officer in the Navy during the war, who, post-war, used pulse techniques and flash photolysis in investigating fast reactions, work that subsequently won a Nobel prize. Was there a connection between the war and post-war work? The scales of space and time – picoseconds, nanoseconds – are also interesting to me (I explain my interest in scale elsewhere).

There are plenty of other candidate case studies for this proposal of a practice-centred history of important threads of twentieth-century science. The trick, I feel, would be to follow techniques across disciplinary boundaries as they are picked up and applied away from radar.

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