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Professor Lindemann will take your call now, Mr Churchill

You can’t blame them. It would go to anybody’s head.

You can, in a way, blame Frederick Lindemann, the first (and last) Viscount Cherwell.

Apart from the facts that he more or less founded Oxford physics and so got a laboratory named after him and was some sort of scientific adviser to Churchill, most of what I know about Lindemann I learned today, from this site, aimed at children in secondary schools, and Wikipedia.

Lindemann ought to be more famous. He developed the first theory of how to recover when an aeroplane goes into a spin, and learned to fly so that he could repeatedly and dangerously put it to the test on his own aircraft. Umpteen pilots owe him their lives. Umpteen Germans owe him their deaths: his hatred of Nazism was “almost pathological” and – well, let Wikipedia give you the flavour:

When Churchill became Prime Minister, he appointed Lindemann as the British government’s leading scientific adviser … Lindemann established a special statistical branch, known as ‘S-Branch’, within the government, constituted from subject specialists, and reporting directly to Churchill. This branch distilled thousands of sources of data into succinct charts and figures, so that the status of the nation’s food supplies (for example) could be instantly evaluated. Lindemann’s statistical branch often caused tensions between government departments, but because it allowed Churchill to make quick decisions based on accurate data which directly affected the war effort, its importance should not be underestimated … In 1940, Lindemann supported the experimental department MD1. He worked on hollow charge weapons, the sticky bomb and other new weapons … “In his appointment as Personal Assistant to the Prime Minister no field of activity was closed to him. He was as obstinate as a mule, and unwilling to admit that there was any problem under the sun which he was not qualified to solve. He would write a memorandum on high strategy one day, and a thesis on egg production on the next” … Following the Air Ministry Area bombing directive on 12 February 1942, Lindemann presented the dehousing paper to Churchill on 30 March 1942, which advocated area bombardment of German cities to break the spirit of the people … Lindemann also played a key part in the battle of the beams, championing countermeasures to the Germans use of radio navigation to increase the precision of their bombing campaigns.

Lindemann’s achievements in science, though distinguished, have been surpassed by those of other scientists. But never before or since has a single scientist, in his role as a scientist, been so close to the seat of power. He was like a Grand Vizier of old. His name may not be that famous, even among scientists, but his role in the Great Drama has become a folk memory; a fantasy.

In the 1950s Isaac Asimov, writing under the pseudonym Paul French, produced an enjoyable series of science fiction novels for teenagers featuring David “Lucky” Starr, Space Ranger. (In which occurs the first known appearance of the lightsaber trope. I didn’t know that.) Like the Lone Ranger, Lucky has a faithful sidekick. Like James Bond – whose career began at about the same time – Lucky has gadgets. And backup. On Lucky’s wrist there is a tattoo which is invisible until Lucky exerts his will, triggering some chemicals or hormones or something, which makes the tattoo become visible. Then they sit up, take notice, and hasten to do what he says, because the tattoo reveals that he is a member – indeed, the youngest ever member – of the Council of Science.

The Council of Science!

Quoting Wikipedia again:

In a later novel in the series, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, the Council of Science is described this way: “In these days, when science really permeated all human society and culture, scientists could no longer restrict themselves to their laboratories. It was for that reason that the Council of Science had been born. Originally it was intended only as an advisory body to help the government on matters of galactic importance, where only trained scientists could have sufficient information to make intelligent decisions. More and more it had become a crime-fighting agency, a counterespionage system. Into its own hands it was drawing more and more of the threads of government.”

And just for a while a year or two back it all looked like coming true. Lindemann’s heirs back in the saddle again. Maybe not the tattoos, but the Scientist taking the President’s calls, speaking with grave wisdom to the frightened assemblies and governments of mankind.

You can’t really blame them, can you? For remembering their time of glory and feeling just a smidgeon of pleasure that those days were here again?

From the story quoted by Brian in the post below this one:

Scientists have called for Second World War-style rationing in rich countries to bring down carbon emissions, as world leaders meet in Cancun for the latest round of talks on climate change.

32 comments to Professor Lindemann will take your call now, Mr Churchill

  • I read your article and then noticed the second category it was posted under… genuine LOL moment 🙂

  • Unfortunately, such councils of science are emplaced everywhere- the public health movement is another example. I fear that reports of their death have been grossly exaggerated.

    For instance, the government, under orders from the council of science, is bringing in new laws against smokers and drinkers et al. Another council of science is instructing another government department what (“research based”) measures businesses must take to be more gay friendly. And so on.

    Asimov was a major promoter of the socialist scientism that now dominates government, and as such quite the prophet.

  • In which occurs the first known appearance of the lightsaber trope. I didn’t know that.

    Star Wars is very Asimovian in a great many ways, I think.

  • Asimov was an unreadable wanker.

  • Jubal Harshaw

    That was the odd thing about Asimov, to my mind. He had some great ideas that he turned into potentially good plots, that he then proceeded to turn into very pedestrian novels.

    He completely misread the audience for Foundation, for example. Most people realize that authoritarian technocrats are way too busy schemin’ an’ plottin’ to read that many volumes of an instruction manual. He should have got to the whole ‘Galactic Domination’ bit by the end of Chapter 5 in the first book.

    And who can possibly be interested in robots that are hardwired in such a way that they can’t be used as battlefield droids to slay their builders’ foes? Who’s interested in autonomous houshold vacuum cleaners anyway?

    Heinlein was far better in that respect, especially in his earlier works, where a wholesome young farm-hand could run away to space and end up incinerating whole alien invasion fleets, and all in time to return home to Auntie M’s fish-and-chip supper – oops, that was E.E. (Doc) Smith.

  • I read Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ and some other shorts when I was thirteen or so – thoroughly enjoyed them at the time, but I don’t know if I’d feel the same way on re-reading them now.

  • Back on-topic: on the “council of science” thing, I do think they have the germ of a good point; I was re-reading Popper this morning and came across this:

    “I admit that there is a serious problem of a professional education, that of narrow-mindedness… And in our day no man should be considered educated if he does not take an interest in science… For science is not merely a collection of facts about electricity etc.; it is one of the most important spiritual movements of our day… Taught in this way [science], as a part of the history of ‘natural philosophy’, and of the history of problems and ideas, it could become the basis of a new liberal University education; of one whose aim, where it cannot produce experts, will be to produce at least men who can distinguish between a charlatan and an expert. This modest and liberal aim will be far beyond anything that our Arts faculties nowadays achieve.”

    That was Popper writing [emphasis original] in the 1940s (note 6 to Chapter 11 of Vol 2 of The Open Society – p737-738 in the 2002 one volume Routledge edition).

  • Simon Jester

    Who’s interested in autonomous houshold vacuum cleaners anyway?

    The Door into Summer is one off my favourite Heinleins.

  • Natalie starts, presumably referring to scientists, with:

    You can’t blame them. It would go to anybody’s head.

    and, near the ends, writes:

    For remembering their time of glory and feeling just a smidgeon of pleasure that those days were here again?

    I really am not happy with this: it strikes me as calling for scientists to be viewed as one tribe, with the characteristics of an enemy. [Bureaucrats on the other hand, … – well they do have some valid functions, but when it gets to ‘crats’, they have gone too far. Likewise technocrats: I think the ‘crats’ are more tribal. One never hears that dealing with them is like herding cats: a sobriquet often applies to scientists.]

    One of Churchill’s more famous quotes is:

    Scientists should be on tap, but not on top.

    As Natalie links, Linderman was right on some things and wrong on others: surely the lot of us all.

    Is not our greatest knowledge, that of the true extent of our (present though always decreasing) ignorance.

    Back in February 2008, Brian instigated an interesting discussion on Samizdata: What Use is Maths?. Is that worth a re-read?

    My view: science, mathematics, engineering, medicine (throw in technology if you think that words adds useful scope) are the keys to our prosperity, though I also acknowledge the contributions of other wise leadership and knowledge (especially on the law, economics and politics).

    The issue is not that the basic contributions of science, maths and other basic knowledge have any bad components: just that sometimes society applies badly, that which can be applied in many ways.

    Commenting above at December 4, 2010 06:29 AM, Mike quotes Popper:

    And in our day no man should be considered educated if he does not take an interest in science … to produce at least men who can distinguish between a charlatan and an expert.

    I’m with Mike and Popper.

    Best regards

  • Nigel, I think you are taking my opening line a little too seriously. It did indeed refer to scientists, but it was akin to talking about “bleedin’ teachers” or saying “isn’t that just like a man!”. I have on occasion spoken of teachers and men in those terms despite being married to someone who fulfils both categories!

    I studied science. I earn some of my living in the field of science education. I can sometimes wax almost as eloquent as Popper on its value.

    But I still maintain that as a body scientists have a tendency to get above themselves every few decades and need a good solid (er, metaphorically solid, that is) bang on their collective heads with a cartoon hammer. And the red fruit of Rubus idaeus blown in their general direction.

  • RW

    The aircraft bit was truly impressive. A man with the courage of his calculations? Should we call him a spin doctor?

    But Natalie, “more or less founded Oxford physics”. WTF? He worked in the Clarendon…

    The display techniques in the Cabinet War Rooms were a significant milestone in the development of modern information presentation. I have no idea whether he invented them himself or merely championed them; either way an important part of his heritage.

  • RW, according to this link, A brief history of physics in the University of Oxford,

    The turning point in Oxford physics came in 1919 with the appointment of Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell) as Clifton’s successor as head of the Clarendon Laboratory. He had a considerable reputation as a brilliant physicist before the First World War, and for his application of the scientific method to the war effort. Although he did little research of his own between 1919 and his resignation in 1956, he built up a physics department which was to rival any in the country; initially the main development was in the low-temperature field, with significant contributions in optical spectroscopy and atmospheric physics.
    Coupled with this was a great expansion of space and facilities for teaching and research which has continued to the present day. In 1939 the old Clarendon Laboratory was vacated and a move was made to a new and far larger modern building, now the Lindemann Building of the Clarendon Laboratory.

  • John B

    Scientists and technologists have done a tremendous amount of good with the comforts we take for granted. It can be truly mind boggling to reflect on, sometimes.
    I can remember when computers were things found in universities or big corporations.
    Science has made what would have been a very high standard of comfort some, few years ago, simply normal.

    However, it does get some basic premise consistently wrong, it would seem, as we lurch from one disaster to the next.
    The Brave New World it is enabling will certainly be a nightmare.

    I guess it’s the difference between cleverness and wisdom, and then some.

  • General comment, before I forget. Another one of Lindemann’s achievements that was both humane and, as things turned out, kinda useful, was that he was instrumental in finding jobs for and generally supporting refugee scientists from Germany and eastern European countries.

    According to this link,

    … Szilard made contact [with] a British physicist, Frederick Lindemann, who became Szilard’s patron. The fact that Lindemann was a close confidant of and a scientific adviser to the well-known politician Winston Churchill, at the time out of office but making his voice heard about the ugly events in Germany, was also a plus. Lindemann tipped Szilard off to the fact that patents could be kept secret if they were filed with the British military, and helped prod the British Admiralty into granting a secret patent to Szilard for explosives “very many thousands of times more powerful than ordinary bombs.”

    Leo Szilard was the one “who conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein’s signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb.”

  • Leo Szilard was later petitioned Truman to not use the bomb. His reasoning was very sound. It went like this:

    The SU is in a right mess, rebuilding will take an awful lot of effort but if Stalin is aware such a thing is possible he will have to have it and rebuilding be buggered. This will result in a nuclear stand-off. If we keep the bomb quiet this won’t happen.

    Sound but wrong. The Sovs had been working on the bomb for a few years already. Szilard of course wasn’t in a position to know this. Indeed neither was Truman. It is easy to blame the likes of Fuchs but the Sovs had already started anyway. The USA seriously underestimated Soviet physics. Best estimates for a Sov bomb at the time were between fifteen years and never. The first successful Sov test was in 1949.

  • I think part of the problem is the way a great many scientists lobby for funds or talk to the public. Nuclear power was “electricity too cheap to meter”, “DNA the secret of life itself”, “Global warming is the Four Climatologists of the Apocalypse”. In order to make what they do interesting sounding and important sounding thy do tend to go “route one”. Look at tokamaks… It’s never jam today but always 20-50 years hence and has been for 50+ years. There is a fundamental difference between science and politics in things like time-scales and getting stuff done. Let’s say a PM wants to increase NHS spending by 15% – well, that is just something that can be done. Improving healthcare though different story but pols always talk in terms of expenditure and not results (especially Gordon Brown). Science isn’t like that. No quantity of money or smarts will build a perpetual motion machine.

    Sorry if the above is confused. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is very difficult for scientists to explain the importance of their work accurately (and it tends to lose people) so they reduce it to a black and white cartoon like simplicity and the invocation of war (either real or metaphorical) is something people (and even pols) get. It’s grabbing the tail of the tiger because of course reality is a lot more complicated and eventually when the ‘lecky bills keep dropping on the mat or the magic cancer cure pill doesn’t turn-up the tiger turns round and bites.

    PS. Natalie, Lindemann and your original post kinda reminds me of Bracewell and his Ironsides from Dr Who. Fascinating post BTW. Keep buggering on!

  • He completely misread the audience for Foundation, for example. Most people realize that authoritarian technocrats are way too busy schemin’ an’ plottin’ to read that many volumes of an instruction manual.

    Shoko Asahara, Osama bin Laden, Paul Krugman, and Newt Gingrich do all appear to have got to the end, though, alas.

  • As to getting the scientists out of the Nazi sphere…

    A journalist once asked a NASA type:

    “So you reckon we can beat the Russkies in the space race?”

    “Yeah, our Germans are cleverer than their Germans”.

    I think this was just after Sputnik or Gargarin when NASA was specialising in things blowing-up on the launch pad.

  • NickM, thou mutant, begone from my mind!

    I actually thought of putting in some “Victory of the Daleks” stuff, and of explaining Lindemann’s pivotal but cantankerous role in the Ironsides programme.

    Only didn’t because Lindemann and Lucky Starr in one post was silly enough already.

  • Well, according to Peter Oborne in The Telegraph, the country is actually run these days by Gus O’Donnell.

    We seem to have reached that stage of imperial decline in which the emperors just take orders from the eunuchs of the harem.

  • John B

    Ian, the Telegraph review is brilliant. Not the whole truth by any means, but a substantial look into it.

    Oborne’s words:
    Wilson’s version is fair and accurate. He stresses the central role played by the civil service, and in particular Sir Gus, who foresaw a hung parliament and made extensive preparations, including the production of a new cabinet manual, entitled “A Compendium of the Laws, Conventions and Constitutional Underpinning of the UK System of Government”.

    I would change that to say that conservative Conservatives were undermined, and a weak policy for Cameron was produced that ensured a hung parliament.
    It was not foreseen. It was manufactured so that the “establishment” could consolidate and impose power on the ruling apparatus.
    Divide and rule? Consolidate, dilute, and rule!
    No doubt they will be bringing in a Labour or some other government when it suits them.
    Just a question of playing the right scenarios to the electorate.

    One of the things about propaganda:

    They don’t tell you what to think. Or what not to think.
    They tell you what they think will get you to think the way they want you to think.

    And it usually works.

  • “They don’t tell you what to think. Or what not to think.
    They tell you what they think will get you to think the way they want you to think.”

    Two thumbs up! Bang on.

  • In other words, scientists are great at producing highly useful technical knowledge, but they then think that being smarter and having proven it means they are therefore socially superior and entitles them to determine what others should or should not value. This is perfectly understable as a consequence of belief in the existence of intrinsic values, be that belief implicit or explicit, and with all the ethical and political consequences to match.

    This basis in intrinsic values points out more parallels and instances of the same phenomena at work regarding environmentalism than have been identified so far. It is no accident that many of these scientists (and sci-fi novelists) with attitudes like that were also socialist and that many an environmentalist is a watermelon. Cross-link this, additionally, with the war on drugs or alcohol or obesity or with many other forms of intrusion and abrogations of our rights.

    This is also for that reason a concretisation of the fact that philosophy is the prime driver of course of history, and via deeper causation than just the particular contents of ethical codes and political beliefs, and how most people don’t realise the philosophies from which originate both the method and content of much of their thinking. Keynes, though otherwise a twat, was on to something when he noted that the ideas-eschewing “practical” man is not as independent of past thinkers as he believes. Keynes’ own problem was the shallowness of his observation, and that the root influences are philosophers and not economists.

    Yes, this is essentially channelling an “I told you so” from Ayn Rand. In fact, she’d likely go much broader than this and be right to do so. Intrinsicism in epistemology sooner or later leads to totalitarianism in politics.


  • John B

    The scientist usually is smarter, and an educated approach to events is usually more accurate and thus is more likely to achieve its desired objectives.
    And the practical man, like Dr Johnson, may kick the tree and say, there, it is, or something like that.
    It is when they deviate from reality, usually in an unthinking, instinctive or emotional manner, based, indeed, on those attitudes taken in unthinkingly and that become accepted as “given” realities, that they are at risk of going wrong and do go wrong.
    As do we all.
    Keynes was probably a deliberate deceiver primarily absorbed in fuelling his sense of importance. It is a temptation we all have to resist but I guess the superior classes find it much harder to do!

    Ta, Nick.

  • Intrinsicism in epistemology sooner or later leads to totalitarianism in politics.

    My quote of the day.

  • Spartacus school net might be a site aimed at middle and secondary students, but it is excellent and eminently readable. I’ve learned quite a bit from just browsing through there.

    I really enjoy reading your articles, really thought provoking, sometimes damnable and sometimes fist-in-the-air. Thank you.

  • Asimov had a slightly-different take on all-wise Planners in The End of Eternity.

    In The End of Eternity, all of history is planned by the Eternals, planners who really are all-wise because they have time travel and can see what the effects of their actions will be, … and they still manage to make a mess of things:

    “Any system like Eternity which allows men to choose their own future will end by choosing safety and mediocrity, and in such a Reality the stars are out of reach.”

  • Paul Marks

    “The New Atlantis” by Francis Bacon.

    An elite of scientists rule – for the Progressive benefit of humanity.

    1610 (or close to) if my memory serves.

    FrancisBacon was not that good at science – for example he wanted to ban the idea that the Earth went round the Sun (not just was he wrong – but by wanting to ban an idea he showed that he was not good at even the “philosophy of science” which people say he was good at, for if you ban ideas the free discussion on which science depends dies), but (like his namesake Roger Bacon – some centuries before) he was very keen on new technology.

    However, there is no reason to suppose that someone who is good at producing new bits of kit should be good at ruling.

    And there is even no reason to suppose that someone who has made great contributions to understanding the universe should be any good at ruling.

    Let us say that the theory of man made globel warming is 100% correct.

    A response of government “carbon rationing” would still be wrong – utterly crazy in fact.

    But someone whose only knowledge is natural science would not be able to understand why this is so.

    If scientists wish to do something to reduce C02 emissions they should forget about politics (all those C02 producing conferences and reports).

    They should concentrate on applying science to new technolgy – and not just to any old technology.

    Technology that will produce CHEAPER energy (cheaper in total – including the cost of the tech) than C02 producing technology does.

    “Why is it important that the new energy should be sold at a cheaper price than current energy?”

    See above – one needs more than only the knowledge of physical science.

  • andrew,

    Spartacus schoolnet.co.uk is indeed useful, and usually pretty impartial, despite its founder, John Simkin, having a very left wing background – the “Spartacus” in the name is a hint at this.

    Joseph Hertzlinger,

    I am very fond of Asimov. I was given the Foundation books for my fourteenth birthday, and was two days past fourteen when I reached the point where it says Arcadia Darell was two days past fourteen. Bliss! Despite these happy memories, the Foundation books look a bit clunky now.

    But The End of Eternity still fizzes with ideas – and as you say, has a different, and to my mind superior, philosophy about the all-not-so-wise planners.

    (Not that the Foundation books themselves were entirely uncritical of the planners’ wisdom – Seldon looks a right twit when he makes his appearance just before the Mule takes over the Foundation.)

    As you probably know, Asimov wrote a later sequel to the Foundation books in which he backed away from the statist / elitist implications of psychohistory. Politically this was an improvement, but as a story I found it annoying. It made what had gone before feel pointless. A little fascism helps give the plot a good shape!

    Paul Marks,

    Thank you for the pointer to The New Atlantis. I had heard of its existence, but little more than that. Something I must investigate.

  • Correction, two later sequels to the Foundation books.

  • Bacon carried out one scientific experiment. He stuffed a chicken with snow, caught a chill and died.

    He wasn’t much cop at the philosophy of it either. He was a “naive empiricist”. Back to the chicken incident. Bacon believed in “creating natural histories”. So you wanna know about cold then draw up a list of cold things and figure out what they have in common. He never thought in terms of a theoretical structure in which cold doesn’t exist and indeed cold is simply the absence of warmth rather than a thing in and of itself.

    You see he didn’t really believe in theory. We glibly talk about a “scientific revolution” and it wasn’t. What happened is that the likes of Newton fused empiricism with theory. Baconian naive empiricism was a non-starter and so was Cartesian rationalism. Put them together though and bang, we are off! Of course this wasn’t easy and the likes of Kepler never quite abandoned stuff like his Mysterium Cosmigraphicum and all that “harmony of the spheres” jazz in spite of his own work! Even Newton had some very funny ideas. But that is not what remains of the giants. What remains of the chicken-stuffer is rather more moot.

    But what is really fascinating is that anti-science kept on trucking. A undergrad physics text-book of mine contained a cartoon from the IEEE or similar in the C19th mocking Maxwell. It was titled, “The Triumph of Experience over Experiment”. Essentially Maxwell had raised the bar mathematically and folks didn’t like it. It took Heaviside and Gibbs to make Maxwell’s Equations tractable. Same happened with Relativity.

  • John B

    I don’t think Relativity has really been taken on board. If it had a lot of certainty would have gone out of a lot of assumptions.