Science Book a Day Interviews Stephen Budiansky

budianskySpecial thanks to Stephen Budiansky for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare

Stephen Budiansky is the author of fourteen books about military history, intelligence and espionage, science, and the natural world. His most recent book is Blackett’s War, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times magazine and op-ed pages, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The Economist, and many other publications. – From Stephen’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

I’ve long been fascinated by the intersection between science and warfare. Most of those stories have been pretty thoroughly chewed over  — the atomic bomb most notably; the codebreakers at Bletchley Park and Washington in World War II (whose story I delved into in my earlier book Battle of Wits) — so I always have had my eyes out for less told tales of science innovation in war.

#2 – Do many people know the story of Patrick Blackett? And why not?

No — that’s part of what makes it a good story! He certainly isn’t a household name. Partly I think that was because he was a very private man and a somewhat difficult person as well: he never went out of his way to blow his own horn. Also, the story of the development of operational research is not a natural tale the way the making of the atomic bomb was: it’s not as self-evident how it contributed to winning the war. But in fact as I try to show in the book it’s both an amazing intellectual and human story, and also one that played a truly vital part in defeating Nazi Germany — and forever changing the way wars are fought and won.

#3 – Science’s involvement with science seems so obvious now. What were the cultural/social reasons that ‘scientific’ knowledge was scoffed at by military commanders? Are things different now?

What Blackett himself noted was that while the militaries of the 1930s and 1940s appreciated the role of science in developing new weapons, they were very wary of letting scientists have any role beyond that; they definitely saw the development of operations and strategy as their sole province and weren’t about to let civilian intellectuals butt their noses in. There definitely were cultural reasons for that: commanders, I think especially in Britain, saw command as a gentlemanly art that was honed through experience in battle, and the scientists were often of the “wrong” background, socially and personally. There was also the natural jealousy of guarding one’s own turf. A real revolution has happened since then, thanks almost entirely to Blackett and his colleagues. Operations research is now a fundamental part of military planning and if you visit, say, the submarine command of the US Pacific Fleet, every top  commander has a civilian PhD scientist practically attached to him at the hip as a key adviser these days.

#4 – Blackett’s War came out earlier this year. What has been the response from the public and those in the military?

It’s gotten some nice reviews in a lot of different worlds — business publications like the Wall Street Journal, which picked up on the importance of OR in business; science publications; and military journals as well (such as Naval Institute Proceedings and the Submarine Review), which noted the foundational role of Blackett in modern naval ops.

#5 – Are you working on a new book/project that you can tell us about?

I just finished something *completely* different: a biography of the quintessentially American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954): it’s called MAD MUSIC and is coming out this spring.

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