In the mid 1930s the British Air Ministry was seriously worried about death rays - there were rumors that the Germans had developed such a weapon and the notion of death rays was strongly embedded in the popular culture of the day. Rather than dismiss the notion, the director of scientific research at the the air ministry asked Robert Watson-Watt for his assessment.1
WWI was something of a turning point as applied science had emerged as a potent tool. It was clear to many in German, Britain and the United States that being able to create large applied science and research engineering projects. Britain, in particular, had taken this very seriously and had a network of research labs throughout the nation.
Watson-Watt was trained as a physicist and spent part of WWI working on radio trying to crack the problem of thunderstorm detection. After the war he rose in stature and was leading the radio research department at the National Physical Laboratory when the curious death ray request came. He pointed out such a device, using any current or emerging technology, would be ineffective - perhaps you could raise the temperature of a pilot in an approaching aircraft by an almost unmeasurable amount, but nothing more.
But then the brilliant bit. He noted that a signal would reflect off the plane and could be measured elsewhere. By using the fact that radio waves propagated at the speed of light and measuring elapsed time it would be possible to determine the distance of the airplane. By sweeping a beam you could also determine a heading. Within a month he submitted a proposal to build what later became known as radar and a few weeks later, before funding had been approved, he was able to show off a proof of concept.
The early units required a large amount of power, but it was clear they would be a game changer for air defense. An airborne radar would be even more useful and a separate project was started to build a very powerful compact and efficient transmitter that could be carried in an airplane. The result, and it required only a very small amount of time, was the magnetron. It not only revolutionized aircraft detection and tracking, but is at the heart of your microwave oven.
The British were worried that the Germans might catch on. Some details had emerged on the German radar effort, but their units were primitive by comparison and so large as to require a dedicated station. It was worried the Germans would realize the RAF always seemed to turn up where they weren't expected and give away the advantage.
Enter the carrot.
It was well known that vitamin A deficiency resulted in bad vision. A story was manufactured that implied taking large doses of Vitamin A by eating carrots would improve night vision - something that had no scientific basis. The government had citizens growing carrots and supplying the RAF. Pilots and civilians believed that RAF aircrews had superhuman eyesight courtesy of the carrots. The Germans may or may not have fallen for the deception, but the myth endured.
The English excelled at going for the low hanging technological fruit. They didn't have the time or resources for enormous efforts like America's Manhattan Project. Instead they sent relevant physicists to Los Alamos and concentrated on projects that were relatively inexpensive and would have a short term payoff. Some crazy and risky shcemes were tried, but all within fixed limits.
Just in time research - but science has the important side effect, scientists would say it is central, of asking new questions...
Francis Crick was a young physicist working on mine detection at the end of the war. LIke many physicists of the day he had become obsessed with information and decided to bring that background to biology. As it happened he was something of a disaster in the lab, but had one of those great synthesizing minds and, after teaming up with James Watson, sorted out the basics of DNA starting a major revolution.
Maurice Wilkes was another young English physicist who had been tapped to work on radar and operations research during WWII. Puzzling information became one of his core interests and after the war he returned to Cambridge to start their Mathematical Laboratory. In the US we tend to have a bias about the early history of computing. Much of it took place at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies - but Wilkes invented microprogramming - the idea that a central processing unit could be controlled by a fast highly specialized program that existed in read only memory - and a variety of memory schemes.2 Some of the early packet network ideas that led to ARPANET and, much later, the Internet came from the Cambridge lab.
This brings me to my Danish cousin.
Bjarne is a great friend and brilliant computer scientist. His Ph.D. is from Cambridge and his thesis advisor's advisor was none other than Wilkes. Since Wilkes was a physicist, Bjarne decided to do a bit of digging and found his great great great great grand-advisor was J. J. Thomson who, among other things, discovered the electron.
My thesis advisor's advisor was also from Cambridge and going back the same genealogical distance one finds J. J. Thomson. Bjarne noted this in an email where he addressed me as "cousin". It turns out the path from Thompson backwards marches directly to Newton, but the notion of what science was had changed dramatically by the mid 19th century into what is familiar today. In fact the term scientist wasn't in use until about that time.
The industrial research science based lab became important in the 30s and projects of a scale and diversity not dreamed of before became national priorities. A key to their success was the mixing of backgrounds and the emergence of entirely new disciplines. Some of this continued after the war fueled by the cold war and, in some cases, large corporate monopolies. That approach has faded, but is showing signs of life again in rather curious places.
1 The British were better prepared for the overlap of science early due, in part, to Winston Churchill who was a great fan of science fiction and science fact. In 1931 he wrote a popular piece on the atomic bomb following up on an HG Wells idea and realized early on that such devices were possible in theory.
2 Both of these laboratories were central to the development of digital computing. I strongly recommend George Dyson's recent book Turing's Cathedral for a look at the American effort at the Institute of Adanced Studies.
Honey Roasted Carrots
° 8 large peeled carrots. Interesting varieties if possible. I find organic carrots often are superior
° 3 tbl olive oil
° 1/4 cup honey - I've also used a good grade B maple syrup
° sea salt and ground pepper - a finishing salt like Maldon is best (Maldon is also English, staying with the theme)
° Heat the oven to about 375°F
° Put the whole carrots into a baking dish and drizzle with the oil. Pour on the honey and then season with salt and pepper mixing until the carrots are more or less uniformly coated.
° Bake until tender or perhaps a bit more if you like (I do, but others seem to prefer the just tender stage) - anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour