Before being awarded a Nobel Prize, Patrick Blackett was a pioneer in the use of extensive data analysis, error bounding, and probability theory of anecdote-based tactics, he devised improved strategies against deadly German submarines.
The idea of “big data” is a major topic today, of course, but it’s not a new concept. During World War II, German U-boats (submarines) were taking a considerable toll on transatlantic ships. These U-boats were hard to locate, and harder to attack and sink once found successfully. The crude radar of the day, inherent advantages of submarines, non-existence of sonar, and limited flight range and offensive weapons payload of sub-hunting airplanes combined for a frustrating cat-and-mouse game – with the mouse (the U-boast) usually getting away even if spotted by the cat (the sub-hunting aircraft).
This article will focus on the beginnings of “systems analysis” in the approach pioneered by one man who played a large role in turning ineffective and futile offensive tactics against German U-boats (submarines, short for German “Unterseeboot” translated as “undersea boat”) into a much more effective set, especially in conjunction with other technical developments. In many ways, his work was a precursor of “big data,” albeit with much less “big” than we now accept, but it was done under life-or-death circumstances and wartime pressures, and without computing and computers as we know them now.
The insight and leadership of Patrick M. S. Blackett (1897-1974) (Figure 1), was a major contributing factor in the eventual defeat of the U-boats. Unfortunately, he is one of those individuals with many significant and tangible accomplishments yet is mostly forgotten, and his role glossed over. Among these other lifetime accomplishments, he received the 1948 Nobel Prize in physics for his work related to the Wilson cloud chamber, where his unique experimental setup captured the path of cosmic rays and lead to the discovery of the antimatter electron (now called the positron). Sadly, many histories of the discovery of the positron fail to mention his role, and the formal Nobel Prize Award proclamation states the prize was “for his development of the Wilson cloud chamber method, and his discoveries therewith in the fields of nuclear physics and cosmic radiation.”
Blackett was a young naval officer who had seen considerable combat in WWI. In WWII, he played a crucial role in devising tactics that would contribute to the end of the Nazi U-boats as a significant threat to the trans-Atlantic convoys, which sustained Britain. For example, in one respected work (Reference 2), the work of Blackett and his group get only three pages out of nearly seven hundred.
Blackett’s family was solid upper-middle class, and he was a good but loner student who was attracted to physics from his early days He was also a lifelong socialist with a strong leaning to Russian communism and apologist for Stalin. He began his scientific work by studying, operating, and improving the Wilson cloud chamber (the primary instrument for research into atomic particles). His experience as an experimental physicist taught him to both analyze data relentlessly and to question it.
Part 2 of this article looks at the beginnings of what we now call operations research using data (big and otherwise) by Blackett.
- The Noble Prize, “Patrick M.S. Blackett – Facts“
- John Terraine, “The U-Boat Wars: 1916-1945,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989.
- Stephen Budiansky, “Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare,” Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
- May Jo Nye, “Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century,” Harvard University Press, 2004.
- Paul M Kennedy, “Engineers of victory: the problem solvers who turned the tide in the Second World War,” Random House, 2013.
- Donald G. F. W.Macintyre, “U-Boat Killer: Fighting the U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic,” Rigel Press, 2004.
- Robert Buderi, “The Invention that Changed the World: How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and Launched a Technological Revolution,” Simon & Schuster, 1998.
- Royal Air Force Museum, “RADAR – The Battle Winner?”
- We Are the Mighty, “The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews”
- Medium, “Abraham Wald and the Missing Bullet Holes” (an excerpt from “How Not To Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg)
- American Mathematical Society, “The Legend of Abraham Wald”