Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett (1897–1974) was an outstanding scientist and a remarkable man. Trained at Rutherford's Cavendish Laboratory in the 1920s, he established himself as a virtuoso of cloud-chamber technique in the emerging field of nuclear physics. As Professor of Physics at, successively, Birkbeck College and Manchester University he and his students used the cloud chamber and related methods to explore cosmic rays and what came to be known as particle physics. For this work he won international recognition and the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948.
He had a key role in framing British military science policy before and during World War II and in developing the field of operational research, as well as the role of the scientific adviser in the armed services. At Manchester and, from the 1950s, Imperial College, his interest turned to magnetism and geophysics, and he made significant contributions supporting the theory of continental drift.
However, Blackett was also a controversial figure. His firmly left-wing politics set him against the British establishment in the 1940s and 1950s, and his outspoken criticisms of British and American nuclear policy in the early Cold War meant that he was excluded from science advisory circles and Whitehall's corridors of power for several years. The FBI kept files on him, and George Orwell identified him as a fellow-traveller who should not be trusted with government work.
From this wilderness Blackett concerned himself with the relationship between science and technology and national development, and became an important science adviser to the Indian government. His Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1957—one of the most contentious in the BAAS's history—called for aid to former colonies in the developing world, earning him derision from conservative commentators.
In the new political climate of the 1960s, Blackett was back in favour, and he became scientific adviser to the Wilson government's Ministry of Technology. He was an articulate and insightful spokesman for British science, and crowned his career with the Presidency of the Royal Society from 1965 to 1970 and a peerage in 1969. As an elder statesman of science, he was a public figure with immense integrity and an intellectual honesty and courageousness that prompted admiration and hostility in equal measure.
Given his centrality to British science in the twentieth century, it is surprising that no full-length biography of Blackett has hitherto appeared. Mary Jo Nye, a distinguished historian of science at Oregon State University has amply filled this gap with a thorough—and eminently readable—account of Blackett's life and work. Drawing extensively on the rich Blackett archive at the Royal Society, the Nobel Prize archives in Stockholm and other published and unpublished material, Nye charts Blackett's career from humble naval cadet in 1914 to the commanding heights of British science. She explores the connections between his science and his politics, and provides illuminating new insights into both Blackett and the professional and social context in which he worked. The book will be essential reading for those interested not just in its central subject but in the wider politics of twentieth century British science.
- © 2006 The Royal Society