THE BLOG

Exhibition Review: Churchill's Scientists, Science Museum

09/04/2015 17:47 BST | Updated 08/06/2015 10:59 BST

2015-04-08-1428518882-5327199-ChurchillsScientists1.jpg

Winston Churchill was fascinated with science - he was the first Prime Minister to have a scientific adviser and encouraged resources to be pushed into science - and Churchill's Scientists, a fascinating new exhibition at the Science Museum, shows just how many scientific breakthroughs and ground-breaking discoveries were made during the War as a result of this support.

From radar to nutrition, from the atom to radar, this tardis-like exhibition covers an extraordinary breadth of innovations that demonstrates what a productive period this was. Necessity being the mother of invention, I suppose. But Churchill's fascination with science was unusual for his generation and helped define the role of science not just during the war but beyond.

The exhibition starts with the preliminaries. Churchill was determined to harness the potential of science and the Royal Society helped compile a register of 7000 scientists who could contribute to the war. Additionally Churchill hired Frederick Lindemann as his personal scientific advisor.

2015-04-08-1428518991-6716689-ChurchillsScientists2.jpg

But the promotion of the man who became known as The Prof was not universally welcomed. The exhibition demonstrates the tension with British bomber command who referred to Lindemann's contribution as "a panacea by a civilian professor whose forte is the sexual aberrations of apes." Ouch! I guess there's office politics wherever you are.

But the dramatic videos in the exhibition of the sinking of British carriers by German U-boats showed just how necessary the contribution from these civilian scientists was.

Churchill admitted that the Battle of the Atlantic gave him more concern than the Battle of Britain but the breadth of solutions and innovations that came from this was challenge was extraordinary.

The success of cryptology and Bletchley Park are - thankfully - now pretty well known. The impact of their work on computer science was profound.

2015-04-08-1428519050-5406196-ChurchillsScientists3.jpg

Similarly the development of radar during these years was rapid. The displays on Henry Tizard, who was crucial in pushing the radar programme forward, are fascinating. Fighters needed on-board radar sets and new electronic techniques to use high-frequency signals.

There is some great description of the Daventry experiments, which gave birth to radar, and wonderful testimony to the uniqueness of British radar developments, which was integrated into a complete defence system.

The Tube Alloys project - the project to separate uranium isotopes - remains probably the most controversial development form the War, and the exhibition does not shrink away from the devastation that the bomb project eventually caused.

2015-04-08-1428519142-4770652-ChurchillsScientists4.jpg

However it also shows how the separate British project became necessary as collaboration with the Americans withered away. And there's some interesting statistics on how nuclear power became harnessed for post-war domestic energy needs where, for a time, Britain led the world in proportion of electricity made from nuclear power.

But there was more to British scientific breakthroughs at this time than pushing for victory.

In 1941, penicillin was developed so it could be harnessed for human use, and Dorothy Hodgkin finally solved the structure of penicillin - on VE Day in 1945, to be exact.

Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson investigated the potential effects of rationing on the British population and their work led to significant developments in the understanding of nutrition as well as calcium carbonate being added to bread.

2015-04-08-1428519222-8420768-ChurchillsScientists5.jpg

And the exhibition brings in the massive strides made in DNA structured identification and analysis, and even space discoveries, which I hadn't even considered could have come from the war effort - but they did.

This is a fascinating exhibition with some wonderful exhibits to really bring the science to life. The exhibition includes some footage and excerpts from Churchill's post-war speeches where he expressed his belief that post-war American prosperity was because pure science had been translated into industry.

Though he hoped for the same in the UK, it's questionable whether that was realised. The British contribution to pioneering scientific developments during the War is incredibly impressive and shows a hint of what, perhaps, this country could do again if the science community had similar support now.

Admission Free

Science Museum, London to March 1, 2016

Image Credits:

1. Entrance to the Churchill's Scientists exhibition © Science Museum

2. Winston Churchill's original green velvet siren suit © Science Museum

3. Gallery view of the Churchill's Scientists exhibition © Science Museum

4. Terri Dendy, Collections Information Officer, photographed with Robert Watson-Watt's original radar apparatus at the press preview of Churchill's Scientists © Science Museum

5. Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill's great-grandson) photographed with the C4 Rotating Mirror High Speed Camera at the press preview of Churchill's Scientists © Science Museum