Exhibition Review: Winston Churchill's Scientists at the Science Museum

By Rachel Teskey | 27 January 2015

Review: Radio telescope salvaged from gunships and intriguing characters in Science Museum show on 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death

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January 2015 marks 50 years since the death of Churchill. The Science Museum is commemorating the anniversary by introducing us to a lesser-known side of the great man.

Entering the exhibition, you are greeted by a sculpture of the famous craggy, jowly face. But the Churchill of this exhibition is a more boyish character, fascinated by the stories and inventions of HG Wells and drawn to boundary-pushing ideas: one of his wartime research laboratories was nicknamed ‘Churchill’s Toyshop’.

As Prime Minister, his enthusiasm was matched by the knowledge and experience of his friend and advisor Professor Frederick Lindemann. Churchill was the first Prime Minister to have a scientific advisor always on hand, and the two men worked together for the duration of World War Two and for many years afterwards. The unexpected pairing of the ascetic Lindemann and the expansive Churchill runs throughout the exhibition.

Many other intriguing characters pepper the exhibition, although unfortunately there is not space to explore them further. They include Beryl Power – who was responsible for coordinating a register of 7,000 eager scientists who signed up to help the war effort – and Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, two refugee physicists who were the first to discover how a uranium bomb could be built.

A photo of various ration books from the second world war
Used ration books© Science Museum SSPL
Among the extensive cast of characters that made such significant and diverse contributions to the war effort, Churchill’s role in the scientific innovations of the period is sometimes lost. However, a quote from physicist and wartime radar expert Bernard Lovell encapsulates the culture of experimentation and the can-do attitude of scientific research under Churchill: “The question during the War was never ‘How much will it cost?’ but ‘Can you do it and how soon can we have it?’”.

In this atmosphere of positivity and determination, everything from nuclear bombs to penicillin to calcium-enriched bread was developed to support troops and civilians alike.

One of the most vital inventions of World War Two was radar. The radar receiver used in the first British experiment to prove the viability of radar is displayed here: a huge contraption of copper cylinders, criss-crossed wires, nuts and bolts.

The more prosaic, but no less essential, ways that science was used during the War are also showcased. The misleadingly glamorously-titled ‘S Branch’ was a crack team of statisticians responsible for monitoring and analysing fuel reserves, food production and convoy movements.

These figures were presented to Churchill in colourful graphs that provided him with an instant snapshot of the situation. One example featured here was surely dear to Churchill’s heart: the fluctuating status of bacon and ham production.

The ethos of innovation and investment in science that flourished under Churchill in the war years continued in peacetime. The final section of the exhibition examines the discoveries made by Churchill’s scientists in the 1950s.

This was an exciting time that saw great leaps in our understanding of genetics, neurology and nuclear power. Bernard Lovell, for example, used his experiences working on radar to develop the field of radio astronomy, establishing the Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Fittingly, many of the parts for his radio telescope were salvaged from the gun turrets of battleships. Neurologist William Grey Walter was also inspired by his wartime work. An electrocardiogram (ECG) that he repurposed from a bomber navigation indicator is one of many ingenious inventions on display.

The scope of this exhibition is vast, touching on countless stories, individuals and inventions. At times it lacks depth and critical analysis of the more controversial developments of the period, such as nuclear weaponry. But it vividly conveys the scale of the scientific achievements between the late 1930s and the 1950s, envisioned by Churchill and realised by the diligence and dedication of his scientists.

  • Churchill’s Scientists is at the Science Museum, London until March 1 2016. Open 10am-6pm, admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @sciencemuseum.

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Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls were very clever guys, but they didn't actualy discover how an atom bomb could be constructed. That was alread known. What they did discover was that the critical mass of Uranium-235 required was less than had been thought.

Before their discovery, it had been assumed that an atom bomb would be so large that it could only be delivered by sea. Their estimate was that it would take only 1kg of Uranium, which was actually a little low.
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