Tuesday, February 06, 2007


If you think the most important and key invention to come out of the war was the atomic bomb, think again.

Rudolf Peierls was an outstanding German physicist then living as an "enemy alien" emigre in England. He wanted to work on physics, but most of the physicists were then engaged in war work, and being an alien, he was barred from participating in this work. However, insiders knew his special abilities all too well, and Marc Oliphant, an Australian born British scientist, decided to invite Peierls to the University of Birmingham to work on 'pure' physics- microwaves. What possible war use could a discussion on microwaves have? But, as the war made clear, and as mathematician Stanislaw Ulam said later, it is revealing to say the least, what influence a group of people sitting at a table and scribbling on a piece of paper or a blackboard can have on world history. So it was with the men and women who discovered atomic energy, and so it was with Peierls and his microwaves.

The seemingly 'pure' discussion about microwaves that Peierls had with Oliphant resulted in possibly the most important secret of the war- Radar. For Peierls, a man who is not known outside select physics and history circles, this was a double crowning achievement. Because it was Peierls who worked on radar, and more importantly, supplied the first concrete proof of the feasibility of an atomic bomb.

This BBC article nicely and concisely documents the secret that saved England and possibly the world. The atomic bomb might have ended the war, but radar has the greatest claim to have shaped the war in a way that it could actually end in favour of the Allies. It was the everyday use of radar that dealt the decisive blow to the Luftwaffe. This remarkable invention, along with the German Enigma code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park, was one of the best kept secrets of all time.

There is one more invention which was equally important in winning the war; penicllin. Its efficacy can be speculated from the fact that, because of it, half of the ten million soldiers who died in World War 2 could have been saved (all of them died from infection and not directly from wounds). Penicillin too, was a closely guarded secret, and the world can but be thankful to the unknown souls who toiled in secrecy on its production. Penicillin, code-breaking, radar, and the atomic bomb- four secrets that saved civilisation as we know it.

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