Patrick M. S. Blackett

– July 13, 1974

Brief Biography

Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett was a critical figure in the early development of operations research during World War II. Born in London, Blackett attended a military preparatory school, and served in the Royal Navy during World War I. Following the war, he attended Cambridge University, where he was quickly drawn into physics. After the completion of his studies, he joined the research staff of the university’s Cavendish Laboratory, directed by the renowned physicist Ernest Rutherford.

In the 1920s Blackett forged his scientific reputation around the cloud chamber, a device that was invented by his senior colleague C.T.R. Wilson, and was used to capture photographs of ionizing particles. In the 1930s Blackett moved first to Birkbeck College in London, and then to the University of Manchester. In this period he undertook extensive studies of novel subatomic particles, and narrowly missed credit for the discovery of the positron. His most notable contribution was, in collaboration with Italian physicist Giuseppe Occhialini, the modification of a cloud chamber using Geiger counters so that it would trigger whenever a particle passed through it. He would win the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physics largely for this innovation, which greatly increased the productivity of particle detection. In the same period Blackett also became a prominent member of an influential circle of Marxist scientist-intellectuals.

In 1934 Blackett became an adviser to the government by joining the Aeronautical Research Committee, and the Air Ministry’s Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence (CSSAD). The CSSAD, in particular, made a strong impression on Blackett through its effective oversight of the prewar development of radar technology, and its encouragement of the field research (termed “operational” research) needed to integrate radar into combat operations effectively. When World War II began in 1939, Blackett joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment as a bombsight designer, and served on the MAUD Committee, which recommended that Britain initiate an atomic weapons development program.

In August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Blackett was asked to assemble a group of scientists at the British Army’s Anti-Aircraft (AA) Command to improve the performance of the mechanical predictors that helped aim and fire anti-aircraft guns at enemy bombers. Informally known as “Blackett’s Circus,” the group set an important precedent for the array of “operational research” groups to come.  In March 1941 Blackett transferred to Royal Air Force (RAF) Coastal Command, where he assembled another group that studied how to overcome the menace from U-boats. That autumn, as the RAF began to formalize a system of OR sections, he wrote an influential memorandum “Scientists at the Operational Level,” which helped to define the concept of OR and to earn him a reputation as the “dean” of the subject. In December 1941 he was named Chief Adviser on Operational Research (later Director of Naval Operational Research) at the Admiralty, and remained in that position for the war’s duration.

Following the war Blackett lectured and wrote about his wartime experiences, and contributed the inaugural article for the first OR journal, Operational Research Quarterly. However, he did not otherwise participate in the postwar development of the OR profession. Returning to physics and moving to the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, he turned his attention to geomagnetism, and his work in the area ultimately contributed to the acceptance of continental drift. He also served as a key science adviser to Britain’s Labour Party. He played a key role in the creation of the UK government’s Ministry of Technology in 1964, and he served that body as its chief scientific adviser. He also gained fame as a pundit on nuclear affairs, beginning with his 1948 book Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. Circa 1960 his ideas on the subject brought him into conflict with such American policy analysts and strategic theorists as Albert Wohlstetter, Oskar Morgenstern, and Thomas Schelling.

Blackett served as president of the Royal Society from 1965 to 1970, and in 1969 he was granted a life peerage, taking the title Baron Blackett, of Chelsea.

Other Biographies

Profiles in Operations Research: Patrick M. S. Blackett
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Wikipedia Entry for Patrick Blackett, Baron Blackett

Budiansky S. (2013) Blackett's War: The Men who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. Vintage Books: New York.

Hore P., ed. (2000) Patrick Blackett: Sailor, Scientist, Socialist. Frank Cass: Portland, OR. 

Kirby M. (2003) IFORS Operational Research Hall of Fame: Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett. International Transactions in Operations Research, 10(4): 405-407. (link)

Lovell B. (1975) Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett, of Chelsea. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 21: 1-115.

Nobel Prizes and Laureates. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1948: Patrick M. S. Blackett - Biographical. Accessed March 29, 2015. (link)

Nye M. J. (2004) Blackett: Physics, War and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 

Education

Cambridge University, MPhil 1921

Affiliations

Academic Affiliations
  • Birkbeck College London 
  • Cambridge University
  • Imperial College London
  • Osborne Naval College
  • Victoria University of Manchester
Non-Academic Affiliations
  • Admiralty
  • Aeronautical Research Committee
  • Association of Scientific Workers
  • British Army Anti-Aircraft Command
  • Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence
  • Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Warfare
  • MAUD Committee[ME1] 
  • Ministry of Technology
  • National Research Development Corporation
  • Royal Aircraft Establishment
  • Royal Air Force (RAF) Coastal Command
  • Royal Navy
  • Royal Society

Key Interests in OR/MS

Methodologies
Application Areas

Awards and Honors

The Royal Medal 1940

United States Medal of Merit 1946

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1948

The Royal Society Copley Medal 1956

Order of the Companions of Honour 1965

Order of Merit 1967

Life Peer of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Baron Blackett) 1969

IFORS' Operational Research Hall of Fame 2003

Professional Service

Association of Scientific Workers, President, 1943–1947

The Royal Society, President 1956-1970

Selected Publications

Blackett P. M. S. (1935) The frustration of science. Hall D. et al., eds. in The Frustration of Science. Allen & Unwin: London. 

Blackett P. M. S. (1941) Scientists at the Operational Level. UK War Admiralty: London.

Blackett P. M. S. (1943) A Note on Certain Aspects of the Methodology of Operational Research. UK War Admiralty: London.

Blackett P. M. S. (1948) Operational Research. Advanced Science, 5(17): 26-38.

Blackett P. M. S. (1948) The Political and Military Consequences of Atomic Energy. Turnstile Press: London.

Blackett P. M. S. (1951) Operations Research. Physics Today, 4(11): 8-20.

Blackett P. M. S. (1962) Studies of War: Nuclear and Conventional. Oliver and Boyd: Edinburgh. 

Additional Resources

Blackett P. M. S. (1948) Cloud chamber researches in nuclear physics and cosmic radiation. Lecture. Nobel Lecture, December 13. (link)