This is how a scientist thinks (WW II department)

From the current (Jan. 17) issue of the New York Review of Books:

“To me at that time, the V-2 rockets were a cause for joy and wonder. I was a civilian scientist analyzing the causes of bomber losses for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. I knew that the main cause of our bomber lsoses were German fighters and I knew that the Germans were desperately short of fighters. If the Germans had had five times as many fighters they could have stopped us from flying over Germany, and that would have made itt much harder for us to invade their country and finish the war….Each V-2 cost the Germans at least as much in skilled labor and materials as a modern fighter aircraft. It was incomprehensible to me that the Germans had chosen to put their limited resources into militarily useless rockets instead of crucially needed fighters. Each I counted it as one German fighter thrown away time I heard a V-2 explode, I counted it as one German fighter thrown away and ten fewer of our bombers downed. (Emphasis added.)

–Freeman Dyson.

(The passage comes from Dyson’s review of Michael J. Neufeld’s new biography of Werner von Braun.)

Read that again. V-2s exploding on London streets were “a cause for joy and wonder.” Exactly right — but it takes a disciplined mind to comprehend what was happening, and a scientist’s aesthetic to feel joy, at the conclusion of the chain of reasoning.

And did I say — Dyson is a national treasure?

Image: James Abbot McNeill Whistler, “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” 1875. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Explore posts in the same categories: science writing, Sharp thinking, War

4 Comments on “This is how a scientist thinks (WW II department)”


  1. As it happens, with the benefit of hindsight that Dyson couldn’t have, I agree with his analysis, but I suspect the Nazis considered the trade-off and believed that they could absorb the damage from Allied bombers, which were not very effective against force or even industrial targets. The Nazi command probably thought that the V-2, which was a terror weapon, not a counterforce weapon, was more valuable than clearing the skies of Allied aviation.

    Dyson’s contemporaneous understanding does mark him as brilliant, though it may bespeak either too-definite memory or too much self-confidence in the face of the many sources of error when analyzing complex human events.

    By now, of course, we have learned in WWII, Vietnam, and Iraq that bombing hasn’t had conclusive strategic value, not even when Curtis LeMay created firestorms in Dresden and Tokyo. But no one in WWII had the evidence we have now.


  2. […] the end of high school.  I have posted on a couple of such examples from great scientists — Freeman Dyson, for one, and J.B.S. Haldane for another.  There are lots more — perhaps readers could be […]


  3. […] (IMHO) scientific literacy as it applies to the public. I pointed to a couple of examples, one from Freeman Dyson, and another by J.B.S. Haldane to show how such minimal math makes a difference in real science as […]


  4. […] one of the defining themes of this blog .  I’ve written a bunch of times — an example here, and another here — about the much greater importance of understanding how scientists think, […]


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