Non-Fiction Reviews

The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms

(2014), Barry Parker, Prometheus, £22.99 / US$25.95 / Can$27.50, hrdbk., 320pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14803-4


In my collection there is a special shelf for books about the history of warfare from the viewpoint of science. There are not many on it. They include:Most Secret War by R.V. Jones; The Fourth Horseman by Andrew Nikiforuk; and War in 2080 by David Langford. There is a special place for Head Shot, the Science behind the JFK Assassinationby G. Paul Chambers, and I regret having lent out and lost Anthony Pollen's The Great Gunnery Scandal – the Mystery of Jutland. But I am sorry to say that this book will not be joining them.

There are a number of reasons to be dissatisfied with the execution of what seemed to be a good idea for a text of this sort. A major one is that in places oversimplification has led to quite serious errors. On pages 82-83, "Galileo decided that the most logical curve the projectile would undergo as a result of this would be a parabola. What is a parabola? The best way to understand it is to think of a cone (see figure). If you slice through it parallel to the base, you will get a circle, but if you slice through it an angle, you'll get a parabola (as long as you don't pass through the base)." The accompanying diagram is wrong too. If you slice through a cone at an angle without passing through the base, you don't get a parabola, you get an ellipse. If you slice through it to the base parallel to the side, you get a parabola, and if you slice through it to the base at any greater angle, you get a hyperbola. The statement that the parabolic cut doesn't pass through the base is corrected much later in the book, but that hardly matters because it nowhere explains why conic sections are relevant. The point is that when Kepler's Laws and Newton's laws are applied to the paths of freely moving bodies, the trajectory is always one of the conic sections. If the body is moving exactly at orbital velocity at all points of its path, that path is a circle. If it is moving at exactly escape velocity at all points of its path, that path is a parabola. Both are theoretical cases which can never be achieved in reality because planets and moons are not perfect spheres, and the gravitational pulls of other bodies intervene.

In real life, every trajectory is either an ellipse or a hyperbola. When I did physics, they taught us that the supposedly parabolic path of a projectile on Earth is only an approximation: the true path is an ellipse with the centre of the Earth at one focus. That is why it is impossible to get into orbit with a single impulse, unless that impulse is horizontal, e.g. from a cannon on top of a mountain at orbital altitude – something even Newton knew and demonstrated with a thought experiment.

Leaving that out and repeating that every trajectory is parabolic prevents Parker from discussing Bull's Canadian 'space-gun' of the 1960s, or his subsequent work on the Iraqi supergun which led to his demise. But the discussion of orbital mechanics is so inadequate that there is no comparison of near-Earth orbit, medium-Earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit, let alone the subtleties of near-polar orbit, Sun-synchronous orbit and Molniya orbits, so nothing about the different military applications they give rise to. There is less than a page on satellites altogether, beginning with the words "We don't normally think of satellites as weapons of war" (tell that to the US Space Command) and discussing only spy satellites, in very general terms. Command and Control do not get a mention, there is nothing about communications and navigation, let alone the controversies over GPS and Europe's Galileo system, and nothing at all about anti-satellite weapons and the huge issues they raise.

True, I am picking on my own special area of expertise, but it is not the only example. I did not spot anything wrong with the 15-page introduction to the physics and history of flight, but there is nothing relating it to the different design issues of fighters, bombers, patrol aircraft and reconnaissance. There is nothing about how (say) the SR-71 Blackbird differed from the U-2, let alone how the World War 1 aces exploited the gyroscopic effects of their rotary engines in dogfights, and while the superiority of the Spitfire is mentioned, there's nothing about the weakness it had in zero-g manoeuvres until we learned the secret of the floating carburettor from downed German aircraft. Barnes Wallis does not get a mention for either the bouncing bomb or penetrators, let alone the geodesic construction of the Wellington, and there is no contrast with the stressed-skin breakthrough of the Mosquito. The short discussion of lighter-than-air flight is not just inadequate but wrong (see below), and neither hovering nor vertical flight gets a mention after Leonardo da Vinci – nothing about the role of helicopters in Malaysia and Vietnam, nor Harriers in the Falklands Conflict.

One might excuse a few of these omissions, but in a book called The Physics of War the cumulative effect is intensely frustrating, and it is compounded by actual errors.

Galileo "noticed that Saturn had a strange ring around it.." No, he didn't! He thought he observed what he thought were two strange moons.

The Mary Rose went into battle "with all her frontal guns blazing". Indeed her gun-ports were open and there is some evidence for wounded on the lower decks, but the eye-witness accounts imply that she went down without firing a shot.

We are told that"…there were no great sea battles between German and British battleships" in the First World War – I wish I still had that book about Jutland.

Zeppelins, we are told, were no more than 'huge balloons', which is far from true, and their hydrogen was 'easy to ignite' – I've seen an entire documentary about how difficult it is to ignite pure hydrogen.

Pages 236-237 put von Braun's recruitment by Dornberger almost ten years too late, and ascribe most of the 1930s development of rockets in Germany to Goddard in the USA.

We are told that the V1 and V2 were radio guided, with the implication that they were radio controlled, but neither was the case; and that the incoming V2 at Mach 5 was 'almost impossible to shoot down' (my italics).

After mid-October 1940, German air raids on Britain ceased "apart from an occasional bombing", against which I need only quote Wikipedia (which Parker cites frequently): "Between 7 September 1940 and 21 May 1941 there were major aerial raids (attacks in which more than 100 tonnes of high explosives were dropped) on 16 British cities… London was attacked 71 times, Birmingham, Liverpool and Plymouth eight times, Bristol six, Glasgow five, Southampton four, Portsmouth and Hull three, and there was also at least one large raid on another eight cities."

On p.233 "American troops landed in Italy in September [1943] …and soon the Allies had occupied most of Italy" – which would have raised my father's eyebrows, since he went in at Salerno with the Highland Division and was seconded to the Sherwood Foresters until Monte Cassino, where they were replaced by the Guards.

There's so much imprecise language that one might charitably suspect editorial intervention, but for the previous problems already noted. "The beginning of the end began" on page 195 is not exactly Churchillian.

Then we get "…the most eventful day in airplane history was December 17, 1903, when the Wright brothers made their first flight." But what about September 15th 1940, December 7th 1941 and the Battle of Midway, all of which get mentions, and which were not without incident by comparison.

Newton's Third Law is stated repeatedly as "the total momentum of an isolated system of bodies remains constant"; true, but is not the normal way thie law us expressed, and on p.154 it becomes the far more commonly known "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" which is more relevant here.

Then there is "Napoleon was banished to St. Helens in the Atlantic Ocean", p.122, which would surprise the people of Liverpool.

Coriolis force "is created by the rotation of the Earth", p.160, but the way it is explained, it should operate even if shells are fired parallel to the equator. Similarly Parker introduces centrifugal force on p.163, then adds "this is actually an erroneous term", but does not explain why.

On p.164, "the terms 'knockdown power' and 'stopping power'…are actually meaningless". 'Stopping power' is not discussed further, but my father found the concept useful when he explained to my 12-year-old self why a submachine gun would be no use against a dinosaur, and what he told me was not contradicted by the explanation L. Sprague de Camp gave in Galaxy and upon it subsequently based the story 'A Gun for Dinosaur'.

"Radar signals are not reflected from radar-absorbing materials such as high-resistant materials and certain magnetic materials, and because of this, these materials are used for various types of military crafts (sic) and vehicles so that they can avoid radar" (p.207). How many things are wrong with that sentence? And there is a real gem on p.260: "Heisenberg was certain that his group was far ahead of them, but he had to know for sure."

The title of The Physics of War gave me high hopes, but as I said, it won't be finding a place on my 'science of warfare' shelf. If it lasts in my collection, with regret, it will be only as a curiosity.

Duncan Lunan

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