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Blackett, Patrick


Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett (1897–1974) was born in Kensington, London, on November 18, and became a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who at once promoted scientific research to defeat Nazism and criticized the World War II Allied bombing of cities. After serving in the Royal Navy during World War I and establishing a successful career in physics, he became a science advisor on military matters during World War II and later to both the Indian and British governments on science and technology policy. He died in London on July 13, as a leading figure in the British scientific community and a defender of science in the service of socialist political ideals and of "small science" practiced independent of large government grants.


After earning a Ph.D. in physics in 1921 from Cambridge University, Blackett did postdoctoral work in the Cavendish Laboratory and was appointed professor at the University of Manchester in 1937. He developed an international reputation for masterful experimental work in cosmic-ray and particle physics using cloud chambers, Geiger counters, and magnetic fields. He also made important contributions to the study of nuclear transformations as the first to photograph the mutation of one element into another (nitrogen into oxygen after bombardment by an alpha particle) and matter arising out of energy (electrons and positrons from gamma rays). In 1933 Blackett and the Italian physicist Giuseppe Occhialini confirmed the existence of the positively charged electron or positron, but were cautious in publishing the results.

When the 1936 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to the American scientist Carl Anderson for the discovery of the positron, many argued that Blackett deserved equal credit. But Blackett himself never engaged in disputes on this issue and emphasized instead the importance of Anderson's work. Such conduct highlighted his integrity and collegiality in the scientific community as well as his cautious and disciplined style of research. He subsequently received the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his development of the Wilson cloud chamber method, and his discoveries made therewith in the fields of nuclear physics and cosmic radiation."

Blackett began defense related research even before the outbreak of World War II by helping build an air defense network through the establishment of radar stations and antisubmarine research for the Royal Navy. He was central to the development of operations research, which for him meant the analysis of data in such a way as to provide advice to military and political decision makers.

After the war, Blackett returned to Manchester where he took up research on the origins of interstellar magnetic fields and those of Earth. When his hypothesis that the magnetic fields of large bodies were a fundamental property of their rotating mass failed to be supported by the evidence, he readily acknowledged his error. Blackett later researched the magnetism of rocks and continental drift. In 1953 he was appointed head of the Physics Department at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. In addition to his focus on integrity and patience in research, he crafted his laboratories according to the ideal of small science performed with modest-sized instruments, which ran contrary to the postwar practice of "big physics" with massive instruments. He ended his career serving as the official representative of the British scientific community as president of the Royal Society from 1965 to 1970.

Ethics and Politics

Although there is unanimous agreement on Blackett's contributions to physics, his engagement in public affairs caused controversy concerning the proper role of scientists in politics and tensions between the ideals of science as objectively removed from society and science as a means to serve or even shape societal goals. Blackett's life is a study in "how (and at what price) one can reconcile a scientific career with political activism" (McCray 2005, p. 186). Most mainstream scientists emphasized the freedoms that allowed for scientific autonomy. But fueled by his belief that science can provide societal benefits by being more thoroughly integrated with politics, Blackett spoke out for more government investment in science, greater science education, and tighter links between science and industry. For his biographer, Mary Jo Nye, "Achieving these aims required cultivating popular interest in science and taking on the role of public scientist, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient this role might become" (2004, p. 6). As he grew older, Blackett devoted more and more time to political matters.

He maintained that the best relationship between knowledge and governance would unfold under socialism, and he allied himself with the scientists for social responsibility movement (known as "Bernalism" in Great Britain) that held that a scientifically oriented socialism could solve economic and political troubles. Blackett's career showed how the external ethics of science relates not only to questions of scientists' responsibilities for applications of their work, but also to larger questions about scientists' roles in shaping public policies more generally.

Blackett was not a pacifist and argued that it was the duty of scientists to engage early in the war efforts to defeat Germany. He was one of the pioneers in the newly emerging role of scientists as advisors to political and military decision makers, choosing both to perform scientific work in support of the war and to join the forum of political debates about the war. He criticized the Allied wartime civilian bombing strategies as both immoral and ineffective. It dehumanized victims and perpetrators, and led to postwar atomic policies, which seemed to countenance further brutalization as a normal course of political and military policy.

An early proponent of international control of atomic energy, Blackett opposed British development of atomic weapons, favored a neutralist foreign policy and greater cooperation with the Soviet Union, and proposed bilateral disarmament strategies for both atomic and conventional weapons. He also found the application of game theory to nuclear war scenarios morally repugnant and another sign of the dehumanizing consequences of weapons of mass destruction. His views ran contrary to mainstream attitudes and were often dismissed as dangerous because of his sympathy toward the Soviet Union and participation in socialist organizations such as the World Federation of Scientific Workers.

Blackett published his unpopular and contentious criticisms of U.S. and British policies in Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy (1948), which appeared in the United States under the title Fear, War, and the Bomb (1949). Most controversial was his notion that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first acts of the Cold War, carried out to intimidate the Soviet Union. Many critics attacked Blackett's expertise and legitimacy to discuss matters of politics, arguing that he misused his prestige as a scientist to bolster a political agenda. But attitudes changed over the following decade, and Blackett's Studies of War (1962), which presented the same basic argument as his earlier publications, received praise from scientists as well as politicians.

Blackett was later instrumental in the development of the Ministry of Technology (serving as its advisor from 1964 to 1969) and more general science and technology policies for the British government. He also advised the Indian government on research and development strategies, especially for the military. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, and Blackett agreed that modern science and technology were crucial for the future of India, and that atomic weapons should be banned but atomic energy should be used for electricity generation in developing countries. Blackett favored applied research in developing countries (based on technology transfers from the West) rather than the development of basic research institutions. This recommendation was widely attacked as a form of outdated colonial prejudice (Nye 2004).

Along with other prominent scientists in the post–World War II era, he helped forge a new identity of the twentieth-century scientist as public citizen (Nye 2004). This identity remains controversial as modern science and technology continue to influence so many facets of life. Blackett's career serves as a sounding board to explore important questions about the role of scientists in politics and the nature of their social responsibilities.


SEE ALSO Bernal, J. D.; Military Ethics; Operations Research.


Blackett, Patrick. (1949). Fear, War, and the Bomb: Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. New York: McGraw-Hill. First published in 1948 in London by Turnstile Press. Critiques U.S. and British atomic energy policies after World War II as militarily unrealistic and politically dangerous and concludes with his recommendations.

Blackett, Patrick. (1962). Studies of War: Nuclear and Conventional. New York: Hill and Wang.

McCray, Patrick. (2005). "Political Science." American Scientist 93(2): 186–187. A review of the Nye biography.

Nye, Mary Jo. (2004). Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. The most comprehensive source on Blackett's life, physics, and politics.

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