The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms

by Barry Parker, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 320 Pages, January 2014, Price $25.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-803-4 (Hard cover), ISBN 978-1-61614-804-1 (E Book)

This readable popularization examines the impact of scientific developments on conflict from prehistoric tribes to today’s nation states. It focuses on physics with digressions into chemistry (poison gas, explosives). It presents historical and biographical accounts of scientific discoveries or applications, with numerous excellent illustrations. Tracing the evolution of weapons from the earliest wars to present thermonuclear ordnance, satellites, and drones is illuminating and thought provoking.

Parker examines the history of the Roman Empire which, despite its apparent military strength, was defeated by the superior cavalry skills of the barbarian Goths and Huns. He describes the encounters at the Battle of Hastings in England in 1066 between armies led by the English King Harold II and the French Norman Duke William II.  William became King of England by using 8,000 crossbow archers within a total force of 20,000.  The English Army, using the same number of men armed with axes or swords, couldn't withstand the archers.

The era of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) saw great advances in the longbow and other weapons. These decided the Battle of Agincourt in France, immortalized later in Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth. Six thousand Englishmen defeated more than 25,000 Frenchmen.  Many French soldiers wore armor that was vulnerable to longbow arrows.  The French suffered 4,000-10,000 deaths while English deaths numbered a few hundred.  Cannons first appeared during this era, although the Chinese, Arabs, and Mongols used earlier prototypes.  Parker analyzes cannons, early muskets, rifles, pistols, and ammunition design.

Napoleon Bonaparte was educated in physics, mathematics, and astronomy, and understood the relevance of science to warfare. Nevertheless, he made important mistakes when presented with new ideas.  Although hand-held rifles were known to be more accurate and longer-ranged than smoothbore muskets, Napoleon didn't like them.  He was enthusiastic about the newly-manufactured cannons, and appreciated the bayonet's ability to terrorize enemy troops.  A scientific advisor pointed out that gas-filled balloons could survey the landscape and even drop bombs, but Napoleon soon lost interest in this notion.  Both sides used this concept in the American Civil War, particularly the North during the campaign against Richmond, the Confederate capital.

During the first bombing raids of World War I, the Germans used huge balloons (Zeppelins) each the length of three football fields, to terrorize the civilian population of England.  "Quite quickly it became evident that they were easy targets" because they were filled with flammable hydrogen and could be shot down by ground fire or, later in the war, by fighter planes. But according to the PBS documentary "Zeppelin Terror Attacks" (15 January 2014), this may underestimate the technical difficulties in confronting balloons.  There were twenty-three raids during 1915-1918. Peter Strasser, who first proposed the bombing effort, died while leading the final attack.

The author characterizes the Civil War as the first truly modern war, with a variety of advances including electric telegraph, electric generators, balloons, warships, submarines, and improved telescopes. Both sides expected the war to be short but it lasted four years and took 700,000 lives--more than the total American dead in all other wars from the revolution until today. Parker details machine-gun developments that produced huge casualties during World War I, "The Machine Gun War." That war also saw the first war planes, submarines, and poisonous chlorine and mustard gases.  Poison gas was so horrific that despite large inventories and defense preparations in World War II, it was never used in Europe by combatants.  Its use by Nazi Germany against innocent civilians is a different painful story.

World War II was by far the most destructive conflict with incomplete estimates of deaths ranging up to one hundred million.  Parker studies the physics and history of radar, V-1 and V-2 rockets, jet aircraft, codes, proximity fuses, and sonar.  Individual chapters discuss the atomic bomb, used by the U.S. against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thermonuclear weapons.  Though nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. they were considered by the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War.

Lasers, first postulated by Gould and Townes in the late 1950s, were achieved in 1960.  Gordon Gould and this reviewer participated in a government research program on long distance laser ranging that also found unanticipated connections with medical applications.

There are a few editing problems.  Leonardo DaVinci, finding difficulty in securing employment as an artist, left Florence for Milan and applied for work as a "military engineer" with Duke Ludovico Sforza.  On page 70, Sforza was unimpressed with DaVinci’s "futuristic and fanciful" weapons drawings and rejected his application.  Several pages later, "Leonardo proposed a design for an armored tank while he was working for Ludovico Sforza."   We learn that in a letter to Sforza "he stated ‘I also had types of mortars that are very convenient and easy to transport....  When a place cannot be reduced by the methods of bombards either because of its height or location, I have methods for destroying any fortress or stronghold, even if it be founded on rock'."  The reader must conclude that Leonardo did in fact finally work as a military engineer for Sforza, who could have made use of his inventions, but how this came about after being turned down isn't clear.

A mathematical error occurs in Galileo's study of projectile trajectories (p. 82 ff).  Galileo correctly deduced that a projectile would follow a parabolic curve but a diagram shows a cone obviously yielding an ellipse.  Parker asks "What is a parabola? ...If you slice through it parallel to the base, you’ll get a circle but if you slice it through an angle, you’ll get a parabola (as long as you don’t pass through the base)."  This is incorrect.  Hopefully, subsequent printings will correct this.  Also, the elementary lever principle does not have to be described twice (pp. 41 and 72).

Despite these criticisms, this book has high merit and deserves a broad readership.

Parker's concluding paragraph states, "As physicists further expand our knowledge, it is almost certain that our weapons will continue to progress. The great hope for the twenty-first century and beyond is that rather than increasing the carnage of war, such progress will instead promote the development of precise nonlethal weapons that ultimately enable the resolution of conflict without the staggering human slaughter that became too common in the twentieth century."

Though sharing the author’s hope, I cannot join Parker's limited optimism. Further extrapolation in weaponry, whether offensive or defensive, cannot overcome the large inventory of devastating nuclear weapons already in the world, with more nation states striving to secure them.  Mankind’s ultimate survival depends upon political will and diplomacy to eliminate these weapons and finally armed conflict itself.  In a 1950 interview about nuclear weapons, Albert Einstein was asked "Is it an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world is hanging in the balance? " His reply: "No exaggeration.  The fate of humanity is always in the balance but more truly now than at any known time."

The "Physics of War" makes it clear that the time by which we must attain balanced change for peace is shorter than ever.

Len Solon
Dr. Solon is a physicist whose work includes environmental radiation,
radiological health and laser applications.
He is a combat infantry veteran of World War II.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.