The Scientific Cost of War

18 May 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized


Among the countless casualties of the Second World War, the decline of print journalism was probably one of the least lamented. When life as you knew it hung in the balance, having slightly fewer articles to read over breakfast must have been some way down one's list of worries. 

And yet, in the years after Hitler marched on Poland, anglophone readers on both sides of the Atlantic seem to have suffered a more subtle consequence of international combat: a scientific one.

As part of my "OpenSciLogs" project, which looks at historical trends in science reporting, I recently began to trawl through the substantial archives of two newspapers - the UK's Guardian, and The New York Times - to try and trace how the reporting of science in each publication has changed in the last century and a half.

As you might have guessed from its somewhat ambitious brief, this project won't be quick. But the archives have already revealed something worth writing about. It all kicks off around 1940.


The Mental Wounds of War

As I hinted in my opening sentence, the archives make it quite clear that the outbreak of war heralded a sharp decline in the output of both The New York Times and The Guardian. The number of articles published in each dropped by about 15 and 50% respectively.

But the interesting story - for a SciLogs audience - lies just behind those figures. Most people could have predicted that the austere war years might have reduced the volume of a newspaper's output. But my research suggests that it also changed the content of the papers: simply put, after 1940, things fell quiet on the scientific front.

For example, here's how the usage of my scientific keywords in New York Times articles fell in the 1940s (click to enlarge):


And in The Guardian, during the same time period.



These remarkably similar graphs paint a gloomy picture. Wartime science, it seems, suffered an unusually severe fate in the United States and Kingdom; in both The New York Times and Guardian articles, almost every one of the scientific keywords decreased in usage, often dramatically - strongly suggesting that, in the decade after 1940, the overall coverage of science fell across the board.

(An important thing to note here is that the decrease wasn't just in the overall number of scientific articles, but in the percentage of scientific articles. That means that, not only did the number of articles fall overall, but that the articles which did make it to print were less likely to be about science).

So what does this tell us? Perhaps the shift away from scientific matters during the war reflects a shift in popular priorities - nations under siege, without time for such "frivolous" distractions as geology or double helices. Or, on the other hand, perhaps the decline of science journalism simply mirrored a similar decline in scientific research - the result of funds siphoned off to the war effort.

But actually, it's not the decline of science that interests me (bit depressing, to be honest). It's the outliers. Because, at a time when most scientific subjects were falling out of fashion, a few clung on. And intriguingly, the rare scientific subjects which survived the war, seem to be quite specific.

Atoms and Astronomy 

Below are the same two graphs as before, except now showing, in green, the scientific terms which suffered least in the pages of the Times and Guardian in the decade after WWII broke out.

Here's The New York Times:



And The Guardian ...



With this tweaked perspective, two things practically leap out of the graphs. I'll address them from left to right.

Obvious on both is an increase in the number of articles which mentioned the word "atom". In fact, it's an emphatic increase. In the Times, "atom" is the only one of the scientific phrases I searched for whose usage actually went up in the 1940s; similarly, in The Guardian, it's one of only three words to earn this distinction.

Just as obvious is the reason for this increase. The gruesome links to Hiroshima and Nagasaki don't need stressing here. (Interestingly, though, I deliberately omitted from my search any article which simultaneously mentioned "atom" and "bomb". In other words, the increase shown here is probably down to an increase of articles on pure physics - atoms for atoms' sake, if you like - rather than ones touching directly on the terrible destructive potential of the science).

The second scientific subject to see a surge around wartime is, thankfully, a lot less morbid. Charming, even. As the bombs were falling around their readers, in the pages of the New York Times and The Guardian, the heavens were in vogue.

This one really surprised me, actually. In both of the papers, articles mentioning planets - Jupiter and Venus in the Times and every single one I searched for in The Guardian ! - were conspicuously resilient in the circum-war years.

Why this might be, I can only guess. Without widening my net, and looking at more publications, I can't even be sure if it's a significant trend.

Either way, though, it makes you think. In those dark times, a bit of night-sky thinking must have been a pleasant distraction.






3 Responses to “The Scientific Cost of War”

  1. Philip Strange Reply | Permalink

    Many scientists who did not see active service were shifted in to military research e.g radar, Manhattan Project etc. The outcomes would have been top secret, this must have had an effect

  2. Kaleberg Reply | Permalink

    If I remember reading newspapers from during WWII, there were plenty of science articles, but they tended to be war related articles about radar, sulfa drugs, transfusions, explosives, airplanes, submarines and so on. I'll bet archaeology and geology were in abeyance what with the challenges of fieldwork. Whole areas of scientific enterprise were put on hold only to be revived years later e.g. DNA and radio-astronomy. I'll bet there was a dip in scientific publication as well, though just about every scientist was fully employed.

    It might be interesting to sample a few actual newspapers to get some "ground truth" for this keyword based approach.

    • Robin Wylie Reply | Permalink

      OK, that's interesting - perhaps the wartime decline I'm seeing is just a move away from "traditional" topics and towards the more specific, combat-related research you're describing.

      I'm certainly looking for any ways possible to expand on the keyword approach. Your idea is certainly a good one, but my feeling is that once you start dipping into, say, individual days, weeks, months etc., it's hard to draw a line. To get a meaningful sample would be a huge time vacuum, while taking only a few samples would be nearly meaningless, from a scientific standpoint. Perhaps you know a statistical method that would allow a meaningful sample to be obtained by only looking at the odd article?

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