Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett, OM , CH , FRS (November 18, 1897July 13, 1974) was a British experimental physicist known for his work on cloud chambers, cosmic rays, and paleomagnetism.
Graduating from Cambridge University in 1921 after a long stint in the British Navy, Blackett spent ten years working at the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory before moving to London (1933) and then Manchester University.
Blackett was awarded the OM, the CH, and in 1948 the Nobel Prize for Physics, for his investigation of cosmic rays undertaken at Manchester using his invention of the counter-controlled cloud chamber, confirming the existence of the positron and discovering the now instantly recogniseable opposing spiral traces of positron/electron pair production. This work and that on annihilation radiation made him one of the first and leading experts on anti-matter.
During World War 2, Blackett was instrumental in founding the field of study known as Operations research, which improved the survival odds of convoys, among other successes. During the war he argued strongly against the tactics of strategic bombing, using OR to show that it did not have the effects which military commanders thought it did (namely, that it did not "break the will" of the enemy nor did it significantly hamper their production capabilities). In this opinion he chafed against the existing military authority and was cut out of various circles of communications; after the war, the Allied Strategic Bombing Survey proved Blackett correct, however.
In the late 1940s, Blackett became known for his radical political opinions, which included his belief that Britain ought not develop atomic weapons and that the country had an obligation to improve the scientific and technological situations in its former colonies (especially India). Politically he identified himself as a socialist, and often campaigned on behalf of the Labour Party.
In 1947, Blackett introduced a theory to account for the Earth's magnetic field as a function of its rotation, with the hope that it would unify both the electromagnetic force and the force of gravity. He spent a number of years developing high-quality magnetometers to test his theory, and eventually found it to be without merit. His work on the subject, however, led him into the field of geophysics, where he eventually helped process data relating to paleomagnetism and helped to provide strong evidence for continental drift.
Professor Blackett was appointed Head of the Physics Department of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London, in 1953 and retired in July, 1963. The current Physics department building of Imperial College is named the 'Blackett Laboratory'. In 1965 Blackett was made President of the Royal Society and was awarded a life peerage in 1969.
Influence on science fiction
Blackett's theory of planetary magnetism and gravity were taken up by the science fiction author James Blish who cited Blackett's equation as the theoretical 'basis' behind his 'spindizzy' antigravity drive.
Mary Jo Nye, Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
President of the Royal Society 1965-1970
Preceded by:Howard Florey
Succeeded by: Sir Alan Hodgkin
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