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Mathematical work during the war: the alpha-beta theorem

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Failure to provide defence for pilots
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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That was our own stupidity. That wasn't the fault of the Command. The fact was that we discovered only after the war that the Germans had upward firing guns in their fighter planes, that the German fighters were equipped with these vertically firing guns so the fighter pilot just had to fly directly underneath the bomber, push the button and the bomber would never see the fighter at all.

[Q] But that you were not aware of...

And we weren't aware of this. That was our fault; we should have understood that. It was an obvious idea. And the Japanese had them too in fact; the Japanese shot down quite a lot of B29s that way, and the Americans never discovered that either. So that was a failure of the Operational Research Section, that we didn't discover this. In fact these attacks from below were so lethal that the bombers never knew what hit them.

Born in England in 1923, Freeman Dyson moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He has published several books and, among other honours, has been awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: RAF Bomber Command, WWII

Duration: 1 minute, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008