By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The mathematization of Operations Research dates back to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), set up by Vannevar Bush in 1941 to coordinate U.S. research on behalf of the war: Though initially left out in the cold, the mathematical community lobbied hard to be included, and in 1942 the OSRD established its Applied Mathematics Panel. In an illuminating essay, Tinne Hoff Kjeldsen, a professor in the history of mathematics at Roskilde University in Denmark, describes how many U.S. mathematicians desperately wanted to be part of the war effort, in part because they understood that postwar funding for scientific fields would depend on how much they were perceived to have contributed to the presumed victory.
By far the most important technological offspring of World War II was the computer, a device whose very conception was spawned in the brains of mathematicians originally involved in military projects like computing ballistic tables and cracking German encryption codes. Its exponential rise in power, abetted at every step by mathematical acumen, continues to transform the practice of war. If, as OSRD honcho James Conant famously remarked, WWII was the physicist’s war, World War III (god forbid) will surely be the computer scientist’s war.
Computers have become critical to almost every aspect of armed conflict — from guiding missiles and encrypting data to processing spy-satellite images and crunching numbers in those logistics equations. So central has the microchip become that another essay in this volume describes how, before the Gulf War, discussions were held to consider the possibility of exploding a high-altitude nuke over Iraq for the purpose of disabling enemy computers. Atmospheric atomic tests in the Pacific had shown that the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated would destroy most electronic equipment across a wide area. “Unfortunately,” the authors remark, “the EMP affects the equipment of friendly forces as well as that of an adversary.” “Directed energy weapons” that will apparently deliver a targeted pulse are currently being developed.
Increasingly, the military is also using computers for mathematical modeling. Beginning with flight simulators, modeling technology has given rise to amazingly complex simulated battle games. “Q,” the world’s second-fastest supercomputer, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was built specifically to model nuclear tests — actual tests now being prohibited by the nonproliferation treaty. Booss-Bavnbek and Hoyrup tell us that when weapons designers wanted to understand the effects of fragmentation bombs on human bodies “but humanitarian concerns prohibited testing on pigs,” they turned instead to mathematical simulation.
So here’s my idea (listen up, W.): Instead of actually having the next war, let’s hand the job over to the mathematicians and computer scientists and let them simulate the entire thing. It’ll be faster, safer, and a hell of a lot cheaper.
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