Wednesday, May 1, 2013

WWII:began optimistically as Science, ended tragically as Engineering..

WWII, in other words, began in Modernism and ended in post-Modernism.

It should be understood at the onset that Science's task is strictly pedagogical and that it doesn't have to provide answers that are true, in any realistic sense, merely ones that are correct.

In other words, an excellent science experiment also is an excellent exam question.

I am speaking here of course only of the physical sciences, those sciences that form a subset of human psychology.

Their main function in life is to boost the students' self esteem and make them willing and - God Bless 'Em ! - even eager to take on the world outside the High School or University as a non-physical science grad.

These science experiments are meant to give non-scientists and non-engineers, and probably a lot of engineers and scientists as well , the confidence-building illusion that the world outside the lab is as controlled and predictable as it is inside the university's "sheltered workshop".

As I have said before, philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright's key insight (aka the "Cartwright machine")  is that the crucial component that Science, along with its machines, experiments and laboratories, requires to be a successful human activity is a metaphorical ROOF , to shelter those activities from messy Reality's wind, rain and dust.

And Frederick Christiansen argues that successful engineering often means adding yet more roofs to the designs-with-roofs coming out of the science labs, to make them robust enough to endure daily Reality.

So, for example, Newtonian ballistic equation solving (classical science at its purest) can take on a very different cast in actual battles of war.

Now our young university physics graduate is behind a gunnery rangefinder, high up on a heaving battleship in the dark of night, himself just barely awake.

 His battleship is making a desperate turn, in high wind and waves, and at top speed, to dodge a possible incoming torpedo.

Meanwhile our young officer is trying his absolute best to get his 12 inch gun turret to score at least on hit on an heavily armoured (and armed) enemy battleship.

The enemy is also is bobbing up and down and turning left and right at high speed in equally heavy seas a dozen or so miles away in the dark.

The enemy ship is trying just as hard to land one or two shots on the superstructure of his own battleship - which if it happens, will likely kill him and render moot any success at getting his battleship's guns to hit the enemy.

This, despite the fact that both his battleship's hull and its gun turrets, both heavily armoured, remain totally undamaged.

He has been taught to use Newtonian ballastics to hit and destroy 60,000 ton ships, only to discover that what he is really aiming for with his massive one ton armouring piercing shell is the 150 fragile pounds of his counterpart gunnery officer.

Neither officer will ever hit what they were aiming for, but both are likely to end up dead --- when their ships make the wrong turn and run into an enemy shell equally off target.

Ballastics has descended in to a good old fashioned low tech infantry fire fight: fire as many shots as quickly as you can in the general direction of the enemy and hope some by mischance actually hit him.

Forget even that it is nighttime and in heavy seas, with two ships very far apart, moving at top speed in irregular weaving patterns while bobbing up and down in the water irregularly.

And that the eye on the rangefinder is hindered by all the bright flashes and dense smoke of real battles.

Or that in the minute or two it takes to set range and elevation, the gun to be fired and for the shell to travels to its target, the other ship will have irregularly altered what ever semi-predictable course,speed and elevation it was following at the time of 'set'.

Think about the intermittent winds across the path of that dozen or so miles - winds with different temperatures and density of air - all which affect how a shell deviates from its Newtonian path.

The gun barrel, its wearing-out with repeated shooting and even its changing temperature from shot to shot, all effect the accuracy of our departing shell.

Each new shell is never been machined as true to its designed shape as one would like - just as the bags of propellant each display a random slightly difference in the amount of force they provide.

Many of these factors, but not all, can be accounted on the naval battleship range and after a number of shots, gunnery officers do hit a target and retire to the wardroom.

But even the most lifelike gunnery range practise, far more real-world than the university lab, does not prepare the gunnery crews for a real-world battle.

In a real battle, it is far more likely that three battleships and heavy cruisers on each side are all trying to hit each other at the same time : what fans of Newton like to call "many-bodied problems" , the kind they'd rather not talk about in the physics classroom.

Yet battleship gunnery crews in WWII were the best trained, best equipped, most scientifically up to date gunners of all the war effort : none of the six nations that had modern battleships spared any expense or scientific effort to make their gunners topnotch.

But equally, all the odds against the various gunners hitting their targets had been equally up-gunned.

Faster and more agile opposing ships, heavier armour, longer and bigger guns, extreme firing ranges, night fighting, heavy weather fighting, submarines and dive bombers coming at them as well as big shells : it just never stopped.

Most of the (hugely expensive, manned by thousands of highly trained men) aptly named "capital" ships that were sunk in WWII, did not fall before the big guns, but rather to much smaller,cheaper, simpler weapons : sea mines, torpedoes, dive bombers, kamikazes.

Ballastics and science hardly entered into most of those losses : instead very brave men got within pointblank range and then eyeballed their way to success.

Engineers can understand that 'can-do' attitude perfectly well....

No comments:

Post a Comment