The heuristics of war: scientific method and the founders of operations research 1
This paper explores the relationship between operations research (OR) as practised during the Second World War and the claims of many of its proponents that it constituted an application of scientific method. It begins with an examination of the pre-war work of two of the most notable leaders in wartime OR, the British experimental physicist Patrick Blackett and the American theoretical physicist Philip Morse. Despite differences in their scientific work, each saw science as an essentially creative act relying on the skill and judgement of the individual scientist in the deployment of rational methods for the development of legitimate conclusions. When scientists began to study military operations, their investigations were defined by the technically sophisticated heuristic practices already surrounding military planning. They did not seek to replace these practices with their own rational methods. Rather, they became scholars of the military's methods and adapted their pre-war experience by shifting their self-disciplined attitude to their own work to bodies of military knowledge. Thus scientists learned so well to navigate an alien heuristic system that investigations they conducted within it took on the characteristics that they judged defined scientific work.
1 The research for this paper was made possible through the funding of a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Archival research was conducted at the Library of Congress; the United States National Archives in College Park, Maryland; and the National Archives of the UK. I would like to thank Erik Rau and David Edgerton for discussions that helped to shape this paper, as well as Peter Galison, David Kaiser, Sam Schweber, my colleagues in the History of Science Department at Harvard, the editor of BJHS and the anonymous referees who commented on previous versions of it.