The Physics Of War by Barry Parker (book review).

January 22, 2014 | By | Reply More

Books can sometimes be a surprise. Case in point is Barry Parker’s ‘The Physics Of War’, where as the sub-title says ‘From Arrows To Atoms’. In other words, it’s about the development of weapons over the centuries. Parker points out from the start that the weapons of war developed as a means to have an advantage over your opponent if you seek to win a war. If you didn’t have the weapons, there was also a tendency to develop defences and hence the evolution of fortresses and castles and the materials they were made of. If you couldn’t beat them, then you could reduce their advances to tiresome and perhaps they might go away. Well, until they found a way to smash the walls down.


Combined with all of this is the significant wars, the earliest was in 1457BC near Syria. The earliest weapon wasn’t actually a weapon as such but a chariot because it increased mobility. When it was combined with archery, you literally had a mobile platform of war. Here I did find a little confusion. There are a variety of bows and arrows but the biggest development with them wasn’t in the Middle East but in Wales where they developed the longbow in the Middle Ages. Presumably, the early bows and arrows were far smaller. I should point out that there are selected pictures throughout the book showing the various weapons.

The smelting of various metals increased the use of better materials. One thing I wish Parker had considered with the development of steel is just how accidental it was. I mean, who would have thought adding soft carbon to soft iron would make a harder alloy was logical? As coal was used to smelt the iron, I could well believe that coal got dropped into the mix accidentally and someone realised the effect and began experimenting. Incidentally, too much carbon makes steel fragile.

There are a lot of things I learnt here. The Romans weren’t very scientific, depending very much on ‘borrowing’ from the Greeks. The development of gunpowder by the Chinese wasn’t perfect because they didn’t know how to purify its ingredients which later came from Roger Bacon in the 1200s. Back then, chemistry was still seen as alchemy and a lot of guesswork on how things worked.

Seeing the development of rifles and pistols over the years is quite an eye-opener. From exposed chemicals that were useless when damp to understanding the shape of the bullet, going from ball to pellet-shaped as we see them today took a lot of understanding of how things looked in flight. Even more remarkable, when it came to the American Civil War and the improvements in guns, the top brass military weren’t keen to take on guns that could fire multiple bullets without reloading. The development of the percussion cap by the way was from a Scots preacher, Reverend Alexander John Forsythe no less. It isn’t the fact that it’s someone from my country that did this but a priest that was so startling.

The change from wood to metal in ship design came about largely because the latter was better protection against cannon-fire and it wasn’t a big jump to leave the trees behind.

The explanation of aerodynamics is as good as anywhere, comparing the propeller screw as doing a similar job as done with a ship, and even goes as far explaining why the props were placed in front of the pilot than behind because it increased the speed. From a weapon point of view, having guns firing through their propellers against having them in the wings, to my mind, demonstrates which side preferred some element of safety for their pilot.

Seeing the development of the submarine, where it could only stay underwater for short periods to nuclear power when they could stay down for months pales compared to seeing the development of sonar and torpedoes without which they wouldn’t be very effective.

It should go without saying that the analysis of the development of the atomic bomb had the same problems as anything else and it took a covert letter to President Roosevelt to get things moving. Originally, it was just going to be used as a threat than outright use but it gave concerns to the USSR to have their own weapon and thankfully raised the Cold War stalemate.

With every era, Parker gives an in-depth analysis and pointing out the significance of the key inventors, as well as how the weapons work. He even hits on the Science Fiction element of where do we go next. Although lasers are coming to the fore in big weapons, not having a small powerful power source means hand-weapons aren’t practical. Mind you, should small powerful power sources be created, I can see more uses than laser weapons.

I think what amazed me most was how the military tended to be reluctant to take on new weapons. I do wonder if it wasn’t so much them being sticks-in-the-mud and more to do with not wanting to change what succeeded when they were young and won their earlier wars. It’s a lesson to learn and ignore for the future.

This book should be of interest to both SF and fantasy writers. If you’re going to develop a culture that is, say, dependent on swords and such. Knowing about the assorted developments to make that possible should come up with how you develop your culture and not just have a blacksmith there to hammer the metal into shape. Having lessons in science and history along the way makes this book a great learning tool as well and should be thoroughly read as well. Whether it will get Man out of the war habit is debatable but there must be a limit to how weapons can escalate any more.

GF Willmetts

January 2014

(pub: Prometheus Books. 304 page illustrated hardback. Price: $25.95 (US), $27.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-61614-803-4. Ebook: $12.99/ISBN: 978-1-61614-804-1)

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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