The Scientific Adviser
A Scientific Adviser is a special variety of the genus boffin, neither perhaps very interesting in themselves, but they exist nowadays in sufficient numbers so that ordinary people occasionally run into them and may be curious enough to wish to know what they are.
The reason I have taken this up is because one of the Scientific Advisers - meaning Adviser to a Chief of Staff of Navy, Army, or Air Force, and listed on the books as SA/CAS for instance - has been badgering me to write an article for one of the Service publications. I found myself handicapped in choosing a subject because in every bit of interesting defence science I find that some other boffin knows a lot more than I do. This is not really surprising because when a boffin gets promoted to as high a rank as I hold presently, it means that he has ceased to be very useful on a specific technical job and about the only thing one can do with him is make him the boss of something so that he doesn't bother the chaps actually doing the work. However, I did find that I knew as much if not more than other boffins about this special variety the SA, because i have had the opportunity of observing the customs and habits of all the SA's who have served the Canadian Chiefs of Staff since the modern SA was invented.
The boffin was first noticed in some numbers in Britain in the early 1940's, wandering about Service establishments and generally helping rather than hindering. On the books, the name actually was defence research officer or some equivalent, but since a boffin is a queer bird, it seemed reasonable to use this term rather than the longer one. In Canada, boffins congregate chiefly in what is called DRB, which, like each Service, has a headquarters in Ottawa and a lot of other chaps doing some work somewhere else.
My study of boffins led me to look back a bit through history, and I have been quite surprised to find that although boffins have appeared in relatively recent times, the special variety showed up in military history long, long ago and even before that.
The medicine man was actually SA to the chief of the tribe, and existed from the earliest times. His special branch of science was invariably psychology, but quite often he did a good job also as a mechanical engineer. In those early days it was no use for the medicine man to show people his Ph.D. diploma, so he had to establish his distinction by wearing horrible masks and very queer clothes.
No modern SA does this except in very minor ways, such as wearing Bermuda shorts or the old school tie of the Bulgarian Bullfighters Association. A modern SA has a Ph.D. which means that you have to take a long run and a jump before you argue with him. The mask served the same purpose for the ancient medicine man. Then and now it was not easy to become an SA, but when successful, the SA was in all right, latched to the chief. It is, however, not quite clear whether, in early times or the present, the chief asked for an SA or didn't like to argue when he got one sent to him.
One of the best examples of a Chief of Staff picking his own SA occurred around 200 B.C. when Hiero, COS/Syracuse, picked a mathematician as his SA. The latter was a Syracuse boy who went to the best university of the day at Alexandria, and after taking his PH.D in mathematics, returned to his old home town.
He was a typical mathematician and pure scientist in that he had very simple wants and prejudices. All he wanted was for the government to keep him in comfort and let him do what he liked. He believed that pure philosophy was noble and that engineers were a lower order of humans. In both his wants and prejudices he was surprisingly like many of the boffins of the twentieth century. The SA job at Syracuse in those days was just what any scientist would like. He did what he liked and gave advice to his COS on anything of mutual interest, and the COS was delighted.
However, after a long pleasant period, a Roman General named Marcellus in 214 B.C., after warning Hiero several times that he was deviating from the party line, decided to liquidate Hiero and Syracuse. Marcellus was a very tough and persistent soldier, and although he didn't have an SA, he knew that if you hit the enemy hard enough and long enough, you would very likely win. He besieged Syracuse and made things very unpleasant for the Syracusans.
Hiero was definitely in a spot so he had a chat with his SA, which comes down to us in various translations, but the gist of the conversation ran like this: 'Archie, old boy, we've been friends for a long time, members of the same clubs, and had lots of good parties together. Now there's nothing I like better than hearing you explain one of your mathematical theorems - real good stuff, highly cultural, and generally speaking, top hole, old chap. But right now the Romans are giving us the works, and unless we can surprise them with some new weapons, I'm afraid we'll have had it and you, too, Archie, old boy. So how about your giving a hand to the engineers in getting something new?'
The SA thought about this and decided to bottle up his pride and get down to work with the engineers. In a very short time they devised immensely improved bombards and a few other surprises of an ingenious mechanical nature, and also got those to the front line fast. These weapons so bothered the Romans that it took them nearly three years to take the city, and then they did it during one of the big binges that the Syracusans called a festival when a lot of the Syracusans were practically out of action.
Although Marcellus, who knew about the SA and was much impressed, gave orders that the SA and his house were not to be touched, a Roman soldier accidentally killed the SA while he was working out a mathematical problem with a stick in the sand. Marcellus expressed his regrets and subsequently looked after the SA's family.
There are two deductions that can be made from the history of this particular one of the earlier SA's which we can usefully apply today:
- It is better to be a boffin that anyone else in the Army because if your side loses, you have a lot better chance of getting off easy. [cf. 1945, German rocket boffins kidnapped and fed well by Russian and Western Allies].
- The thing to do is to latch on to the chief. In the above case Hiero was not only COS but boss of everything else in Syracuse. This is very nice if the chief likes you.
There are other examples of senior boffins of SA's in military history, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Carnot (name is really Carnot and not repeat not Carnot Cycle, who was one of his notorious relatives!).
The modern SA has, of course, an enormous number of helpers denied to the earlier SA's, as for instance, D Plans, D Ops.R, DRB, TB, DDP, and many other honest and willing characters. In fact, they are so eager to help that neither the SA nor his COS can stop them. As a consequence, the procedure is something like this.
The SA conceives a bright idea or picks one up in a pub somewhere. The he goes over to the mess and tells his COS who sees the point right away and starts the thing through the helpers. About six years later it comes through the helpers and industry and gets into service. This is very nice if, figuratively speaking, Marcellus hasn't wiped us off during a binge a bit earlier.
So it is clear now what the job of a modern SA actually is - he must cut down the time taken by all his helpers in helping him. The first thing that must occur to him, of course, is to fire all the helpers. This is a good topic for discussion at the National Defence College, I think, but I suspect they will come up with some kind of a compromise. This will be a good thing, however, if it cuts down the time drastically, because this is perhaps the greatest single weakness in our defence,
By the way, the SA/COS Syracuse in 212 B.C. was Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of ancient times. He did what both Hiero and Marcellus thought his best work, in defence research, between the ages of 73 and 75.