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Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s “The Theory That Would Not Die” Quotes 2

The U- boat peril was the only thing that ever really frightened Winston Churchill during the Second World War, he recalled in his history of the conflict. Britain was self- sufficient in little other than coal; it grew enough food to feed only one in three residents. But after the fall of France in 1940, Germany controlled Europe’s factories and farms, and unarmed merchant ships had to deliver to Britain 30 million tons of food and strategic supplies a year from the United States, Canada, Africa, and eventually Russia. During the Battle of the Atlantic, as the fight to supply Britain was called, German U- boats would sink an estimated 2,780 Allied ships, and more than 50,000 Allied merchant seamen would die. For Prime Minister Churchill, feeding and supplying his country was the dominating factor throughout the war.


Exacerbating the emergency was the fact that the government regarded statistical data as bothersome details. A few months before war was declared in 1939, the giant retailer Lord Woolton was asked to organize the clothing for Britain’s soldiers. He discovered to his horror that “the War Office had no statistical evidence to assist me… . I had the greatest difficulty in arriving at any figures that would show how many suits of uniform and how many boots were involved.” The Department of Agriculture ignored a study of the fertilizers needed to increase Britain’s food and timber supplies because it thought the Second World War was going to be a nonscientific war and no more data would be needed. Government functionaries also seemed to think that applying mathematics to real life would be easy. When the Ministry of Supply needed to assess new rockets, it gave an employee one week to “learn statistics.”

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