The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms

The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms

by Barry Parker

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This fascinating blend of popular science and military history examines the science of war, demonstrating the close connection between the discovery of basic physical principles and the development of weaponry over the ages.

     Physics has played a critical role in warfare since the earliest times. Barry Parker


This fascinating blend of popular science and military history examines the science of war, demonstrating the close connection between the discovery of basic physical principles and the development of weaponry over the ages.

     Physics has played a critical role in warfare since the earliest times. Barry Parker highlights famous battles of the past as well as renowned scientists and inventors such as Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein whose work had an impact on the technology of combat. Mechanics and the laws of motion led to improved shell trajectories; gas dynamics proved important to the interior ballistics of rifles and cannons; and space exploration resulted in intercontinental missiles, spy satellites, and drone aircraft.

     Parker emphasizes the special discoveries that had revolutionary effects on the art of warfare: the Chinese invention of gunpowder, the development of firearms, the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the deployment of the airplane in the First World War, and in our era the unleashing of the enormous power inherent in nuclear fission and fusion.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This breezy but intelligent introduction to the physics of war covers weapons from ancient times to today’s missiles and H-bombs. Prolific science writer Parker, emeritus professor of physics at Idaho State University (Einstein’s Brainchild: Relativity Made Relatively Easy), states upfront that war basically involves hurting others. Long ago, this involved hurling objects. The simplest weapon—a rock—does damage through its momentum (mass times velocity). Physics demands that momentum be conserved, so an enemy skull absorbs whatever energy the rock imparts. Humans eventually developed an array of machines—devices that make work easier—in order to boost muscle power (slings, bow and arrow), tap into chemical energy (guns, rocket fuels), harness electrical energy, or exploit the power of the atom. Besides weapons, Parker describes devices helpful to making war, from clocks to the telegraph, radio, radar, lasers, and computers. The accompanying military history seems to come from the History Channel but Parker takes his physics seriously. Readers who pay attention, study the diagrams, and do not ignore the simple equations will learn a great deal of the science of war. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“Since ancient times, war and technology have gone hand in hand, each driving the other. In this fascinating volume Barry Parker shows how generals from ancient Egypt to contemporary America have relied upon scientific principles to fight and win wars. This book illuminates an essential element of military history.”
—Benjamin Ginsberg, Bernstein Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, author of The Value of Violence

Praise for Parker's previous books:

"A sprightly and intelligible account of quantum physics and what it has wrought." 
—Washington Times

"A lively history...Parker's ability to take the most complex notion and simplify it for the general-interest audience makes for an incredibly accessible read." 
—Midwest Book Review

"Remarkably concise and clear...a thrilling tale.... If you want to find out where we stand could do no better than read this well-written and accessible account." 
—New Scientist

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Prometheus Books
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7.40(w) x 11.20(h) x 1.60(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Barry Parker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-804-1



The first well-documented battle in the history of the world took place in 1457 BCE on the Plain of Esdraelon, near the city of Megiddo in modern day Syria. It is usually referred to as the Battle of Megiddo. Megiddo, along with several other cities in the region of Palestine and Syria, had formed a coalition under the Prince of Kadesh, and had decided to break away from Egypt. Egypt's pharaoh, Thutmose III, was determined to stop the rebellion. With an army of ten thousand to fifteen thousand men, including infantry, archers, and cavalry, he marched toward Megiddo, arriving within a few miles of it in April. As the army camped at a place called Yaham, Thutmose conferred with his generals. There were three routes from Yaham to Megiddo; two were relatively easy, but a third, more direct route through the mountains, was quite difficult. Part of the route passed through a very narrow pass where his soldiers would have to travel single file. In addition, the cavalry would have to dismount and lead their horses. Strung out in this way, they would be vulnerable if the Prince of Kadesh decided to attack. Thutmose's generals encouraged him to take one of the easy routes. As he thought about it, however, he realized that the Prince of Kadesh and his troops would not expect them to come through the mountains because of its difficult terrain. They would likely be waiting at some point along the other two routes. So, to the disappointment of his generals, he decided to take the route through the mountains.

And indeed, Thutmose was right. The Prince of Kadesh's men were waiting for them at the ends of the two easy routes. The prince had split his army into two groups, with one half of it in the south and the other half in the north. Furthermore, he had left almost no men to guard the city of Megiddo.

The following day Thutmose led his men through the treacherous pass, and when they broke out into the open, with the city of Megiddo directly ahead, they saw that it was lightly guarded. But Thutmose didn't want to attack the city at this point. He still had to defeat the prince's army. It was late in the evening, so he camped overnight and was ready for battle the next morning. He split his men into three wings and moved quickly to attack the flanks of both sections of the prince's army. They were so surprised by an attack coming from an unexpected direction that most of the men broke rank and fled. Most of them ran for the shelter of the city.

Thutmose pursued them, and by the time he got to the city he could see that many of them were trapped. The defenders of the city had seen the fleeing men coming and had opened the gate, but as Thutmose's army came into view they immediately shut it, leaving many outside. The citizens inside, however, acted quickly; they lowered ropes made of clothes to pull the stranded soldiers over the walls.

Thutmose wanted to attack the city, but by now most of his soldiers were plundering the enemy camp, taking whatever they could find. By the time he got his army reorganized most of the enemy, including the Prince of Kadesh, were safe in the city, which had a high, strong wall all around it. Thutmose could see that it would be suicidal to attack it directly, so he decided on a siege. His troops had plenty of supplies, and there were more supplies available in the surrounding area. But the people within the city were cut off, so it was only a matter of time before they ran out of food and other supplies. The siege lasted for seven months, but finally the citizens and what was left of the army surrendered. By this time, however, the Prince of Kadesh had somehow escaped.

It had taken longer than he had hoped. Nevertheless, Thutmose had soundly defeated the prince's army, and he had captured Megiddo.


Like all rulers or generals going to war, Thutmose III was looking for something that would give him an advantage, and he found it. In his case it was a tactic that gave him an element of surprise. Throughout history, and even today, military leaders contemplating war, or involved in it, are still looking for some sort of advantage over their enemy. Whereas Thutmose used a surprise tactic to his advantage, throughout most of history military leaders have searched for a new "wonder weapon"; in essence, a weapon the enemy does not have. As we'll see in this book, it is usually physics that provides a path to this new weapon. Physics and science in general has indeed been of tremendous value to military leaders. It has given them a better understanding of ballistics so that they can aim their guns better; it has given them radar so that they can detect the enemy before they are detected; it has given them an understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum so they can use radiation in various military applications; it has given them an understanding of rocketry and jet engines, and an understanding of the secrets deep within the atom so they are able to build super bombs.

This book gives an overview of most branches of physics, and it shows how they are used for military applications. It also gives a summary of the history of war all the way from the first bows and arrows and chariots through to the atomic and hydrogen bombs. We begin in chapter 2 with the Egyptians, Assyrians, and early Greeks. We'll look at some of their interesting weapons, such as the ballista, the onager, and the trebuchet, all of which involve basic principles of physics.

In chapter 4 we look at the rise and fall of the greatest military establishment ever seen up to that time, namely the Roman Empire. The early English-French battles are also included in this chapter; one of the most famous of these was the Battle of Agincourt, where the English used the longbow to overcome a much larger and more powerful army. It was their secret new weapon.

In chapter 5 we see the introduction of new technologies that completely changed the nature of war: gunpowder and cannons. Cannons were, in fact, so effective that they led to wars that lasted for a hundred years. At this stage, however, we can't say that physics made large contributions to the art of war because, for the most part, it didn't exist. But as we'll see in chapter 6, three men, including Galileo, made important advances and helped put physics on a much better footing.

With these advances and others, war became even more prevalent throughout Europe. Rifles improved significantly, beginning with the matchlock and ending with the flintlock a few years later. In addition, ships were now getting larger, and they were soon equipped with cannons. Furthermore, with William Gilbert's discoveries in relation to magnetism came a better understanding of navigation at sea, so sailors could now head out into the unknown without worrying about getting lost.

Then came the magnificent discoveries of Isaac Newton, and physics was raised to new heights of understanding. His discoveries are discussed in chapter 7. Following this came the Industrial Revolution, discussed in chapter 8. In a period of less than one hundred years the civilized world changed significantly. In particular, several new techniques, including mass production, made war even more devastating.

In chapter 9 we look at Napoleon and his weapons and tactics. Without doubt, he is one of history's greatest military tacticians, but strangely he didn't introduce many innovative new weapons. About this time another revolution in physics was occurring, and it would lead to a tremendous change in warfare. It began with the discovery that a "current" of electricity could be produced by a simple device called a pile. Soon the new phenomenon was all the rage throughout Europe, and it quickly attracted some of the best minds in physics: Oersted, Ohm, Ampere, and Faraday. Electric generators, motors, and other electrical devices followed, and of course, they eventually became central to war.

In chapter 10 we come to the American Civil War, which was the most devastating war ever fought on American soil. By this time tremendous advances had occurred, including the percussion cap, which quickly led to much more accurate and deadly rifles, along with the first use of submarines, balloons, and the telegraph in warfare.

In chapter 12 we discuss the airplane. World War I erupted only a decade after the first flight of the Wright brothers. And it didn't take long before airplanes were used in the war. "Dogfights" were soon common, and the airplane has played a central role in warfare ever since. Many other new weapons were also developed in World War I. They included huge new cannons, the first tanks, poisonous gas, and flamethrowers.

Soon after World War I radar was developed, and it would eventually play a central role in war. Along with it came a significant improvement in submarines, and the use of sonar. Submarines would be very effective for the Germans in World War I and at the beginning of World War II.

Then in 1939 came another, even greater war, namely World War II, which produced phenomenal new weaponry. These developments included important advances in radar, the first jet airplanes, the first rockets, the first large computers, and of course, the atomic bomb. All of these will be discussed.

Finally, in the last chapter we will discuss the hydrogen bomb and some of the possible weapons of the future.


Excerpted from THE PHYSICS OF WAR by BARRY PARKER. Copyright © 2014 Barry Parker. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Barry Parker (Pocatello, ID) is an award-winning science writer and the author of twenty-seven highly acclaimed popular science books, including Albert Einstein's Vision: Remarkable Discoveries That Shaped Modern ScienceEinstein: The Passions of a ScientistEinstein's Brainchild: Relativity Made Relatively Easy!; Quantum Legacy: The Discovery That Changed Our Universe and Science 101: Physics. He is professor emeritus of physics at Idaho State University.

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