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After the War, Smeed worked for the British government on road traffic problems and then taught at University College London, where he was the first professor of traffic studies. He applied the methods of operational research to traffic problems all over the world and designed intelligent traffic-light control systems to optimize the flow of traffic through cities. Smeed had a fatalistic view of traffic flow. He said that the average speed of traffic in central London would always be nine miles per hour, because that is the minimum speed that people will tolerate. Intelligent use of traffic lights might increase the number of cars on the roads but would not increase their speed. As soon as the traffic flowed faster, more drivers would come to slow it down.

Smeed also had a fatalistic view of traffic accidents. He collected statistics on traffic deaths from many countries, all the way back to the invention of the automobile. He found that under an enormous range of conditions, the number of deaths in a country per year is given by a simple formula: number of deaths equals .0003 times the two-thirds power of the number of people times the one-third power of the number of cars. This formula is known as Smeed’s Law. He published it in 1949, and it is still valid 57 years later. It is, of course, not exact, but it holds within a factor of two for almost all countries at almost all times. It is remarkable that the number of deaths does not depend strongly on the size of the country, the quality of the roads, the rules and regulations governing traffic, or the safety equipment installed in cars. Smeed interpreted his law as a law of human nature. The number of deaths is determined mainly by psychological factors that are independent of material circumstances. People will drive recklessly until the number of deaths reaches the maximum they can tolerate. When the number exceeds that limit, they drive more carefully. Smeed’s Law merely defines the number of deaths that we find psychologically tolerable.

The last year of the War was quiet at ORS Bomber Command. We knew that the War was coming to an end and that nothing we could do would make much difference. With or without our help, Bomber Command was doing better. In the fall of 1944, when the Germans were driven out of France, it finally became possible for our bombers to make accurate and devastating night attacks on German oil refineries and synthetic-oil-production plants. We had long known these targets to be crucial to Germany’s war economy, but we had never been able to attack them effectively. That changed for two reasons. First, the loss of France made the German fighter defenses much less effective. Second, a new method of organizing attacks was invented by 5 Group, the most independent of the Bomber Command groups. The method originated with 617 Squadron, one of the 5 Group squadrons, which carried out the famous attack on the Ruhr dams in March 1943. The good idea, as usually happens in large organizations, percolated up from the bottom rather than trickling down from the top. The approach called for a “master bomber” who would fly a Mosquito at low altitude over a target, directing the attack by radio in plain language. The master bomber would first mark the target accurately with target indicator flares and then tell the heavy bombers overhead precisely where to aim. A deputy master bomber in another Mosquito was ready to take over in case the first one was shot down. Five Group carried out many such precision attacks with great success and low losses, while the other groups flew to other places and distracted the fighter defenses. In the last winter of the War, the German army and air force finally began to run out of oil. Bomber Command could justly claim to have helped the Allied armies who were fighting their way into Germany from east and west.

While the attacks on oil plants were helping to win the War, Sir Arthur continued to order major attacks on cities, including the attack on Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945. The Dresden attack became famous because it caused a firestorm and killed a large number of civilians, many of them refugees fleeing from the Russian armies that were overrunning Pomerania and Silesia. It caused some people in Britain to question the morality of continuing the wholesale slaughter of civilian populations when the War was almost over. Some of us were sickened by Sir Arthur’s unrelenting ferocity. But our feelings of revulsion after the Dresden attack were not widely shared. The British public at that time still had bitter memories of World War I, when German armies brought untold misery and destruction to other people’s countries, but German civilians never suffered the horrors of war in their own homes. The British mostly supported Sir Arthur’s ruthless bombing of cities, not because they believed that it was militarily necessary, but because they felt it was teaching German civilians a good lesson. This time, the German civilians were finally feeling the pain of war on their own skins.

I remember arguing about the morality of city bombing with the wife of a senior air force officer, after we heard the results of the Dresden attack. She was a well-educated and intelligent woman who worked part-time for the ORS. I asked her whether she really believed that it was right to kill German women and babies in large numbers at that late stage of the War. She answered, “Oh yes. It is good to kill the babies especially. I am not thinking of this war but of the next one, 20 years from now. The next time the Germans start a war and we have to fight them, those babies will be the soldiers.” After fighting Germans for ten years, four in the first war and six in the second, we had become almost as bloody-minded as Sir Arthur.

At last, at the end of April 1945, the order went out to the squadrons to stop offensive operations. Then the order went out to fill the bomb bays of our bombers with food packages to be delivered to the starving population of the Netherlands. I happened to be at one of the 3 Group bases at the time and watched the crews happily taking off on their last mission of the War, not to kill people but to feed them.

Freeman Dyson was for many years professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is famous for his contributions to mathematical physics, particularly for his work on quantum electrodynamics. He was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1966 and the Max Planck Medal in 1969, both for his contributions to modern physics. In 2000, he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

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Tagged: Computing

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