Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell

British physicist (1886-1957)

Frederick Alexander Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell CH PC FRS (5 April 1886 – 3 July 1957) was a British physicist who was prime scientific adviser to Winston Churchill in World War II.

Frederick Lindemann in 1952


  • Never has the world situation been more ominous. Japan, in the hands of a military Junta, is overruning China...
    Germany is rearming at a rate unparalleled in the history of the world. Preaching a gospel of force, determined to subjugate Central Europe to her theories...
    England in its longing for peace is the richest prey for the conqueror, disarmed and defenceless, having tried the Socialist panacea of a bold, generous gesture and pared its defences to the bone, no longer able to control events. Here she lies, the richest prize at the mercy of a conqueror since Rome lay open to Alarich.
    • Notes for a speech at the Oxford Union (early 1930s), quoted in Adrian Fort, Prof: The Life of Frederick Lindemann (2003), p. 132
  • In learning how to manipulate nuclear energy man has taken the greatest step in the control of the forces of nature since his half-human ancestors learnt how to make and maintain fire. Just as fires can be, and in the early days often were, utterly destructive of life in the forests and on the prairies, so this new power may be utterly destructive of all that has been built up in a thousand generations. Man's moral stature has not grown with his intellectual stature, or rather perhaps it would be fairer to say man's institutions have not advanced as fast as his power to harness the forces of nature to his will. For I am convinced that if a vote could be taken the world over as to whether there was any object in the world for which it was worth while to start an aggressive war, not one man in a hundred would say "Yes." Unfortunately, as we have recently seen, modern developments make it so easy for a few vicious leaders to mislead, control and dominate great nations that the natural, decent human instincts of mankind are no adequate safeguard.
  • Man is indeed a strange mass of contradictions. Here we are, microscopic creatures scuttling about on the surface of a minor planet circling round a second-rate star in one of half-a-million galaxies. In some ways our minds are so capacious and penetrating. We can judge the weight and composition of stars whose light started before man appeared on this earth. We can unveil the secrets of the nuclei which are so small that if we could put together as many of them as there are drops of water in the ocean they would together scarcely form a particle visible with a microscope. Yet we seem to be unable to order our own affairs so as to avoid exterminating one another. Perhaps the threat of this new weapon may in the end bring home to the various nations the overriding need of finding means, at no matter what cost and sacrifice, of reaching agreement without resort to force. We must pray that this will be achieved in time, for if it is not then the end of civilized life on this planet is at hand.
  • It is, I think, undeniable that we have fallen behind the United States and many continental countries in industrial technique because they have produced first rate technologists in far greater numbers than we have here. Unless we can catch up with them, or, better still, overtake them, the future of our industry, especially in the export markets, is bleak.
    • Letter to Rab Butler (1952), quoted in Lord Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds: The Official Life of Professor F. A. Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (1961), p. 318
  • Nobody, I imagine, will deny that the whole future of our country depends upon our being able to increase productivity in manufacture, transportation and, generally, industry in all its various branches... If our output per man-year were to be increased by only 10 per cent. most of our economic difficulties would vanish into thin air. There are only two ways of achieving this: either our people must work harder or longer hours, or we must invent new and more efficient methods of carrying out technical processes. Our prosperity, our living standards, our very survival are governed by the one brute fact that unless we can persuade foreign countries to take our exports, they will cease to send us the food on which we live and the raw materials from which our exports are made. And these exports will have to run in increasing measure the gauntlet of competition by the hard-working, highly-competent, industrialised American, Continental and Japanese manufacturers, offering their goods on favourable terms, with every refinement of selling technique, to our former customers.
  • [O]ur whole future depends upon our productivity: that is, the amount of useful and valuable output which can be turned out with a given amount of labour and raw materials. To improve this is far and away the most important problem confronting this country—apart, of course, from the need to preserve peace. Unless we succeed in doing it, in a generation our standard of living will sink to that of the people of Portugal and will harm not only Great Britain but the sterling area as a whole.
  • Why is it that we have nothing to compare with these great technological universities in this country? The main reason, I fear, is because we suffer from a most lamentable type of intellectual snobbery which causes the majority of our so-called educated people to look down on science and technology as some form of menial intellectual activity, on which civilised, cultured people need not embark and indeed are better without. I am not sure that traces of it have not survived even to this day in this House. I well remember—admittedly it was a good many years ago—mentioning to a Member of your Lordships' House a relative of his, the great Lord Rayleigh, certainly one of the six greatest physicists in the world. His comment was: "Oh, yes, he is a little odd, isn't he?—interested in chemistry and that sort of thing." That was what he said of one of the greatest physicists this country has known. It is to that attitude of mind, which has by no means died out, that many of our troubles are due.

Speech in the House of Lords (11 December 1956)

  • I hate living in a fool's paradise, and though, like everyone else, I wish U.N.O. could work, I have come reluctantly to the view that in its present form it cannot. It is composed, of course, of men full of the best intentions, and its admirers are equally well-meaning. But I cannot help feeling that people tend to overestimate its power for good and to underrate its potentialities for evil. We know all too well nowadays how easy it is for people to fall victims to phrases, to be hypnotised by slogans, and I am afraid that that is what is happening in the case of U.N.O. "Send it to U.N.O." is becoming a sort of incantation. In many quarters it seems to be treated as a shibboleth. You have only to mouth the words and go through the ceremonial, and all will be well.
  • The Assembly is split into a number of blocs. There are the Afro-Asian bloc, the South American bloc and the Iron Curtain bloc, the members of which tend to vote together on their likes and dislikes, in accordance with instructions from their home Government. No one pretends they are influenced by the evidence or the speeches. Practically always the repercussions it will have on the government's own position and interests decides which way a delegate votes: often votes are cast according to some bargain or arrangement; sometimes it is said they are to all intents and purposes peddled about. Judicial impartiality is the last thing that seems to matter. To describe a majority vote of such a body as "a decision of the highest tribunal in the world" is simply laughable. To pillory as criminal any nation which hesitates to comply with its decisions is monstrous.
  • We are told that the intention is to substitute law for war; that that is, in essence, the whole object of the United Nations. It is another of those comfortable slogans expressing a desire felt by all of us in rhyming monosyllables, which seem to have an almost hypnotic effect. Of course, we all want the rule of law amongst nations; but what are the laws which we wish to rule? Evidently, it is not the laws accepted in principle for thousands of years—the fulfilment of contracts and the sanctity of treaties. Rather it seems to be commandments promulgated ad hoc by the Assembly whenever differences arise. That is submission to an arbitrary body. It is not law.
  • But even if this monstrous interpretation of the word "law" were taken, how is it to be enforced? As everybody knows, law is useless unless it is backed by a police force. It is no use magistrates finding a man guilty if they cannot compel him to make restitution or send him to prison if he refuses. Thus even if we accepted this weird U.N.O. body, with its odd form of voting, as the ultimate tribunal, it would be no good whatever unless it had some way of enforcing its decisions. We are told that in that case all we have to do is to endow U.N.O. with a police force... I think, on analysis, that this also is a case of wishful thinking.
  • [W]e are told that no nation can stand out against world opinion; that we can rely upon the moral forces of the Assembly's resolution. Surely this is more wishful thinking. What is more, it is flatly contradicted by experience. For several years now U.N.O. has condemned Egypt for refusing to allow the passage of Israel's ships through the Suez Canal in direct conflict with its obligations under the 1888 Treaty. Has the moral force of this condemnation had any effect on the Egyptians? None whatever. By a huge majority U.N.O. has called upon Russia to withdraw its troops from Hungary. Has the moral force of this resolution had any effect? Ask the Hungarians. If the Russians do not comply, we are told, they will be branded by the Assembly. The trouble is, that they have been branded already, and they do not seem to mind.
  • We depend, unhappily, to a great extent upon imports of oil... We cannot allow our people to go cold and hungry just because some people who claim to speak for world opinion have suddenly arbitrarily introduced some novel concept of national sovereignty which apparently permits the Government of any country, at its own sweet will, to repudiate its obligations and refuse to honour its promises. In the old days the victim of such maltreatment would have insisted upon its rights, if necessarily by armed force. But this, we are told, is quite out of fashion—it would be "gunboat diplomacy." We must not use force: we must negotiate. You might as well say that, if someone snatches your watch in the street, you must not resist, still less take it back. You must negotiate with him. I suppose that, if you are lucky, you may recover the chain. If I believed that the Socialist leaders...could not grasp this simple train of reasoning, I should despair of the future of this country. Of course it is no doubt tempting to snatch a Party advantage by making sanctimonious speeches, and generally by taking what purports to be the high moral line in these matters; but it really shocked me that, when it was suggested in another place that the Government spokesman had in mind the protection of our oil supplies, he was greeted with boos and jeers. The Government actually, it seems, were trying to safeguard the vital interests of their country. What a terrible accusation!
  • What I have said will, I fear, arouse indignation in some quarters. That is always the way when comfortable emotional beliefs which cannot be sustained by evidence on logical grounds are challenged. The magic syllables "U.N.O." have acquired the status of an invocation, almost of a prayer. To cast doubt on the Organisation is considered akin to blasphemy. The rôle of the iconoclast is always hateful, but facts and logic cannot simply be brushed aside. I therefore think it my duty, as one not linked in any way with the Government and still less with the Opposition, to refuse to foster what I believe to be a dangerous delusion which is rapidly becoming a snare.

Speech in the House of Lords (10 April 1957)

  • Rightly or wrongly, Israel is now a fact, which can be obliterated only by exterminating the Jews.
  • Perhaps the greatest outrage in the Middle East is the way the Israelis have been treated in comparison with the Egyptians. That this has been allowed to pass with so little protest must, it seems to me, be due to the anti-Semitism, conscious or unconscious, which, unhappily, exists in so many circles. I personally hold no particular brief for the Jews. There are good and bad Jews, just as there are good and bad Englishmen, or even good and bad Scots; and, for all I know, the percentage of bad may be greater in one case than in the other. But whatever the facts, I consider indiscriminate anti-Semitism altogether deplorable. There is not even a difference of colour to explain this violent prejudice which crops up so often in such unexpected places. Whatever the reason, nobody can deny that bias has been shown in the way the Israeli-Egyptian conflict has been handled by the United Nations.
  • Israeli ships have been barred from the Suez Canal, through which they had a right to free passage under the 1888 Convention, on the pretext that Egypt was at war with Israel. The Security Council passed various resolutions calling upon the Egyptians to desist from such action, but they took not the slightest notice. During all these years we heard none of the highfalutin talk which has nauseated so many of us during the last few months about the sanctity of the United Nations Charter and the importance of all countries rallying round to enforce it. Egypt continued to defy the Security Council without any action being taken. After all, it was only Jews who were being hurt. But when, finally, the Israelis, finding that the Egyptians were openly proclaiming their intentions of liquidating them, decided last autumn to make a move to defend themselves before it was too late, and reoccupied the Gaza Strip and moved into the Sinai peninsula, there was a most terrific outcry. They were labelled as aggressors, and the whole paraphernalia of the United Nations was mobilised against them.
  • The Egyptian claim that they were in a state of war with Israel was forgotten. The Israelis were vilified in the Press, and every conceivable form of pressure was brought to bear to force them to retire, not merely beyond their real legal frontier but right out of the Gaza Strip, to which the Egyptians had no claim whatsoever, except that they had occupied it in the war they unleashed against Israel in 1948 and which, according to their story, still persists. Only Egyptians, apparently, are allowed to break the conditions of the truce. Israelis must fulfil them to the last iota. I can understand a strong anti-Semite taking this line, but it is amazing to find so many honourable people adopting it without any explanation.

Quotes about Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell

  • When tackled by R. H. Dundas at the High Table at Christ Church as to how good a scientist Lindemann was, Einstein replied that he had always regarded him as the last of the great Florentines, a man who embraced all science as his province, a great man in the Renaissance tradition.
    • Lord Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds: The Official Life of Professor F. A. Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (1961), p. 159
  • He displayed admirable tact and could be a most fascinating companion. That he could be and often was intolerably grumpy, spoilt, unjust, etc., cannot possibly be denied—too many who only met him once or twice saw nothing else. But if all was well he could be entrancingly funny, understanding and kind. He was admirably loyal to his staff, defending them after their blunders, finding them jobs when his Branch was wound up far beyond the mere line of duty. He used, in his off-moments, to drive us all dizzy with irritation, but I do not think that any of us failed to perceive that he had a real scale and greatness in the depth, clarity, speed and severe simplicity of his thought. Certainly in my own experience he can be compared only with Keynes. Perhaps there was an interval between them, but there was a larger one between this pair and the rest of the world.
    • D. M. B. Butt, quoted in Lord Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds: The Official Life of Professor F. A. Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (1961), p. 257
  • After Maynard Keynes I would be inclined to say that he was the cleverest man I have ever known in my life.
    • Lord Chandos, quoted in Lord Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds: The Official Life of Professor F. A. Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (1961), p. 215
  • Before he came to Oxford Lindemann's most important contribution had on the whole been theoretical rather than experimental. He had one of the most brilliant theoretical minds I have ever known, and he continued throughout his life here to take a deep interest in the fundamentals of science. His views on all matters of theory were always worth hearing.
    • Cyril Hinshelwood, quoted in Lord Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds: The Official Life of Professor F. A. Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (1961), p. 112
  • Churchill used to say that the Prof's brain was a beautiful piece of mechanism, and the Prof did not dissent from that judgement. He seemed to have a poor opinion of the intellect of everyone with the exception of Lord Birkenhead, Mr Churchill and Professor Lindemann; and he had a special contempt for the bureaucrat and all his ways. The Ministry of Supply and the Ordnance Board were two of his pet aversions, and he derived a great deal of pleasure from forestalling them with new inventions. In his appointment as Personal Assistant to the Prime Minister no field of activity was closed to him. He was as obstinate as a mule, and unwilling to admit that there was any problem under the sun which he was not qualified to solve. He would write a memorandum on high strategy one day, and a thesis on egg production on the next. He seemed to try to give the impression of wanting to quarrel with everybody, and of preferring everyone's room to their company; but once he had accepted a man as a friend, he never failed him, and there are many of his war-time colleagues who will ever remember him with deep personal affection. He hated Hitler and all his works, and his contribution to Hitler's downfall in all sorts of odd ways was considerable.
    • Hastings Ismay, The Memoirs of General The Lord Ismay, K.G., P.C., G.C.B., C.H., D.S.O. (1960), p. 173
  • It was typical of Lindemann's mind to bring together ideas in this way from different branches of physics in an order-of-magnitude calculation. His mind was extraordinarily lively, and he also had an unusually wide knowledge of physics, including astronomy, and what is now called geophysics. He had a gift for picking out the essentials in a piece of physics, even if sometimes he went too far in ignoring the aspects of secondary importance. He was a most stimulating conversationalist on matters of physics, and one went away from a session with him feeling that he had rearranged all one's mental furniture and added one or two rather bizarre objects to the room.
    • George Paget Thomson, 'Frederick Alexander Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell. 1886-1957', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 4 (November 1958), pp. 46-47
  • He was one of the cleverest men I ever met, as clever as Rutherford.
    • Henry Tizard, quoted in Lord Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds: The Official Life of Professor F. A. Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (1961), p. 40