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Blackett Memorial Lecture

The Society is pleased to announce that the 2016 Blackett Memorial Lecture will be held in

November 2016

For information on previous lectures, take a look under Watch / Listen / Download.

Background on the Blackett Memorial Lecture

Since 1975 the Operational Research Society's Annual Lecture has been known as the Blackett Memorial Lecture in honour of Patrick, Lord Blackett. A physicist, Nobel prizewinner and one-time president of the Royal Society, Blackett was one of the pioneers of Operational Research (O.R.) during World War 2, when he advocated the employment of scientists to advise on matters of strategy and tactics.

Blackett set out his view of Operational Research as follows. "The records of some war operation (e.g. air attacks on U-boats for the previous six months) are taken as the data ... The scientists apply scientific methods of analysis to these data, and are thus able to give useful advice ... to improve the operational results."

The use of Operational Research achieved remarkable success during World War 2 in such areas as the effective use of radar, and - perhaps Blackett's own greatest contribution - raising the percentage of attacked U-boats that were actually sunk from around 2% to 45%. These successes led to the application of O.R. for civilian purposes after the war.

Recent 2015 Lecture - In Defence of Big Data

Date: Thursday 26 November 2015
Presenter: Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor for the Economist

"Big data" is everywhere -- but seems like a faddish term evoking complete nonsense. More data? It just confounds faster! The idea that throwing more data at a problem can magically produce an answer is abhorrent to the traditional operational research and statistics profession. Yet it is true that there are more data than ever and new techniques to make sense of it. Computers and algorithms can do things that were previously impossible to imagine. So what actually is big data and what does it mean for the OR community? Kenneth Cukier, the data editor of The Economist and coauthor of the bestselling book "Big Data," will defend big data against the naysayers. In a talk aimed at a general audience but of particular interest to specialists, he argues that big data is the most important development of our lifetime, on par with the printing press. Whether one agrees, big data must be understood by OR professionals to remain relevant.

Kenneth Cukier is the Data Editor of The Economist in London and the co-author of the award-winning book “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think” with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in 2013, a New York Times Bestseller translated into 20 languages. He is a regular commentator on BBC, CNN, and NPR, and a member of the World Economic Forum's council on data-driven development. In 2002-04, Mr. Cukier was a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is a board director of International Bridges to Justice and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

An Anecdote

In 1943 Britain had gained the upper hand in the U-boat war when the enemy suddenly discovered how to listen to our radar, enabling them to warn their submarines to dive in plenty of time. U-boat sinkings fell to zero. Blackett and his Operational Research colleagues worked out that if we could concentrate enough aircraft in certain areas, the submarines in those areas would have to dive so often that they would exhaust their air and batteries and would then have to remain on the surface, where they were vulnerable to attack.

To assemble sufficient aircraft to implement the strategy required the diversion of several squadrons from Bomber Command to Coastal Command, a proposal that was fiercely resisted by Air Chief Marshal "Bomber" Harris, who demanded of Churchill, "Are we fighting this war with weapons or the slide rule?" Churchill puffed on his cigar and replied, "That's a good idea. Let's try the slide rule." The results of the strategy turned out almost exactly as Blackett and his colleagues had predicted.

For further information about the history of Operational Research, please see History of O.R.