The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms, BarryParker, Prometheus Books, 2014. $25.95 (320 pp.). ISBN 978-1-61614-803-4

If, as Ambrose Bierce probably never said, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” then it might serve just as well to teach some basic physics. That seems to be the premise of Barry Parker’s The Physics of War. Its subtitle, From Arrows to Atoms, suggests an ambitious, chronological treatment of the technologies and basic science relevant to warfare throughout recorded history.

Indeed, the coverage is substantial. From the Battle of Kadesh (circa 1274 BC) and its roughly 5000 chariots to the modern Predator drone, the author identifies game-changing weapons from more than a dozen eras and explains the basic principles necessary to understand them. Some rudimentary history of major conflicts, empires, and civilizations provides context for the larger technological discussion.

Parker, a professor of physics emeritus at Idaho State University, presents short historical vignettes on each of the technologies and principles highlighted in the text. Mathematics and quantitative assessments are almost entirely absent from the discussion; when they do appear, they are somewhat extraneous to the storyline. The writing is accessible and the narrative style unassuming; the book is likely geared to a high school audience. For the adult reader, the unbroken chronological structure of the narrative and the simple, repetitive sentence structure result in a dry and often tiresome read.

The Physics of War does not pretend to be a textbook. If you are not already acquainted with basic physics, you will not learn much of it from Parker’s treatment. Where opportunities to teach physics present themselves, the scarcity of appropriate figures or diagrams limits the utility of the explanation. Errors in nomenclature are also pervasive and potentially confusing to the layperson. In a section discussing the physics of balloon flight, the buoyant force is introduced in mathematical notation with g identified as “the force of gravity.” To a physicist, that might seem a minor editorial error, but it can lead to profound confusion for the careful lay reader wrestling with the distinction between force and acceleration.

Given the cursory treatment of most of the topics covered, the book is also not a historical travelog. If you already know that the Chinese are credited with the invention of gunpowder or that radar played an important role in World War II, you will not learn much to contextualize those discoveries. The title and attempted scope of the book suggest a work like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books, 2003) or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W. W. Norton, 1997); Parker, though, does not pretend to seek the depth or insight of those classics.

For example, in the discussion of the longitude problem, Parker describes the challenge of celestially navigating a ship without an accurate clock. The critical importance of celestial navigation to both trade and military operations throughout the 17th and 18th centuries is noted, but the story of John Harrison’s lifetime of work on the longitude problem is summarized only briefly: “In the end, the best solution was an accurate clock for the ship, and it came when the British clockmaker, John Harrison, realized that pendulums could not be used for clocks at sea. He devised a spring-driven clock, and it worked beautifully.” That statement is misleading, since at the time, it was well known that pendulum-based clocks were not ideal for the rocking decks and variable temperatures of an ocean-going vessel, and that was not Harrison’s insight. But it is also an oversimplification of the challenges that Harrison faced. Isaac Newton himself seemed convinced that consistent mechanical timekeeping was impossible on the open ocean.

Parker provides some good discussions of physics that are accurate and accessible to the layperson. The discussion of the dynamics of a bullet riding the wave of expanding gases in the barrel of a gun is both enlightening and well developed. In the discussion on the physics of lift on an airfoil, Parker is careful to address both the explanation of lift based on Bernoulli’s principle and the more complete description of lift based on Newton’s laws.

Although Parker includes a bibliography for the curious reader to engage more deeply with the material covered in The Physics of War, the endnotes suggest an extensive use of questionable sources. Wikipedia,, and HowStuffWorks figure prominently in the list of chapter notes.

For the reader hoping to learn about the moral struggles of scientists who watch their work used in service of war, there is little to recommend here. Similarly, you won’t learn anything of the interplay between wartime economic incentives driving basic discoveries in science and pure science driving the creation of new political and economic powers. More likely, The Physics of War may be of some interest to the student with a passing familiarity of physics and an interest in the history of technology in warfare.

Kevin Crosby is chair of the division of natural sciences at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin; he is also a professor in the physics and astronomy department and the computer science department. Crosby directs the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, where he promotes community engagement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and the growth of the state’s aerospace workforce.