Tim Harford Columnist

London — In 1935, officials in the British air ministry were trying to figure out whether it was possible to shoot down enemy aircraft with a death ray. Reader, they did not succeed.

Fortunately, the effort spawned something much more useful. Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold “Skip” Wilkins of the Radio Research Station suggested a better use for radio beams: spotting incoming bombers when the beams reflected off them...

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