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Reading the excellent thread What are some scientific breakthroughs that have been done during jail time?, it stands to reason to ask what are some scientific breakthroughs made by interned prisoners of war, when the author was confined in a POW camp or a concentration camp.

How did prisoners of war discover scientific breakthroughs while interned?

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    $\begingroup$ Are we disregarding the Holocaust? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 8 '14 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ You have to be more specific. Otherwise you will get an enormous list of famous scientists who suffered the Holocaust. We are talking about thousands of people at least. Perhaps you want discoveries made AT THE TIME when the author was a prisoner of war? $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Nov 9 '14 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ I have edited the question so it is not so broad and the answers still remain valid. $\endgroup$ – user22 Nov 9 '14 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ Meta discussion on this question meta.hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/106/… $\endgroup$ – user22 Nov 9 '14 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ I have retracted my close vote for now. It is good that you are taking feedback constructively. $\endgroup$ – Ali Caglayan Nov 9 '14 at 20:02
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Another outstanding example is Jean Leray (who was mentioned in an answer to the question on jail prisoners). He was an outstanding French mathematician with main interests in fluid dynamics. When confined to a German POW camp, where he stayed until the liberation he was afraid that Germans will force him to work in his area (which has important military applications). Unwilling to help the Germans in their war effort, he switched his mathematical research to the purest area of pure mathematics, topology. And made a seminal contribution to topology which completely changed the whole subject.

As I understand from inmate recollections, this prison camp did not have very severe conditions. They even had an informal university in the camp where they lectured to each other.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent, and what a story. Here is an AMS notice as support for your example with some exposition of his work. $\endgroup$ – J. W. Perry Nov 9 '14 at 1:17
  • $\begingroup$ You made a point that I'd like to reiterate - not all POW camps (or prisons in general) are as brutal as something like Auschwitz. There's no rule saying that all prisoners need to live in their own filth while they're prisoners. Usually, the side taking the prisoners understand that these people are just that - people. Remember, in WWI both sides had stories of times they stopped fighting (Christmas, for example), ate together, and even played football together! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce $\endgroup$ – galois Dec 24 '14 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ @galois: 1. Auschwitz was not a POW camp after all. 2. POW's from different countries were treated differently. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Oct 17 '17 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko I was using "Auschwitz" as the archetypal example of a brutal camp -- I know it wasn't a POW camp. Your point #2 is what I was trying to get across. $\endgroup$ – galois Oct 17 '17 at 12:00
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Poncelet fought in the Napoleonic campaign, and was held as a prisoner of war in Russia. From the MacTutor bio:

He was held in the prison from March 1813 to June 1814 when he returned to France. During his imprisonment he recalled the fundamental principles of geometry but, forgetting the details of what he had learnt from Monge, Carnot and Brianchon, he went on to develop projective properties of conics. He called the notes that he made the 'Saratov notebook,' but it was only fifty years later that he incorporated much of what he had written in his treatise on analytic geometry Applications d'analyse et de géométrie (1862). His development of the pole and polar lines associated with conics led to the principle of duality but this, as we explain below, led to a priority dispute. He also discovered circular points at infinity.

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  • $\begingroup$ More specifically he proved in Saratov what is called now the "Great Theorem of Poncelet". I would add the statement if we had MathJax:-) It can be understood by anyone who studied mathematics at school. Very beautiful! $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Nov 9 '14 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ Feel free to edit the answer. $\endgroup$ – Michael Weiss Nov 9 '14 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko please add it, regardless of MathJax support. Some of us can render equations regardless, and it will help us make a stronger case for the need of MathJax on this site. $\endgroup$ – Danu Nov 9 '14 at 8:44
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Konrad Lorenz (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 1973) wrote (part of) his important book "Behind the Mirror" (original title "Die Rückseite des Spiegels") as a POW in the Soviet Union (from 1944-1948). I quote from the Wikipedia page.

He was sent to the Russian front in 1944 where he quickly became a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1948. In captivity he continued to work as a medic and "got quite friendly with some Russians, mostly doctors." When he was repatriated, he was allowed to keep the manuscript of a book he had been writing, and his pet starling. He arrived back in Altenberg (his family home, near Vienna) "with manuscript and bird intact." The manuscript became his book Behind the Mirror.

Regarding the question how this was done and the working conditions, it might be relevant to remark that he wrote on the paper of a cement bag. I had a vague recollection of that from a documentary on him I saw long ago, I think it was even him who said it there, I saw a long time ago. Searching I found some confirmation of that recollection in some slides of a presentation, slide 10 specifically "In Einsamkeit und Freiheit? Wissenschaftliche Praxis im historisch-biografischen Zusammenhang." [In loneliness and freedom? Scientific practice in historic-biographical context} (Sorry for the strange source but it seems the presentation is an academic one, so it is not as bad as it might seem on first glance.)

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Mulutin Milankovic was a First World War prisoner of war at the time of this discovery.
He eponymously discovered the Milankovich cycles which cause cyclic climate variation due to factors such as precession of the earths axis and the elliptical nature of its orbit.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer; however, it would make it stronger if you were to include a reference. $\endgroup$ – user22 Nov 9 '14 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ For example Byll Bryson, A short history of nearly everything, pages 252-253. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Jan 18 '17 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ Milankovich was under house arrest for 4 years (had to come and register with the police once a week). Bryson calls him the "happiest POW". $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Jan 18 '17 at 19:07
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Willi Hennig is thought to have written his most significant work (introducing the concepts of what is now called cladistic, i.e. monophyly-based biological classifications) Grundzüge einer Theorie der Phylogenetischen Systematik (published later, in 1950) while prisoner of war at the end of WWII.

However, though prisoner of war, he was not held in camp but put to work into mosquito control (being already a renowned entomologist at the time) by British forces.

The Grundzüge content was mainly theoretical, but grounded in his observations on insects.

Sources:
- The Willi Hennig Society
- His entry in the Complete Dictionary of Scientific biography (2008).

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