Tags: Benjamin Greene, Dwight Eisenhower, Edward Teller, John Kennedy, Lewis Strauss, Robert McNamara, Zuoyue Wang
In Pt. 2 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow, I critiqued Wang’s adherence to a central analytical rubric pitting an “enthusiasm” for technological “fixes” against a more reserved “skepticism”. I argued that the rubric led to misleading interpretations of selected quotes. It modified, rather than moved beyond, a questionable narrative of 20th-century ideas about the relationship between politics and science. Finally, the narrative mainly seemed to function as a way of explaining why good reason often fails to prevent bad outcomes — as might be expected given the narrative’s origins in historical polemics.
Nevertheless, readers of this book who are prepared to disagree with certain aspects of it can and should still find a great deal that is useful. My more pressing concern is what aspects of history are simply forgotten because they can only be found by probing beyond what the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric can parse.
One key issue is the characterization of the importance of the President’s Science Advisory Committee as fulfilling an almost unique role as scientific skeptics in a government apparently otherwise enamored with the prospect of technological fixes to policy problems. However, this creates the impression that those whose general attitudes are labeled enthusiastic held a belief in something like what we might call “technology without policy”.
Wang on PSAC, Pt. 2: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, and Theodicy August 8, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
Tags: Herbert York, James Conant, Jan Golinski, John Kennedy, Lee DuBridge, Simon Schaffer, Yaron Ezrahi, Zuoyue Wang
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In Part 1 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, I suggested Wang’s use of a dichotomy between technological enthusiasm and technological skepticism as his central analytical rubric held the book back from being as illuminating as it might have been. Part 2 explains how it does so.
As I noted in Pt. 1, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric clearly has a moral resonance: enthusiasm is bad, skepticism is good. Once a moral dichotomy has been established, historiography easily fades into “theodicy” — an explanation for why there is evil in the world. The theodicy of science basically goes like this: if science, or indeed knowledge, is supposed to make the world a better place, then why does it fail to do so? Why does it sometimes seem, or threaten, to make the world worse? A common mid-to-late-20th-century version is: why did scientists fail to stop the Cold War?
No sane historian would actually phrase the question this way, but using the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric more-or-less implies the question, simply because the rubric’s terms are one answer to the problem of theodicy. Blind enthusiasm for science and technology as a simple “fix” can result in evil. Skepticism can prevent that evil. Where skepticism fails, enthusiasm may prevail. This line of reasoning rose in reaction to Enlightenment thought, often to reinforce the legitimacy of religious ethics and tradition-based government in the face of an idolatry of reason (see, for example, Chris’ post on Maistre, or Schaffer and Golinski on attempts to constrain scientific “genius”, or Schaffer on the criticism of Whewell). Importantly, though, this critique is mainly just a modification or inversion of the Enlightenment argument. Where the Enlightenment pitted the potential of rational governance against superstition and arbitrary authority, the enthusiasm of rationality and technology is simply recast as an impostor, a new form of “faith” to be overcome by those purporting to represent a truly rational response to the evils of the world.
What this rather elaborate critique has to do with PSAC is that the instantiation of a group scientists at the highest level of power, the White House, becomes the scene for an important confrontation of good and evil, or reason and blindness. Historiographically, this rubric translates into mundane, but still very important, consequences that manifest themselves in style and composition: it defines what questions are worth asking, which explanations and descriptions of historical events and ideas suffice, and which ones will suggest the need to ask other questions and bring in additional context in order to feel satisfied that an adequate understanding of past events has been reached.
Tags: Allan Needell, Rachel Carson, Richard Nixon, William Newman, Zuoyue Wang
Though a visible and important office in American policy history, and though, historically, it has been much discussed, PSAC has garnered surprisingly little analysis by historians. Thus Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America (Rutgers UP, 2008) automatically constitutes a valuable contribution to the historiography.
PSAC’s predecessor body, the Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization, was established in 1951 during the Korean War. Although comprised of highly respected members of the scientific community, that committee was a marginal body, and it was replaced by PSAC following the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite and reconsideration of American government’s management of its scientific and technological resources. PSAC’s chair served as the science adviser to the President until 1973 when Richard Nixon dissolved PSAC. In 1976 Gerald Ford established a new organization, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Though its exact structure and function have varied from administration to administration, that body still exists, and its director (currently John Holdren) serves as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. Wang’s book covers this whole history, with the OSTP period as an epilogue.
In my own experience, the further one gets from World War II, the more convoluted and confusing the terrain becomes, the less helpful the historiography becomes, the more difficult it becomes to write good, coherent history. Wang’s book flips this on its head. (more…)
Tags: Christophe Lécuyer, Emanuel Piore, Joan Lisa Bromberg, Ralph Gomory
One of my activities on my recent blogging hiatus was an oral history interview with Ralph Gomory. The interview was originally instigated as part of the AIP History Center’s History of Physics in Industry project, on which I’ve helped out here and there. Our discussions with researchers at IBM all pointed to Gomory as a crucial figure in that company’s history. Personally, I had a strong interest in the interview, because Gomory’s background is in mathematics, and he is a notable figure in the operations research (OR) community, primarily on account of his foundational work on integer programming. (For those keeping track, I wrote my dissertation, and am currently polishing up a book manuscript, on the history of certain sciences of policy analysis, including OR.) This post is mainly based on the background research I did ahead of the interview.
Gomory was director of research at IBM from 1970 to 1986. IBM Research had been established in its present form in the late 1950s by Emanuel Piore. Piore had spent much of his postwar career at the Office of Naval Research, culminating in a stint as Chief Scientist. Careful readers of Zuoyue Wang’s recent book on the President’s Science Advisory Committee (to be discussed on this blog presently) will know that Piore became a ubiquitous figure on various high-level government panels (i.e., though not well-known to historians, he was a big deal).
The idea behind establishing IBM Research was the general sense, widespread in the 1950s and ’60s, that technologically-oriented companies would be well-served by conducting their own basic research. Piore’s goal was to establish an environment — housed in a modern building designed by Eero Saarinen — where researchers could freely explore their own ideas. Gomory had originally been brought in to be part of the new mathematics department (along, incidentally, with fractal geometry pioneer Benoît Mandelbrot).
Now, going back to my previous post’s interest in basic research and the “linear model” in history: once one had established the importance of the link between research and technological development, one was faced with a series of subsidiary questions, to which one would have devoted more or less thought. (more…)
Tags: Daniel Kevles, David Edgerton, David Hounshell, Richard Gregory, Sabine Clarke, Vannevar Bush
Although I have discussed the paper here a few times in the past, including in one of this blog’s first-ever posts, this post will revisit David Edgerton’s argument in “‘The Linear Model’ Did Not Exist” (available in .rtf format via his website @
The “linear model” is a very specific claim stating that basic scientific research in universities (or other non-profit institutions) contributes to national economy and security by producing new knowledge, which can then be translated into new technological applications. Edgerton’s argument that it “did not exist” is that it is an idea that has been held, in a strict sense, by few, if any, actors, and that it has been concocted as a straw man by individuals purporting to offer a superior alternative. I believe continued discussion of Edgerton’s argument is needed because the reasoning underlying its claims is not obvious, it is now being used productively in new work such as Sabine Clarke’s, and because it has broader historiographical significance.
Much difficulty may be caused by the problem of what it means for an idea to “exist” in history: how well does a historian’s articulation of an idea have to map on to the actual idea in order to claim that it existed?
Clarke on Research and Science in Prewar Britain July 20, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: David Edgerton, Hyman Levy, J. D. Bernal, Lancelot Hogben, Paul Lucier, Richard Gregory, Sabine Clarke, Sally Horrocks
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Coming off this blog’s discussion of Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in 19th-Century America,” I would next like to look at Sabine Clarke’s “Pure Science with a Practical Aim: The Meanings of Fundamental Research in Britain, circa 1916-1950″ (abstract + paywall) from the most recent Isis.
Lucier’s piece delineated important distinctions and connections between 19th-century American and British vocabularies of science, with an attendant examination of important issues to which the American lexicon was applied. Reading that work, I found myself not really willing to believe that the subject matter had not been previously parsed that way, and am still half expecting someone to pop up with some obvious reference that tells all about it — it’s really useful stuff.
Clarke’s piece seems to offer more of a clarification of certain points of vocabulary, rather than an important new delineation of historical ideas, but it is successful in the task it sets out to accomplish. The actual ideas discussed — the relationship between “research” (as in “research and development”) and “science” — should already be familiar to those with a serious interest in the relationship between scientific research and technological development in the industrial era. What is of primary interest here is the search for appropriate language to describe this relationship. (more…)
Tags: Arthur Compton, Benjamin Silliman Jr., C. P. Snow, Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, Frederick Lindemann, Henry Tizard, Josiah Whitney, Leo Szilard, Lyman Briggs, Marcus Oliphant, Margaret Gowing, Merle Tuve, Paul Lucier, Richard Rhodes
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In Paul Lucier’s article on science and the professions in 19th-century America, one point relating to the California oil controversy caught my eye. In discussing the controversy’s historiography, Lucier observed that one interpretation “popular among business historians and modern scientists” seemed to support a “delay” thesis. Since chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., working on a sizable capitalist contract, was ultimately proven correct that oil would be discovered in California, his science was “vindicated”. Meanwhile, Josiah Whitney, who criticized Silliman “with all the power of a government position behind him” had his “vindictiveness” revealed. As Lucier explains, Whitney’s attitude could thus be taken to explain “why California, with its rich oil fields, did not take off sooner.”
I do not think it’s inappropriate to retroactively judge whether one side or another was justified in their claims, either by contemporaneous or later standards, and regardless of later discoveries. I would, however, like to leave the issue aside here. (Personally, I have no idea who, if anyone, was justified in the Silliman-Whitney case.) I also don’t want to make a warmed-over point about the relationship between scientific credibility and political interests. Instead, I want to concentrate on just how common the polemics of obstruction and delay, and a counter-polemic of enthusiasm, are in history and historiography. To talk about the issue, I want to move to a territory I know a bit better: World War II.
In the years prior to his becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Winston Churchill positioned himself as a robust opponent of Nazism. His friend, adviser, and the director of Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, physicist Frederick Lindemann (1886-1957), was of like mind. Both were wary of bureaucratic mediocrity, and they understood it as their duty to awaken the state apparatus from its sloth in order to combat the Nazi threat. Churchill routinely inserted himself into the details of military planning, and both he and Lindemann were aggressive proponents of technological game-changers.
The 20th-Century Problem: Gowing and “Big” History December 14, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Operations Research.
Tags: Keith Hancock, Margaret Gowing
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A rare but exciting event in researching the history of 20th-century science is when one finds other historians as historical actors. In researching World War II and operations research, Henry Guerlac has turned up as the official historian of the MIT Rad Lab. More surprising, Martin Klein, who just passed away this year, served in the U. S. Navy’s Operations Research Group when he was a physics grad student. I also found that eminent British historian of science, Margaret Gowing—best known for her work on the British nuclear program—was an early contributor to the Operational Research Quarterly (now Journal of the OR Society) back when it was essentially a newsletter publicizing non-R&D modernization strategies and techniques in state and industrial work.
“Historical Writing: Some Problems of Material Selection,” OR Quarterly 4 (1953): 35-36 briefly discusses Gowing’s experience as an official war historian in the employ of the War Cabinet. I don’t think any reference to this article will make it into my book on the subject, so I thought I would share it as part of this post series, to which it is well-suited. For Gowing, facing up to what I am calling the “20th-century problem” required a distinctly 20th-century historiography. (more…)
The 20th-Century Problem: Westwick and Classes of Institutions December 2, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: Peter Westwick
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For the sake of argument, let’s say that there are two kinds of well-written history books: barn-burners and bibles. A barn-burner could be evocatively written to rival the sensory experience of a museum exhibit or film, it might present a particularly important or intriguing historical episode, or it might make a provocative argument. Rarely a bible might manage to be a barn-burner, but more often it is a public service: something that is difficult to read straight through, but contains enough information or crucial analysis or both that one returns to it again and again, with the account usually growing richer as one gains more knowledge of a historical milieu.
Peter Westwick’s The National Labs (2003) is a bible. One might argue it is extraneous, as individual national labs have received their own historical treatments, some quite recently.
J. L. Heilbron, Robert Seidel, and Bruce R. Wheaton, Lawrence and His Laboratory: Nuclear Science at Berkeley, 1931-1961 (1981).
Leland Johnson and Daniel Schaffer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory: The First FiftyYears (1994). (more…)
The 20th-Century Problem: Krige and National Narrative November 8, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: Cathryn Carson, Dieter Hoffmann, Gabrielle Hecht, Jessica Wang, John Krige, Kristie Macrakis, Niels Bohr, Philip Morse
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In my last discussion of the challenges involved in writing about the history of science in the 20th century, I noted that local narratives can be taken to be revealing of broader issues, but that such narratives can also simply reflect back some larger narrative already understood to exist. In this post we take this consideration to the case of the national narrative.
John Krige’s 2006 book American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe is, I would say, an important step in the establishment of a historiography of post-1945 science on the European continent. Until recently, the history of scientific Europe in this period has not been systematically explored. 1999′s Science under Socialism, edited by Dieter Hoffmann and Kristie Macrakis (who just joined Krige at Georgia Tech this year), etched out a picture of science in East Germany. Cathryn Carson has written on science in West Germany (publications list here). In 1998′s The Radiance of France (out in a new edition this year), Gabrielle Hecht wrote on the development of the unusually important nuclear power industry in that country. The object here is not to put together a complete bibliography, but if anyone wants to add to the picture of this historiography, please do leave a comment.
Krige’s book covers a lot of important bases, looking at the Marshall Plan, NATO, the State Department and CIA, the activities of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the establishment of CERN (on which he has written more extensively elsewhere) as institutions linking American and European science and politics. (Here one should also make note of Ron Doel‘s ongoing project to study American science’s diplomatic uses.) Similar to Needell’s book on Lloyd Berkner, the emphasis here is on individual cases. In this case, different (more…)