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The 20th-Century Problem: Westwick and Classes of Institutions December 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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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).

Jack M. Holl, Argonne National Laboratory, 1946-96 (1997).

Robert P. Crease, Making Physics: A Biography of Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1946-1972 (1999).

Appearing since Westwick’s book: Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne W. Kolb, and Catherine Westfall, Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience (2008).  Plus there are histories of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and histories of Stanford (Leslie 1993 and Lowen 1997, which include the origins of SLAC).

However, what I think makes Westwick’s book important, aside from alleviating some of the need to mentally synthesize all of the above, is his willingness to carve out a coherently analyzable patch of history that is not restricted to a simple institutional history.  Thus, the history of America’s postwar AEC-sponsored laboratory system gains in coherence by understanding the development of the labs as a group, as well as their tandem evolution; Westwick calls this characteristic “systemicity”.

The national lab system is what we might think of as a class of institution, which adheres to its own characteristics requiring explanation.  To define a class is necessarily to draw artificial boundaries in the historical record, and is therefore a daring historiographical act (although the national labs are a fairly self-selecting set).  Nevertheless, I believe the act itself always tends to be useful insofar as it elucidates certain contours of the record, and provides an important basis for further argumentation.

Westwick’s book, particularly the first section “The Framework”, provides an exemplary case of how an author can creatively assert a series of claims that help historians answer simple but essential questions like “what were these labs?” and “how did they work?”, providing a primer for the uninitiated.  It is too rare that historians will actually characterize the function of management, advisory panels, and oversight organizations; and describe commonalities and differences within the institutional class.  Thus we gain a clear sense of what labs were most connected to academic science, what their relationship with classified work was, how they defined their missions with respect to each other, their evolving status as “regional” or truly “national” labs, the perspectives of the various laboratory directors, and so forth.  Within a suitably clear explanation of how the labs worked, even topics such as the difference between overhead and indirect costs excite a certain interest (pp. 52-53).

In carving out and describing a full class of institutions, I believe Westwick has hit upon an important key to overcoming the “20th-century problem”—the especially large morass of activities that defines 20th-century science, which tends to render single narratives relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and (more importantly) detached from the contexts that most effectively explain particular chains of events.  Notably, in choosing to study a system or class of institutions, he nods to the historiography of management and economic and social organization (pp. 6-8), which, as I have previously noted, has been a useful strategy in other literatures.

As much as I admire the book as an important step in addressing the 20th-century problem, the clarity initially achieved gets a little scrambled as the book moves on.  Following neither a tightly structured chronology (sudden skips back and forth of a decade or more are common), nor a firmly defined topical analysis, the narratives of latter sections are all useful, but less illuminating than the descriptive first section.  I believe the difficulty is, as is so often the case, the difficulty of developing a compelling administrative history.

One frustrating aspect of administrative histories is the tendency of scientific research projects and instruments to become MacGuffins.  They are objects that feature in extended administrative negotiations—in National Labs, usually nuclear reactors and accelerators—without any substantial explanation of what one of these things does on a day-to-day basis, and what their significance is to the science of a given moment in time (or better still, through time).  Westwick notes his lack of attention to achievements (p. 8), directing readers to the aforementioned institutional studies, but lending only a cursory attention to the character of scientific work certainly lends to the difficulty in following the narratives.  Without access to this knowledge, which the actors clearly had in mind, it becomes difficult to determine the motivations behind certain requests, why certain negotiation moves were made, or the adequacy of the outcomes of those negotiations, beyond reading the reactions of the participants (“our lab needs X!”, “we lost out!”).

When administrative histories take on this detachment (usually a symptom of a historian’s adhering to the “view from the archive”, see here), what generally matters analytically is the structure or thematic contents of the negotiations, rather than their substance.  For instance, a congruity with some ideology might be read as the most important feature of the negotiation (see the interesting discussion here of the function of “Cold War ideology” in Lowen’s administrative history of Stanford), but in this case it is Westwick’s concern with “systemicity”, particularly the oscillation between laboratory competition and the beneficial division of scientific labor within the national lab system.

When thematic concerns overwhelm the historical contours, a certain incoherence almost necessarily creeps in.  The latter sections’ organizational priorities are clear from the table of contents: “big equipment”, “nationalism and internationalism”, “boundary disputes”, “specialization”, “diversification”, “adaptive strategies”.  Nevertheless, the book should be appreciated as an important step in developing a more comprehensive historical description of the evolution of 20th-century science.

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