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Wang on PSAC, Pt. 3: Attitudes and Ideas in the History of Policy August 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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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”.

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Polemical Structures: Enthusiasm, Delay, and the Frustration of Bureaucracy June 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, British Science-Society Critiques.
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Enthusiast or gadfly?  Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell in 1948; photograph by William J. Sumits, from the LIFE photo archive

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.

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Hawks, Doves, and Various Avian Hybrids February 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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The earliest version of this post embarrassingly misrepresented the AEC General Advisory Committee’s 1949 position on hydrogen bomb developmentHaving caught out my error, I have inserted a correction below. —Will

There is an interesting post by Darin over at PACHSmörgåsbord discussing a recent PACHS colloquium given by Terry Christensen on physicists and Cold War politics, with commentary by Erik Rau (one of the few other historians who has written much about the history of operations research).  I’m a little bummed not to have seen the talk.  I obviously can’t comment on specific points.  But I gather from Darin’s summary that it had mainly to do with why Edward Teller (1908-2003) has a bad historical reputation, where fellow Cold War hawk John Wheeler (1911-2008) (about whom Christensen has written) does not.  The postwar government activities of physicists is a frequently-visited topic, but it has not been systematically addressed, and, in all but the most sophisticated accounts, it is still rather coarsely-parsed.  I’ve been gathering information on it lately, and thought I would offer a few preliminary thoughts about the complex relationship between physicists and American Cold War militarism.

Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Gift of Carlo Wick

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Primer: Project Matterhorn and Early Fusion Research May 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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At this moment, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is preparing to come online at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (see the New York Times story).  The goal of NIF is to study small-scale nuclear fusion ignited by a precisely focused array of 192 high-power lasers.  Reflecting a situation often seen in higher profile with America’s space program, the project is vastly over-budget, and its worth has been subjected to extensive criticism.  Nuclear fusion has for decades remained  a subject of intensive study and perpetually unmet promise.  The “Array of Contemporary American Physicists” on which I am now at work for the AIP History Center will have fusion and related plasma research as one of its focuses, and includes information on some of those involved in the NIF as well as in prior generations of research.

Lyman Spitzer explains the stellarator at the Second Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, 1958

Lyman Spitzer explains the “stellarator” at the Second Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, 1958

The study of nuclear fusion dates to the 1930s, when an emerging theoretical understanding of subatomic forces and particles suggested a way of accounting for the energy produced by stars and the synthesis of elements within them, as worked out by German émigré physicist Hans Bethe.  During World War II, it was understood that artificial fusion could be created by using a fission bomb to ignite nuclear fuel—the idea behind the “super” or “hydrogen” bomb.  This possibility was pursued during the war by Hungarian émigré physicist Edward Teller, and, following debate on whether (more…)

Primer: The Soviet Bomb March 25, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Igor Vasilevich Kurchatov, Photo Credit: Ioffe Physical Technical Institute, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Igor Vasilevich Kurchatov, Photo Credit: Ioffe Physical Technical Institute, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

The early history of the atomic bomb is necessarily a part of the history of physics, because in less than a decade what was an entirely novel physical phenomenon—the splitting of certain atomic nuclei when struck by neutrons—had been engineered into a military weapon with unprecedented destructive power.

The key  experiments had been conducted in Germany at the end of 1938, but once the mechanism had been interpreted by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch (both of whom had fled the Nazis), its implications were appreciated across the world of nuclear physics, including in the Soviet Union.

Like the United States, the Soviet Union was not a traditional leader in physics, but, like the United States, the physics community was respected and had a burgeoning nuclear physics community.  This community, like others across the world, fully recognized the implications of nuclear fission before nuclear research went secret after the war began, and members of it played a leading role in the research and development of nuclear weaponry and energy.

During the war, because the Soviet Union quickly became embroiled in an epic ground war with the Nazis, Soviet nuclear research did not receive as strong a priority as it ultimately did in the United States, though a research project was established in the winter of 1942-43 once it was learned from spies that the Germans, British, and Americans had established their own programs.  The (more…)