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Unfocused: Science, Technology, and the Cold War November 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Collectively, historians know a lot about science and technology during the Cold War.  A significant number of books and articles have been written about the ambitious technological systems developed during the era, the enormous scientific endeavors made possible by expanded state and military funding, the rise of new intellectual programs in fundamental physics and molecular biology, the expansion of geoscience and social science and the development of new methods in them, the global integration of scientific work, and the importance of digital computation, among other subjects.  Accordingly, the present is an excellent time to reflect on and consolidate what has been learned, render the history of the era more navigable, and to suggest forward-looking research programs.

Unfortunately, this past summer’s Isis Focus section, edited by David Kaiser and Hunter Heyck did not take the opportunity to do that.  The limit of the section’s synthesis essentially said what the paragraph above said at greater length, and left the rest of the space as a forum for the individual contributors to showcase their own research projects, which are taken to “exemplify” recent research trends.  In this way, this Focus section is little different from past sections, which position themselves as the beginnings of new conversation, present some new empirical work, but mainly simply recapitulate basic ideas that can be considered the agreed-upon points in an aging scholarship, while reciting the perpetual mantra that “more work is needed” for any real understanding to occur.  This blog typically does not take these sections up.  But, since Cold War-era science is my own specialty, I thought a (now rather belated) critique of this particular section might be in order.

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The 20th-Century Problem: Krige and National Narrative November 8, 2009

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