jump to navigation

Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 1 May 31, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Warren Weaver

Warren Weaver

Via Twitter, Audra Wolfe has called my attention to a passage in intellectual historian David Hollinger’s Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century Intellectual History (1998), in which he discusses the debate over federal policy for the funding of scientific research in the immediate postwar period.

The specific issue at hand is a letter from the Director of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver (1894-1978), to the New York Times, written at the end of August 1945, in which he argues against proponents of the strategic planning of scientific research who had criticized Vannever Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier report.  

According to Hollinger, Weaver argued in his letter that, during the war, (in Hollinger’s words):

the sciences had not been advanced by government coordination at all.  The recently exploded atomic bomb was not a product of government science. Contrary to popular belief, the Organization for [sic, “Office of”] Scientific Research and Development was not a model for doing scientific research; what his office had done during the war was merely to coordinate the “practical application of basic scientific knowledge.”

The statement—particularly the bit about the atomic bomb—is extraordinary, in that it appears to reveal Weaver to be an ideologue for scientific freedom, willing to badly distort the record of activities of the OSRD and the Manhattan Project in order to advance his views.  Hollinger’s claim has been repeated by Jon Agar in his Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (2012).  However, the passage neither accurately reflects Weaver’s actual words, nor, more broadly, the terms of the postwar debate over the planning of science, the reality of “basic” or “pure” science, and the need for scientific freedom.


Edgerton, the Linear Model, and the Historical Existence of Ideas July 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: , , , , ,

David Edgerton

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 @ #41 #27, and published in The Science-Industry Nexus: History, Policy, Implications, Karl Grandin, Nina Wormbs, and Sven Widmalm, eds., 2004; hereafter GWW).

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?


Physicists in Industry February 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment
links to .pdf file

image links to .pdf file

In light of my recent discussion of Steven Shapin’s Scientific Life (Part 1 and Part 2), I thought it might be useful to promote something rather different on pretty much the same topic: the project report just released by my employers at the AIP History Center on their multi-year “History of Physicists in Industry” project, assembled through the efforts of Joe Anderson, who runs the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, and Orville Butler, who has the office next door to mine.  Some early work on the project was done by Tom Lassman, who is now at the Air and Space Museum downtown in DC.  Click on the image to access the report in .pdf form.

The project’s aim was to survey industrial researchers and research administrators with the goal of finding out what historical records industries preserve, and how; as well as to undertake a preliminary survey of industrial research activities and attitudes since World War II.

I would describe the report as an empirical extraction of “trends” from interview data.  Insofar as it analyzes commentary, it is actually quite similar to Shapin’s work, (more…)

Primer: Fred Terman December 31, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment
Click to go to the National Academy of Sciences biographical memoir of Terman.

Click to go to the National Academy of Sciences' biographical memoir of Terman, whence this photo + signature is lifted.

Frederick Terman (1900-1982) was an electrical engineer and a crucial figure in the development of Stanford University following the Second World War.  Terman grew up near Stanford where his father Lewis Terman (of IQ test fame) was a professor of psychology.  Fred Terman did his undergraduate work at Stanford, and then earned his PhD in electrical engineering at MIT under Vannevar Bush in 1924, before heading back to a position in Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering.  There he specialized in cutting edge electronic instrumentation, wrote a key textbook on radio engineering.  He became head of the department in 1937, and successfully lobbied for the creation of an industrial park on university land.

In 1942, following America’s entry into World War II, Terman left Stanford to head the Radio Research Laboratory housed at Harvard University, and thus became well-acquainted with the possibilities of federal patronage for university research constructed through the ad hoc Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was headed by Bush.  Stanford, meanwhile, was largely left out of wartime military-related research, and when Terman returned toward the end of the war and was named dean of the School of Engineering, he was determined not to let further such opportunities slip away.

With the support of the new university president, Donald Tresidder, Terman became a powerful figure in the postwar development of the university.  Fearing that Stanford was falling well behind the academic vanguard—not only (more…)