Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics
This page contains some of the research I have worked on, both past and present, that has materialized into papers and talks. If you click the "abstract" link next to an entry, a brief description will appear. In some cases, there are links to other webpages for information, or the articles in question, or lecture slides.
I am currently under contract with the University of Chicago Press to complete a manuscript on the history of nuclear secrecy in the United States with an optimistic publishing date of 2013. If you'd like to be kept up to date, you can follow my blog, Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, or my Twitter feed.
My dissertation, Knowledge and the bomb: Nuclear secrecy in the United States, 1939-2008, was a history of attempts to control nuclear technology through the control of knowledge. My work looks at the overall dynamics of secrecy policies as they unfolded over the course of the latter-half of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first. For more information, click the link. My dissertation was filed and accepted by the Department of History of Science, Harvard University, in October 2010.
"Patenting the bomb: Nuclear weapons, intellectual property, and technological control," Isis 99, no. 1 (March 2008): 57-87. (abstract)
The Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapons during World War II, was not only one of the largest governmental research and development endeavors of all time, it also included one of the largest and most aggressive patenting programs of all time. Thousands of inventions were reviewed for potential patentability by a large staff of project lawyers, and in the end patents were filed in 493 different subject fields covering everything "from the ore as mined to the atomic bomb," and the program was aggressively supported and championed by such top-level players as Vannevar Bush, General Leslie Groves, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. But why patent the atomic bomb in the first place? Aren't patents supposed to be openly viewable, and aren't nuclear weapons supposed to be kept secret? Answering the basic questions about this long-neglected part of Manhattan Project history requires a careful look at the wartime patenting practices as well as, I argue, a re-thinking of the inherent openness of patents and inherent secrecy of nuclear weapons.
This more-accessible article also looks at the Manhattan Project patenting program, focusing in particular on the work of William A. Shurcliff, the "Manhattan Project patent censor." "Before Stagg Field, before Trinity, before the atomic age dawned above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nascent nuclear technologies emerged in a world unsure of how to manage the bevy of new and dangerous secrets. The surprising method of early atomic control? Patent censorship."
"From Classified to Commonplace: The Trajectory of the Hydrogen Bomb 'Secret,'" Endeavour 32, no. 2 (June 2008): 47-52. (abstract)
In this article I look at the rise-and-fall of the importance of the "secret" of the hydrogen bomb. Once the paradigmatic example of Cold War "restricted data," it now can be found in children's encylopedias. I briefly explore this history as a way of understanding the changing nature of secrecy over time, and the eventual declining importance of "hydrogen bomb" as a useful analytic category for talking about nuclear weapons.
"Die geheimen Patente – eine andere Sicht auf die Atombombe," in Atombilder: Ikongraphien des Atoms in Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit des 20. Jahrhundertsts, ed. Jochen Hennig and Charlotte Bigg (Berlin: Wallstein Verlag, 2009): 159-167. (abstract)
This article (in German) looks at the Manhattan Project patenting program as a unique lens through which to see the development of the bomb. Title translates to "The secret patents: A different view of the atomic bomb." The volume is called Atomic Images: Iconographies of the Atom in 20th century science and culture. It was graciously translated by someone with far better German skills than my own.
"States of Eugenics: Institutions and the Practices of Compulsory Sterilization in California," in Sheila Jasanoff, ed., Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011): 29-58. (abstract)
This chapter in an edited volume explores the ways in which the practice of compulsory sterilization programs in California in the first half of the twentieth century do not conform to the intellectual-history model of the history of eugenics, and instead point the way to a more practice-based, institution-based understanding of the history of eugenics.
"So Long, Mom, I'm Off to Drop the Bomb: A Case Study in Public Usage of an Educational Tool," WMD Junction (3 May 2012), online.
"A Tale of Openness and Secrecy: The Philadelphia Story," Physics Today 65, no. 5 (May 2012), 47-53.
"State Secrets," Endeavour 32, no. 4 (December 2008): 123-124. (Review of Kristie Macrakis, Seduced By Secrets: Inside the Stasi's Spy-Tech World.)
"Our Special Bomb," Endeavour 33, no. 2 (June 2009): 44-45. (Review of Michael Gordin, Five Days in August.)
Review of J. Samuel Walker, The Road to Yucca Mountain; Isis 101, no. 4 (December 2010): 928-929.
"Contingencies of the Early Nuclear Arms Race," review of Michael Gordin, Red Cloud at Dawn; with S.S. Schweber, Metascience 20, no. 3 (2011): 443-465. Available online January 2011.
Review of Matthew Kroenig, Exporting the Bomb; Marine Corps University Journal 3, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 106-108.
"Caught in the Circle of Secrecy: Failed Attempts at Classification Reform in the Early Atomic Energy Commission, 1947-1950." Policy History Conference, Richmond, VA, June 2012; Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) Annual Meeting, Hartford, CT, June 2012 (forthcoming).
"Scientific Secrecy and WMD Nonproliferation: An Analytical Framework." Invited talk, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, CA, April 2012.
Invited panelist, "Ethically Impossible: A Panel Discussion on Non-Consensual Medical Research in Guatemala, Africa, and the United States," Georgetown Law School, February 2012.
"Nuclear Secrets in the Twilight Zone: The H-bomb 'Gag Order' of 1950." History of Science Society (HSS) Annual Meeting, Cleveland, OH, November 2011. (abstract)
The use of secrecy restrictions to "gag" scientists with government affiliations and relevant expertise by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) during the debate over the hydrogen bomb in 1949-1950 has been interpreted by commentators retrospectively as evidence of the inherent contradiction in maintaining a democratic, informed public while meeting the needs of the modern security state. These censorship actions notoriously included events like the burning of thousands of copies of a Scientific American issue with an article by Hans Bethe allegedly containing "restricted data." My paper re-examines the "gag order" on the hydrogen bomb enforced by the AEC. Internal AEC records reveal that the agency actually resisted and attempted to overturn the "gag order," which had been secretly imposed on them by President Truman. Rather than endorsing heavy-handed secrecy, the AEC in fact found the order unworkable and undesirable, and attempted to redefine its own responsibilities with regard to the control of information that lay in the "twilight zone" between political and technical speech. Their compromise position, formally articulated in the wake of the Bethe episode, involved explicitly disavowing any attempt to monitor "secrets" in the private sphere, and instead focused their efforts on policing the activities of their affiliated scientists. This shift of emphasis from the secret's ontology towards the secret-holder's identity had important consequences for the late Cold War. This episode provides a potent example of the ways in which secrecy regimes mask their own operation to contemporaries, thereby falsely appearing monolithic.
"Classifying Dual-use Science: Lessons from the Early History of Laser Fusion." Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, October 2011.
"Gambling for H-bombs: Publicizing and Privatizing Laser Fusion, 1969-1975." Maryland Colloquium in the History of Technology, Science, and Environment (University of Maryland, College Park), October 2011.
"Why Build So Many Nukes? Factors Behind the Exponential Growth of the Cold War Stockpile." Invited lecture and panel discussion, part of "Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle: MIT Faculty and Nuclear Arms Reduction," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, April 2011. (abstract)
Most of us know the arguments for and against having some nuclear weapons versus no nuclear weapons. But what about the specific question of how many nuclear weapons? In the 1940s, the idea of a world with hundreds of nuclear weapons seems almost beyond imagination, but the United States would not stop increasing its stockpile size until it was over 30,000 nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. This talk looks at the organizational, institutional, scientific/technological, and strategic factors behind the exponential growth of the American nuclear stockpile between 1945 and 1963, as a means of articulating lesser-understood dynamics of the Cold War arms race.
"Secrecy in the Age of WikiLeaks." Invited lecture, Harvard Club of Long Island, March 2011.(abstract)
We are, many commentators have informed us, in the "age of WikiLeaks": an era of high-thoroughput, fairly anonymous data transmission, where every teenager in the Western world has more publishing power than major periodicals did forty years ago. What does this mean for the future of government secrecy, of the attempts to control information? In this talk, I cover some of the fundamental dynamics behind the "age of WikiLeaks," by focusing on the changing role of government secrecy, leaking practices, anti-secrecy activism, and the mainstream media over the course of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. My conclusion is that while high-volume leaking is probably here to stay, the ability of the US government to regulate and punish this sort of behavior will likely grow commensurately, and that government secrecy as we know it will probably evolve, rather than decline.
"Legalizing American Nuclear Secrecy." Invited lecture and panel discussion, part of "Nuclear Secrets: Democracy and the National Security State," EPIIC International Symposium for Global Leadership, Tufts University, February 2011.
"Restricted Data: Legislating Nuclear Secrecy in the United States." Seminar, Managing the Atom Project, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2010. (abstract)
Secrecy is at its heart a form of regulation: it is a means by which the government regulates certain categories of "dangerous" knowledge. The regulation of nuclear knowledge is enabled through specific legislative means (the Atomic Energy Act) and operates under a very different legal framework than does the regulation of military secrets or other classified information (e.g. intelligence or diplomatic secrets). This talk looks at the historical causes and consequences to this parallel system: how the bomb received its own, quite different paradigm of information regulation from other secret knowledge (known as "restricted data"), and what the difficulties in articulating and enforcing this paradigm were over the course of the late Cold War.
"Atoms for Peace, Atoms for Terror: Debating Secrecy versus Safeguards in the 1970s." Invited lecture, department colloquium, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University, September 2010. (abstract)
The early Cold War approach to nuclear secrecy involved the creation of rigid boundaries between "safe" and "dangerous" information, and between the secret-knowing and the secret-ignorant. By the 1970s, however, the brittleness of such a worldview, and the relative permeability of nuclear knowledge, were becoming clear. College kids could learn nuclear "secrets" from public libraries, the rise of domestic and international terrorism threw into question who the "enemy" was, and a growing number of people were beginning to see the earlier "Atoms for Peace" ambitions less as a civilizing force than as an agent of nuclear proliferation. One nexus where the breakdown of these boundaries was particularly acute was the debate over the relative importance of physical safeguards versus information control when the objective was to prevent extremists from acquiring or manufacturing crude fission weapons. At its heart, the debate centered around a tough question: How easy was it to make an atomic bomb, some 25 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The answer, heavily debated by both inside and outside the nuclear establishment, would have broad policy implications about the importance of classification, the export of technology, the declining value of nuclear knowledge, and the lengths to be taken to secure fissile material within the borders of the United States. This talk focuses on the 1970s as a transformational decade in the American discourse on nuclear danger and nuclear secrecy, as attention shifted from a high-tech, bipolar Cold War model towards the broad infrastructural threats that have come to characterize the modern response to terrorism.
"Why You Can't Patent an Atomic Bomb: Nuclear Weapons as Intellectual Property." Invited public lecture, "Science, Technology, and Legal Regulation" lecture series, Münchner Zentrum fuer Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte (Munich Center for History of Science and Technology), Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany, June 2010. (abstract)
In the United States, you can patent software, business methods, and even life itself. But you cannot patent an atomic bomb. Why not? The answer has nothing to do with the morality or utility of the bomb, as is sometimes supposed, but is due to somewhat strange decisions made during the early history of nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, patenting the atomic bomb is now banned specifically because, during World War II, American officials filed thousands of secret patent applications on all aspects of the atomic bomb, at the explicit request of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Manhattan Project patenting program, massive in scale, was meant to be an all-encompassing effort by the United States government to secure complete legal control over the intellectual property of the bomb, for the duration of the war and in perpetuity. After the war had ended, Congress took this idea even further, and sought to outlaw any kind of private ownership of the intellectual property behind the bomb. But the question of nuclear patenting, intersecting national security with questions of public and private ownership, became a site of great controversy, one that continued well until after the Cold War had ended. My talk will examine this forgotten legacy of nuclear patents, and the hidden influence it has had on later debates about patenting the results of federal research.
"Secrecy and the Bomb, From the Postwar to the Cold War." States of Secrecy Conference, Harvard University, April 2009; History of Science Society (HSS) Annual Meeting, Phoenix, AZ, November 2009. (abstract)
The idea that the atomic bomb was born in a secrecy which it maintains to the present day obscures the important and discrete phases of nuclear information control under a banner of technological and/or political determinism. In my paper, I will examine the three qualitatively different secrecy regimes that emerged in the first 15 years of the bomb, from the wartime censorship of the Manhattan Project, to the ambiguous quasi-military control of the immediate postwar, to the emergence of a Cold War secrecy model in the early 1950s. Rather than tell a cultural history of this period, this paper looks at the specific behind-the-scenes decisions and incidents which lead to a radical revision of the concept of nuclear secrecy over this period. Instead of determinism, contingency abounds: the system that emerged in the Cold War was not only not inevitable, but exceptionally contrived and historically situated, far more nuanced and carefully constructed than a simple fear-driven model would suggest. What emerges is the notion of secrecy as both a system and a locus of debate, a way of thinking about nuclear knowledge and a global scientific epistemology.
Invited Panelist, "Archival Research in the Sciences: A Discussion with Graduate Students," New England Archivists Biannual Meeting, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, March 2009.
In the early 1970s, a small Michigan firm made business headlines with its ambitious attempt to privatize, patent, and promote a new form of clean fusion technology for energy generation. The problem was, in the eyes of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the technology was neither new nor private: it had been under development in secret at the Livermore and Los Alamos weapons laboratories for nearly a decade. Even worse, the canonical Cold War secret—the design of the hydrogen bomb—was at the core of the work, known as laser fusion. This paper looks at the history of laser fusion as a way of exploring tensions between different modes of secrecy—governmental, corporate, and scientific—as they intersected over the course of a decade that saw the post-Nixonian backlash against classification, an energy crisis, the dissolution of the AEC, the bust of the post-Sputnik physics bubble, and, eventually, against the wishes of the government, the publication of the so-called "H-bomb secret."
"The Committee on Declassification and the Question of Postwar Secrecy." Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) Annual Meeting, Columbus, OH, June 2008. (abstract)
Three months after the atomic bombings of Japan, General Leslie R. Groves commissioned the Caltech physicist Richard Tolman to chair a "Committee on Declassification" to produce definitive guidelines for postwar atomic energy classification and declassification. The Committee, whose members included the atomic luminaries Robert Bacher, Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, Harold Urey, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, produced a number of reports from late 1945 through mid-1946 that became the bedrock for the United States' postwar classification policy and created the first Declassification Guide. My paper will look at the formation and operation of the Tolman Committee on Declassification, with the aim of looking closely at the members' attitudes towards secrecy itself and its ability to constrain both foreign and domestic scientific and technological development in the field of atomic energy, and the ways in which their work enshrined a particular philosophy of science and technology in the realm of policy in the crucial period as the postwar transitioned into the Cold War.
"'Old H-bomb Arguments Never Die!': History, Secrecy, and the Teller-Ulam Priority Dispute." History of Science Society (HSS) Annual Meeting, Crystal City, VA, November 2007. (abstract)
The history of the development of the hydrogen bomb has been mired in issues related to priority since the first prototype was detonated at the Enewetak Atoll in 1952. The question of who developed the hydrogen bomb—and how—became an ongoing historical dispute that continues to the present day, tied up with questions of politics, personalities, and the nature of "genius." What was originally a behind-the-scenes debate over whether Robert Oppenheimer could have slowed up the H-bomb's development, and whether Klaus Fuchs could have given any useful information on the H-bomb to the Russians, later spilled into a feud over whether the physicist Edward Teller or the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam was the "father" of the weapon. Classification specifically has been blamed for the ambiguity surrounding the origins of the hydrogen bomb, and indeed over time, new revelations about the bomb's origin have emerged as classification restrictions relating to the technical aspects of the weapon were eased. But the process of clarifying has also been muddling: despite increasing knowledge of the so-called Teller-Ulam (or Ulam-Teller) configuration, efforts to resolve the priority dispute unambiguously by scientists (including classification-cleared participants) and historians of science have thus far failed. The ambiguity primarily results, I argue, from the fact that the identity of the actual object of the dispute—the technical configuration itself—is under dispute: as in many priority disputes, the nature of the invention, and what counts as innovation, is itself an area of contention. My paper will be both historical and historiographic, discussing the complicated history of the hydrogen bomb priority dispute, as well as serving as a departure point for an analysis of the effects of government secrecy, the question of nuclear authorship, and an analysis that underscores the failure of the polarizing "openness and secrecy" dialectic as a useful analytic category for the archival historian.
"Towards a Practice-based Account of Sterilization and Eugenics in California." Life Sciences Working Group, Harvard University, April 2007. (abstract)
This paper expands my earlier work on the history of compulsory sterilization (see below), drawing out the argument of what it mght mean to develop a practice-based account (rather than an ideology-based account) of eugenics.
"A Certain Uncertainty: The Generation of Random Numbers from Karl Pearson to the Monte Carlo Method." Harvard Physical Sciences Working Group, November 2006. (abstract)
The use of pseudo-random number generators in the physical and computer sciences, and their strange relationship with the epistemology and ontology of "randomness," is well known. Ostensibly generating their "random" digits by means of wholly deterministic algorithms, pseudo-random generators have called into question not only the meaning of "random" and "disorder," but also the complex relationship between simulation and reality. Less well-known though is the path statistical thinking took from "classical" randomness to pseudo-randomness. This paper looks at the early history of random numbers in the twentieth century, starting with turn-of-the-century attempts to utilize "random" data for statistical simulation, and the perceived failures of classical analogs of chance, such as dice, roulette wheels, and mixed urns. It posits that thinking about random number generation went through a number of distinct phases before the computer, "randomness" went from being a property of the generation of the numbers, to being a property that could be simply tested for in numbers. This paper outlines both the major shifts of statistical thought which occurred during this time, and looks at the statistical and literary techniques used to reaffirm a statistical definition of "randomness" out of the an essentially intangible quality present in commonsense definitions of the term, creating objects which sit uncomfortably between ontological and epistemological definitions of their very claims to reality.
"Nuclear Narratives and Political Reason." Workshop, Acting Within Reason: Cultural Perspectives on Modern Rationality, Harvard University, Center for the Environment/Program on STS, May 2006. (abstract)
This talk explored the way in which different narratives about the ontology of nuclear weapons led historical actors in the period of 1945-1950 to make radically different assessments of what a "rational" political decision could be in the wake of Hiroshima.
"Drawing the Bomb: Secrecy and the Visual Depiction of Nuclear Weapons." 16th Annual Berkeley Symposium, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Visual Representation, University of California, Berkeley, March 2005; Society for Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting, Pasadena, CA, November 2005. (abstract)
Ever since their dramatic and very public debut in the closing days of the Second World War, nuclear weapons have been potent symbols of military and political power, and part of this power has been reinforced by the alleged secrecy of their methods of production, their individual mechanisms, and their designs. They have paradoxically sat at the intersection of high political and cultural visibility and the highest levels of official classification and secrecy. But the few "official" depictions of their internal workings, the "physics package" which initiates their fission and fusion reactions, have been tight-lipped, regulating the majority of all image-making to the private sector, outside the regime of classification. Attempts to graphically depict the internal mechanisms of nuclear weapons have been fraught with epistemological anxiety, with no possibility of recourse to "the thing itself," and yet held forth the promise of understanding "secret" and forbidden knowledge. No other technical artifact has had quite this amount of power and uncertainty in the same space. This paper will explore how these images, and the historical forces which have led to their creation and content, can be used as a heuristic for thinking about the relationship between secrecy, knowledge, representation, and power, while also looking at the ways in which transnational comparisons of "secrecy" (in this case, between the United States and the Soviet Union) can be used to understand both the genealogical nature of "secret knowledge" and curious flows of "understanding" during the Cold War.
"The Organization of Compulsory Sterilization and Eugenics in California, 1909-1951." West Coast History of Science Society Annual Meeting, University of California, San Francisco, 2002. (abstract)
Between 1907 and the early 1960s, over 65,000 developmentally disabled and mentally ill patients were sterilized in the United States under state compulsory sterilization laws. California sterilized by far the most of any participating state, performing almost one third of the total sterilization operations in the entire country. Generally this has been understood within the context of the history of eugenics, the attempt to use the science of heredity to justify often coercive policies to increase the number of the designated "fit" in the population and decrease the number of "unfit." Much of the work on this subject focuses primarily on the ideology of sterilization, looking towards prominent eugenicists who have left the most visible historical record. In contrast to this, my work attempts to re-locate the sterilization practices within their institutional framework, looking closer at the ways in which the legal and bureaucratic infrastructure of the state mental hospitals shaped sterilization practices in California (especially by contrast to other states). This approach helps to bring satisfactory answers to the long-standing questions of why California was so significantly more enthusiastic about sterilization than other U.S. states, why California's sterilization rates abruptly dropped to almost nothing in the early 1950s without any obvious reason, and a more comprehensive understanding of the exact relation of the California sterilization program to the sterilization programs of Nazi Germany, to which they are often directly compared in ideology but not in practice.
"Nuclear Secrecy: Insights from History." Invited graduate guest lecture, Monterey Institute for International Studies, Monterey, CA, April 2012.
"The Bomb: History and Memory." Invited undergraduate guest lecture, History of Science 97a, Sophomore Tutorial, Harvard University, April 2010. (abstract)
» Slides (PDF, 6.8 MB)
This 60-minute lecture for an introductory history of science course discussed the making of the atomic bomb during World War II and its effects on the direction of science in the Cold War, and how we think about the relationship between science and society.
"The Hydrogen Bomb: Physics, History, Politics." Invited undergraduate guest lecture, Science A-41, "Einstein Revolution," Harvard University, April 2009. (abstract)
This 90-minute lecture for Peter Galison's course for the Harvard "Core" program covers the science and history of the hydrogen bomb and nuclear fusion in general. The audio on the recording is mute for the first 5 minutes (my fault—I had not turned on the wireless microphone).
"Weapon Without Limit? Science and the State in the 20th Century." Invited undergraduate guest lecture, History of Science 97a, Sophomore Tutorial, Harvard University, April 2009. (abstract)
This 60-minute lecture for an introductory history of science course discussed the history of physics and government funding from the Manhattan Project through the Cold War.
"German Physics, Nazi Physics." Invited undergraduate guest lecture, STS 042, "Physics in the 20th Century," MIT, March 2009. (abstract)
This 90-minute lecture for a course on the history of physics at MIT, taught by David Kaiser, covered the rise and fall of the Nazi Deutsche Physik movement, the discovery of nuclear fission and the chain reaction, and the German nuclear energy program.
» See also: TEACHING
Last updated June 2012.