Category Archives: history

Arming Mother Nature

Book review: Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, Jacob Darwin Hamblin (OUP: 2013). This was first published on New Left Project.

When you look at recent cuts to environmental research – the Keeling Curve appealing for crowd-funding, for example, or the destruction of Canadian fisheries libraries – you might be forgiven for wondering how such work ever got funding in the first place. Environmental science challenges our current economic and political structures quite profoundly, and politicians the world over seem to be playing the toddler’s game of covering their eyes in hope it’ll go away by shutting down our systems for measuring it. You need to invest heavily in environmental research to render climate change visible, it’s not something you can spot by peeking out the window. How did anyone manage to get funding to even start looking?

According to Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s recent book, Arming Mother Nature, much contemporary environmental thought has political roots in the Cold War. Far from deep-green hippies, it was built by military and political elites who sought to control the planet, not save it. 20th century ecology was aways as much about war-mongering as tree-hugging.

The book’s early chapters are very much in the shadow of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima marked a change in the nature of war, of weaponry and relationships between science and the government. These changes were long in the making, that was partly how and why the bomb had been made itself, but they were ingrained by the fallout (political as well as physical) of Hiroshima. There is a longer history of chemical and biological weapons – both the development of them and questions about the ethics of their use – but the context of environmental science offers a slightly new frame. Biological and chemical weapons are seen as unusually ethically problematic because they turn the work of science – which could be applied to heal, protect and liberate us – to cause pain and suffering and achieve social control. But the atomic bomb turns the very fabric of our environment against its targets. It uses detailed physics to work deep across our bodies, into our soils and through our airs. It’s not a bullet from a machine, it’s a massive release of energy which is followed by a range of parts of our world working often slowly and invisibly against us. A divide between technology and nature is simplistic (bullets are made from the Earth too, as well as by people) but there are reasons why nuclear weapons feel more extreme.

In this context, Hamblin offers us a story of the growth of the idea of total war. Here, the whole environment could be considered as a weapons system, and scientific expertise on how the planet works would be used as inspiration. We think of ecology and its systems-based approach to viewing the world as something favoured by the hippies, but it can be applied to a variety of ends, including war.

One of the clearest examples of the sorts of weaponised ecology the book is about comes with a story riffing off Operation Plowshare (peaceful use of nukes). There had been an environmental impact audit of an idea to use thermonuclear explosions to excavate an artificial harbour in Alaska. It was decided it would impact too heavily on Eskimos’ diet, so the idea was scrapped, but the data collected inspired military thinking. Having traced radioactivity through the food chain, NATO scientists could now build more advanced models of ecological warfare. They knew Eskimos lived interdependently with seals, otter, fish, caribou and plankton. If the plankton were killed, the rest of the chain would drop out. ‘At best he would have to move,’ the group pointed out. ‘At worst he would die.’ This kind of thinking, they realised, could be tailored to other regions. A lethal rice-rust could make life in parts of Asia much more difficult, perhaps untenable. Further, weaponised ecology offered more insidious forms of biological coercion. You didn’t have to kill people as your goal, and that meant populations could be part of the prize. Getting rid of plankton, for example, would make the Eskimos’ entire food system collapse and force them to be entirely dependent on food supplied from outside the region. Toxic agents could be developed to target very specific links in ecological chains, with the aim of shaping a new interdependent web, forcing ecology to a new will, and with it forcing the people into newly disempowered positions.

In 1961, Kennedy approached the start of ‘Operation Ranch Hand,’ the codename for the US’s herbicide campaign in Vietnam. This was advanced environmental warfare, with immense ecological and chemical expertise going into developing agents that could target particular crops, deciding which plants would live and die in Vietnam. Monsanto and Dow did trials, but they also drew on a network of university scientists in the US and the UK, including Oxford plant physiologist Geoffrey Blackman. Interestingly, British researchers at Porton Down were keen to distance themselves from US offensive action, arguing that they were helping to develop ‘true defoliants’ – where the leaves fall but the plant doesn’t die – compared to the more destructive Agents Orange, Purple and Pink. This, apparently, stood on a more ecological footing (we have calls to ‘green the military’ today, lead-free bullets and the like). By 1967, the US Army knew its crop-killing schemes in Vietnam were having little effect on the food sources of soldiers. But scientists at RAND linked data on spraying with more on the Vietnamese soldiers’ rice rations, and concluded that this policy was primarily hurting civilians. The US Army rationalised this as helping to weaken ‘sympathisers’ but such a grand starvation campaign was unpopular, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science calling for the military to halt the spraying programme.

Another key point in this story is the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8. A project in science diplomacy, the idea was that science could be an apolitical means for collaboration between East and West, but behind the talk of peace, hope and understanding were some very canny political games. One of the outcomes of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, which established the space for cooperative scientific research, with freedom of scientific investigation and a ban on military activity on the continent. The text of the treaty is worth a read – there is something quite inspiring about it – but for all the rhetoric of peace and knowledge, it is very much a product of Cold War politics. It could play a colonising role; study on a bit of the Antarctic and you get to put your flag there, a point satirised by Punch at the time (even if isn’t populated, there are minerals you don’t want the other side getting their hands on). Much of the polar research looked ostensibly like studies in weather prediction, but was also detailed observation of spaces which could be a crucial future battleground. The scientists were happy to do military monitoring, knowing they could also do their own work around it. Indeed, we have knowledge of the hole in the ozone layer from Antarctic work, and that Keeling Curve has its roots in the IGY too. Moreover, as Hamblin describes, the buzzword of the IGY was ‘synoptic’ – literarily, and for many of the scientists, just a matter of viewing together – a word which was taken up by the military as a sense of vastness, the idea of ‘synoptic scale’ weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. As Hamblin puts it, ‘while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation.’

In constructing ideas of environmental warfare, military planners also drew inspiration from the natural events earth sciences studied. There was a devastating earthquake in Chile in May 1960. Whole villages were swept away in 24-feet tsunamis, with quakes so powerful whole mountains disappeared and lakes appeared, all going on for several weeks. The New York Times described this as ‘tragic testimony that in this age of the conquest of the atom and of triumphs in outer space man is still helpless against the vast and still largely unpredictable forces that frequently go berserk in his immediate environment – hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes.’ NATO saw it quite differently. It gave them ideas. If this earthquake was equivalent to hundreds of nuclear bombs, why not find some way to bring such disasters into their arsenal? The idea of controlling the weather was particularly appealing, especially as they were increasingly aware of the impact humanity was already having on the upper atmosphere. Whereas weaponising the weather got into the popular press with jokes in the Financial Times about the 1975 British drought being a cunning Warsaw Pact plot, military analysts in the US had already pondered whether it’d be possible to punch a hole in the ozone layer to expose the Russians to fatal amounts of radiation. The most alarming of the more wildcat ideas was probably the one to melt the polar ice caps by exploding nuclear weapons on it, thus raising the global sea level. It was calculated it would take about a million tons of fissile material to melt enough to raise sea level by 30 feet, but it was, apparently, worth considering (just in case the Soviets were plotting the same).

The point I remain unconvinced by in Hamblin’s book is his continual reference to the idea of catastrophic thinking, which simply doesn’t cohere for me, and the idea that this still frames our thinking today. He uses the discussion of environmental warfare in Vietnam – and in particular how it was discussed publicly in the US – as setting some of the tone for environmental politics of the 1970s. Thus, Nixon’s environmentalism can be understood at least in part as part and parcel of his foreign policy. Hamblin also refers to how the American obsession with environmental warfare meant early 1970s discussions of the greenhouse effect were framed by nuclear war in diplomatic discussions, as a world-ending cataclysm, and how this frustrated scientists at the time. Finally, there is a neat story of two Al Gores. In 1951, Congressman Albert Gore advised Truman to ‘dehumanise’ a belt across the Korean peninsula by covering it with radioactive waste which would, he argued, deter Communist troops from crossing. From the 1990s onwards, his son framed environmental policy as a sort of new Cold War struggle; as if ignoring climate change was equivalent to going ‘soft’ on communism. Whereas many saw environmentalists as green on the outside but red in the core (‘watermelons’), Al Gore Jr. referred to a new Global Marshall Plan and a need for a Strategic Environment Initiative, echoing Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. For all that this is part of the story, it seems only partial. Perhaps if Hamblin had traced his story alongside one on the rise of neoliberalism, it might have had a stronger core, but I still feel it would only offer part of the picture.

That quibble aside, it’s a great book. One of the best I read in 2013. It offers an important, fascinating study of intertwined stories of nature, technology, science, war and peace, and offers a very different frame for considering the history of environmental science than is usually offered. If you want to take a lesson from it, simply remember that science is useful to politicians, and they know this. We’re increasingly invited to worry about a neoliberal war on science, but we should spare some concern for those in power who do profess a love of science too. Owen Paterson likes science when it serves him (genetically modified foods, for example), as do George Osborne and Vince Cable (new products for the arms industry, ever more inventive ways to extract fossil fuels). What science, to whose ends? Technologies of control, or of liberation? As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing concern, more than ever we need science and engineering managed by the people, for the people.


Science Museum: The best bits

This was first published in the November edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including a column from me on science comedy.

Science Museum electric cab

Science museums are fascinating bits of the world, full of the artefacts of old ideas of what the future might bring. A hodgepodge of moments in human discovery and invention. Some of these moments are long gone. Some are still with us. Some float back and forth into fashion or utility. Here are my top fifteen exhibits in the London Science Museum. Use them as a guide for your next visit, or as a virtual tour.

1. The Watson and Crick Double Helix

In some ways, the very idea of a science museum is a bit silly. How do you display the worlds of the very small, the very big, the very fast, the very slow or plain invisible which science manages to perceive through application of maths, theories, specialist equipment and years of measurement? You can put a law of motion a case. You can’t hang a theory on a wall.

So science museums get devious and, for example, the London museum wanted to display the great British discovery of DNA, and came up with the ingenious idea of using the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. The problem was that the people in the lab had, quite sensibly, taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was taken. So the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them off and rebuilt it. So it is a mockup, albeit an official one. It’s also very beautiful, displayed almost as abstract art, perhaps with too little explanatory text.

2. 1926 Kelvinator Gas Fridge

The technology side to science museums – which arguably dominates – can be as hard to display as the science. Often, the same thing that makes a technology iconic is also why it’d be a bit weird to expect someone to visit it in a museum. You don’t need to go to Exhibition Road to see a mass-produced product like a biro or an iPhone or a Yale key. It’s in your pocket, or at least someone else’s near by.

One option is to display technological routes not taken. Which is the case of the ‘Kelvinator’ gas fridge, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery. The battle of gas versus electric fridges is a classic tale in the history of technology, one that helps explain why fridges hum, but also reflects the ways in which hype and the alignment of particular business interests can move us in one path over another.

3. Apollo 10

Another option for displaying technology is to go with firsts, and there are many in the museum’s flagship Making the Modern World gallery. It’s maybe not very patriotic to pick one of the American icons in a gallery full of the stars of British industry, but really how can any of them compete with a spaceship?

People got inside of this object and went on a trip around the moon. All the way back in 1969. It’s not futuristic, it isn’t fiction. It doesn’t even look very modern. If anything, it’s a bashed-in old idea of the future.

It will simultaneously make you feel powerful to be part of the human race, and incredibly humble. As all the best science museum exhibits should.

4. Hiroshima Bowl

Another problem with displaying technology is the sheer size of it. The museum has purpose-built galleries for fitting large objects, but even it struggles with planes and ships (largely going for bits of them or just models). Moreover, it’s not always the technology itself that’s of interest or importance, but the broader social context/ environmental impact around it.

With both of these issues in mind, how do you display an atomic bomb? There are many ways museums around the world have found to answer this problem but I really love the decision here, of a humble bowl found in Hiroshima after bombing in August 1945. You can see the sand fused to the sides of the porcelain.

A small exhibit, especially as it’s surrounded by the large machines of Making the Modern World, but possibly one of the more affecting.

5. Turbine blade

Hiding up against the side of a wall on the Wellcome Wing, a cynic might say it’s hard to spot because it’s part of a Shell-sponsored climate exhibition, and fossil fuel companies would rather we avoided talking about renewables. But equally we might argue there is something very pro-wind about how unobtrusive it is, considering turbines are often criticised as a blight.

It’s also interesting to see a turbine on display on a national gallery, considering the politics surrounding climate activists’ attempt to “gift” one to the Tate last year.

6. Handcuffs

These are easy to miss amongst the trains, trucks and spaceships, a rather anonymous pair of handcuffs makes up part of the “technology in everyday life” section of the Making the Modern World Gallery. Next to rollerskates, some bits of cutlery, a typewriter for the blind and a few bikes.

The handcuffs are noteworthy as an example of a technology of control; something the museum could make more of. I remember reading about an exhibition on plastic bullets put on in Brixton in the mid 1980s by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. It would be interesting to know why the Science Museum itself didn’t at the time, and if they would think of something similar today.

It’s also worth considering the particular take on the history of technology which keeps bikes on the side in a gallery where cars are given pride of place in the central thoroughfare. The last few times I’ve visited the museum, friends have remarked “why isn’t there a massive gallery filled with bikes?”

7. Iron baby

One of the many pieces of art dotted around the museum is a small statue of a newborn baby by Antony Gormley. You can found it snuggled away at the side of a case on first floor of the Wellcome Wing. According to museum mythology, when staff researched visitors’ reactions to it, girls would bend down and stroke the baby whereas boys kicked it. I don’t really care if that story is true, I just like it (I also find the exhibit very kickable).

8. Advertising on the stars

Hidden at the back of the George III gallery of 18th century science is a globe displaying charts of the stars mapped more earthly spaces. Above the Northern hemisphere you can see familiar characters of Greek astronomy; animals and heroes and the like. But bend down to the Southern hemisphere and you can see the makers of the globe were more puzzled as to what to put. So they used this map of the skies to chart pictures of the other products their company made; lab benches and other chemists’ equipment. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and more modern science, and also an early example of the connections between science and advertising.

9. A smile machine

The cases in the Who Am I Gallery are a treasure trove of ephemera and other interestingness relating to the broad and diverse science and technologies of being humans. See if you can find the Swearing Association Challenge Cup, a penis packer used during gender realignment, the freeze-dried mouse, the knitted telomeres, the white peacock and a smile machine.

The ‘smile machine’ is a slight misnomer, it’s actually an electrotherapy machine, but as the museum label points out, in the 1860s, physiologist Guillaume Duchenne used pulses from such devices to provoke twitches in patients’ faces to explore how we formed expressions, concluding truly happy smiles use the eyes as well as mouth.

10. Snuff boxes

Running alongside the big steam machines in the main front to the museum, and just before you get to Watt’s workshop are some of the more domestic sides to the Industrial Revolution. This includes a ‘Power, Products and Prosperity’ display which reflects, quite plainly, how much of this period was about the rise of shopping. A slightly uncritical display of consumer culture, arguably, but the cases are a real treasure trove of 19th century stuff and, as the museum label notes, this reflects new the power of the emerging middle classes: “Some saw it as a new democratisation of taste.” There’s a great collection of snuffboxes, including one shaped like a harp, as well as buttons, toys and a urinal next to a custard cup.

11. The building itself

Like many old purpose-built museums, the building itself is an exhibit, reflecting some history of how we have thought about science and technology.

It’s roughly split into three parts. The first from 1928, delayed because of WW1 but finally finding a permanent home for galleries which had been in and out of various prefabs since the Great Exhibition of 1851. The central galleries are an extension dating back to the 1950s, partly linked to the Festival of Britain. Finally there’s the Wellcome Wing, part of a swathe of science museum and galleries (or rebuilds of old ones) for the millennium.

It’s worth having a look around the outside of the museum too and exploring some of the history of South Kensington. What is now the Science Museum used to share space with what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there is still the odd marker to this in the V&A building. Look out for scientists’ names on the door of the garden, and the Science and Art corridor near the silver gallery.

When I take people to the museum, I also get them to look at the sponsors sign at the front too. A thanks to supporters but also a declaration of conflict of interest of sorts, and reflection of the groups who have an interest in the way we display science and technology (or at least those groups with money to spare).

12. A Victorian electric taxi cab

We might think of electric cars as futuristic, but the Science Museum has one from 1897. In some ways it is like the gas fridge, a route of technology we didn’t take, but it’s also a steampunkish reflection of how hopes for the future can return in new and different contexts, even seem a bit retro.

It’s currently on temporary display in the entrance to the Wellcome Wing. I sometimes wonder where they’ll put it when that exhibition ends. I’d like to see it moved into the Making the Modern World, disrupting that gallery’s chief narrative of linear progress. Because the history of technology isn’t linear, the Science Museum should know this better than most, but somehow still often perpetuate the myth.

13. Antarctic ice core

This is one of the few objects from the natural world in the Science Museum (their definition of science has always been “stuff that’s not in the Natural History Museum next door”). Hidden at the back of the climate gallery, it shows evidence of the scar on the planet made by those machines of the industrial revolution so proudly presented at the front of the museum. Beautifully – albeit depressingly – haunting.

14. Rotation Station

The hands-on Launch Pad takes a play-based approach to science education. This approach – and many of the blueprints for the gallery’s exhibitions – stems from San Francisco’s Exploratorium, although this itself drew inspiration from the London museum’s Children’s Galleries, first developed in the 1930s.

My favourite exhibit here is the Rotation Station. An attempt to explain the conservation of angular momentum, the visitor is invited to climb on, hang on and spin. If you stick your bum out as you spin you make a larger circle which it takes more energy to travel along: stand up straight and you go much faster.

It is an approach to explaining science which takes the idea very far out of any social context, and often criticised as such. But such decontextualization is both clear and reflects an approach to science. Also, the bum-controlled spinning is lots of fun. Best avoided when hungover though.

15. 1933 Electric door

Currently tucked in the middle of the Secret Life of the Home gallery is an electric door you press a button to open. Initially displayed to show off the wonder of new technology, the museum’s archives contain some great old black and white photos of school children playing with it with wide-eyed delight on their faces. For the last few decades, however, kids just stand there waiting for it to open, bemused that you have to press a button for a door to open. The exhibit itself hasn’t changed in any material sense, but changes in the world around it transforms it entirely. There is something incredibly beautiful about that, and it reflects the way the museum itself is part of the same history of science and technology it aims to collect.

Vannevar Bush, science, the world’s brain and inventing the web

This was first published in the July edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read August’s piece on health data. See their new rates for educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).


The web’s origin story generally goes something like this: Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN in the late 1990s, wanted to find a way to deal with increasing desire to share information across the intricate global network of scientists working on the project, and found a way to connect an earlier idea of his, for a hypertext database system, to the Internet.

There’s a lovely – though somewhat Romanticised – story of Berners-Lee being inspired the culture of the CERN canteen: All these clever people from all the world and different disciplines sitting together, exchanging their cleverness, the web was just a way of sharing that experience with everyone.

A bit of science funding PR often gets spun out of this. All that money on physics research at CERN? Don’t worry, because, aside from the fact that studying the universe is a fine aim for humanity in itself, we got the web out of it. OK. But we could have got the web from lots of scientists being brought together on another ambitious problem. And that’s where an earlier character in this origin story comes in: Vannevar Bush.

Bush is often credited in the history of the web in terms of his influence on the idea of hypertext via something called the Memex (more on this later). But he played a key role in creating the social context that CERN emerged from too, and I think he should get some of the credit for that too.

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor, public intellectual and, perhaps most importantly, administrator of mid 20th century America. Born in 1890, after studying science at university he worked for General Electric for a few years before moving to MIT to do a PhD in electrical engineering. Work in industry, academia and the military followed, and he eventually became Vice President and Dean of engineering at MIT in 1938.

He’d been aware of a lack of connection between science and the military during World War One so, as the US entered World War Two, worked hard to set up official federal systems for more strategic coordination of scientific energies. He became director of the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, which included the initiation and administration of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project is significant not just in terms of the outcome of the Atomic bomb, but the way it brought together a large number of scientists from around the world and a range of subjects, to work on a strategic goal with an enormous budget, left a mark on the way we subsequently organised science.

The Manhattan Project wasn’t unprecedented, but it was a step in a set of changes to the way we organised science which led up to much more peace-time orientated projects such as CERN. The Manhattan Project did not cause some singular radical change in the development of science, but arguably it did accelerate shifts that were already taking place. Big Science is not simply a 20th century phenomenon any more than “scientists” only arrived in 1833 when William Whewell coined that term. Darwin’s correspondence (which you can read if you fancy getting lost down the rabbit hole of Victorian natural history) shows the degrees to which even seemingly “gentleman” individual science was highlight networked. Astronomy also offers case studies of multi-national networks of astronomers utilising large telescopes and in pay of industry and military stretching centuries. There’s a reason Brecht uses an astronomer to talk about the morality of 20th century science in his play A Life of Galileo. But there was something about the particular scale of the Manhattan Project and subsequent work. A physicist in early 20th C would know the handful of experts in their field, working directly with a few and corresponding with others, easily catching up with developments. In the early 21st, and I have a physicist friend who uses Ctrl Alt F to locate his name on papers.

Not everyone loved this change. The term Big Science was popularised by Alvin Weinberg, writing in the journal Science in 1961, complaining it was somewhat of a corruption of what science should and can be for society: “We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth; we use our Big Science to add to our country’s prestige, they used their churches for their cities’ prestige” he mourned.

That “Memex” thing is also part of the tensions surrounding this shift in how we made and connected expertise. Writing in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush reflected on the sheer quantity of information he came across on any day, and the diversity of ways in which this information might link to one another. He felt the “growing mountain of research” quite acutely, and felt quite bogged down by all the multitude of findings of various specialised branches of research:

The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

This is something many will identify with today. But it’s no surprise that someone coming out of Manhattan Project strategy felt it so acutely. As a way of dealing with this, Bush imagined a machine which allowed for the non-linear filing and retrieval of information. This is Bush’s idea:

[the reader] finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him. And his trails do not fade.

Recognise it? Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, and the Wikimedia Foundation both credit this idea. HG Wells had a similar idea with the “World Brain” in the late 1930s, though you can maybe see Wells’ socialism driving a slightly different concept and arguably it’s Bush’s Memex which had the most resonance.

Vannevar Bush lived through and was shaped by big science, but he also helped bolster its rise through the key role he played in the way 20th century science was run. We usually credit Tim Berners-Lee with the invention of the web. And so we should. But when people use the web as some sort of spin-off of the science done at CERN they are only telling half the story. If anything, the administration of science gave us the web, not science itself. We’d do well to recognise the impact the work such administrations have.

Book Review: Secrecy and Science

Wanna know a secret? Of course you do. Ok, it’s not really a secret, it’s just a story that’s a bit closed off. It’s an interesting story, about a military research centre which held an open day, but it’s in a niche academic book with a £55 pricetag. It’s a good book, painstakingly researched and thoughtfully written, just not one aimed at a large audience. It’s about secrets, hence this slightly folksy start, and here’s my review.

Science is often seen as both being about uncovering secrets and doing so in open, and yet large parts of it are done in secret: for military or industrial reasons, or more mundanely, everyday professional competition between otherwise apparently open scientists, or the privacies of peer review and other practices of scholarly publishing (e.g. embargos on press releases). As Balmer describes the Manhattan project; at it’s time, an almost unprecedented achievement in organised science, and yet one which was organised on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Key to Balmer’s thesis is that secrecy changes science. Secret science not simply open science enacted behind closed doors. Knowledge is fundmental to the social interaction which helps make so much of science. Secrecy disrupts that. Secrets separate scientists from aspects of their community at large, and with that they not only block off information and ideas but reward systems which enforce scientific norms and/or broader attitudes to morality and behaviour. That, in itself, doesn’t mean secret science is necessarily bad science (even if it might be seen to go against Mertonian norms) but it does make it different.

Balmer is also keen to stress that there are degrees of secrecy; it’s not as simple as if it’s open or a secret. Often the two work together, not least in that story of an open day I promised you. It’s chapter six of the book, on how a mix of political pressure and media coverage led to the secrecy at Porton Down being complemented by a measure of transparency culminating in a series of open days. The very idea of an open day for a research center undertaking secret research might sound quite weird but it was all about how they co-managed both openness and secrecy. As Balmer concludes, this story is not one of a complete secretive organization being forced to open, but a transition from secrecy embedded in culture to one that managed openness and secrecy in public.

By June 1968, with various representatives of the media, peace activism and parliament were, sometimes literary, knocking on the door of Porton Down. The BBC requested to film. Porton Down had to check with the Prime Minister as Number 10 had “preferred in the past not to go out of our way to promote interest” (Balmer, 2012: 93) It wouldn’t be a matter of unfettered access it’d always be controlled and the PR agents asked to preview film so as allow chance to persuade BBC to remove any “unsuitable material”. The CND magazine, Sanity, had published an aerial photograph of the site with the caption “The picture no one dare to print”. In contrast, the director of the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment director told the BBC “I would like to introduce a sense of realism about this claim that Porton is a super-secret establishment” (Balmer, 2012: 106) which seems rather pompously patronising to me. Claims to “a sense of realism” are always rhetorically interesting, especially in a context where information is closed off to many (I mean whose realism, and how are doubters to check?). It’s pretty telling that a lot of the fallout of the television covered seemed to led to the familiar pattern of fights over impartiality with claims of bias from both sides.

Balmer writes that plans started to gather pace, and from late June 1968 they were planning open days at the end of October. This was a tight deadline so “emergency measures” (the very idea that it was that tight showed amount of prep required: managed openness) and a committee of scientists was setup to design exhibits and demo, others gathered information about how other defence establishments had managed open days (it wasn’t unprecedented). The open days were invite only, divided into a “dignitaries day” (MPs, senior local officials, industrial representatives , a senior scientists day and another day for other scientists and laymens [sic] (Balmer, 2012: 109-9). Members of the various peace associations and student protesters would not be welcome.

Fascinatingly, they also worried about vivisection. Animal experimentation wasn’t a central topic for public controversy at the time, but it had been an area of ongoing sensitivity, and a trickle of parliamentary questions had been noted. Porton Down had a farm on site, which bread around 600 cats, 10,000 rabbits, 30,000 guinea pigs, 50,000 rats and 10,000 mice a year for research. Should this be one of the things that was hidden? As one of the organiser remarked: “There is little doubt that a visit to Allington farm would give some of the press the time of their lives in reporting on the kittens and puppies it is best to face this once and for all” (Balmer, 2012; 109). A reply from the Minstory of Defence was that the secretary for state “has expressed the hope that it may prove possible to concentrate the public gaze on the rats, mice and guinea pigs kept for experimental purposes. If puppies and kittens are allowed a prominent position in proceedings, and unfavourable public reception to the work of the establishment is guaranteed” (Balmer, 2012:109-110). Whatever your own views on transparency and animal testing, it was interesting to see a different area of science-related managed un-openness folded into those of chemical and biological weapons research.

One of the other really interesting parts of the book is a chapter on the way doubt and uncertainty function in secret science. As Balmer shows, many of the scientists working under secrecy drew on authority to lay claim not just to certainty but uncertainty. As he argues, science studies sometimes too keen to lend a deconstructive hand at expense of studying those scientists who are all too happy to express gaps in their knowledge (Balmer, 2012: 74). This is not just the case for military research, as Balmer refers to several studies of environmental and regulatory scientists where “confessional uncertainty” becomes a positive sometimes defensive, resource (Balmer, 2012: 78-9). Uncertainty, just like certainty, is a contestable ground and a useful political tool on occasion too. We all know uncertainty exists in science policy disputes – YAWN (or as he puts it more politely “that is an over-familiar observation”, Balmer, 2012: 89) – but the ways uncertainty is constructed, managed and utilised by scientists could do with more scholarly attention.

Overall, I liked this book, but there is scope for a more ambitious work on science and secrecy; something that is historically less ambitious, but more sociologically so, and says more about secrecy in science at large. Although Balmer makes a few interesting general points (e.g. the ones I led with, and the points about uncertainty) he is also limited by his case studies. How do military cultures of secrecy differ from, for example, contemporary industrial contexts? Or more everyday competition between scientists, or the more normalised, protective secrecy of peer review? How do these all interact, as with the vivisection issue at the Porton Down open days? What are the different types of secrecies in and around science, and what do they mean for the future of science policy? What about new stuff like the Google-funded research drones for WWF? How can we build a more developed vocabulary for the various types and layers of interacting open and closed spaces of science? I enjoyed Balmer’s book, but for that very reason it inspired a lot more questions too.

JD Bernal: the communist crystallographer

Uni of Sussex

A small sign of political protest at the University of Sussex this morning.

I was supposed to go to the JD Bernal Lecture at Birkbeck College a few weeks back; given this year by David Willetts. Except it was cancelled after a perceived threat of “disruptive” political protests. So I found myself with a free evening. I had another invite that evening, to an event at my old employer, Imperial College, celebrating their ongoing relationship with EDF. Or a mate was giving a talk about Spanish communism. In the end, though, I decided the best way to pay tribute to Bernal was to curl up with a few books about him.

Here are my notes.

John Desmond Bernal was born in 1901 in County Tipperary. He went to boarding school in England, then a scholarship to Cambridge in 1919, studying maths and science, followed by doctoral work with William Henry Bragg at the Royal Institution. He moved back to Cambridge in 1927 as lecturer in structural crystallography, becoming assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1934.

Bernal was one of those scientists people feel the need to say “he never won a Nobel” about, presumably because maybe he could have. It’s sometimes argued that he just spred his expertise a bit too thin. He was largely recognised as a bit of a general clever-clogs, picking up the the nick-name “sage” at university. A couple of his PhD students – Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin – did win Nobels though, as had his old supervisor, Bragg. Rosalind Franklin worked with him for a bit, as did Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and Aaron Klug. So he had a bit of Nobel shine around him. But it’s maybe inappropriate to lead a discussion of Bernal with a list of famous people he worked with though. He was, after all, as famous for his socialism as his science.

At school he had been rather insulated from politics. But from early 1920, he started attending Socialist Society meetings at Cambridge and, as a PhD student living in Bloomsbury later that decade, he joined both the Holborn Labour Party and the Communist Party (it wasn’t especially remarkable to be a member of both at the time). He marched in the General Strike in 1926 and was supposed to have been left very moved by the experience of walking though London streets left at a relative standstill. But his years in Bloomsbury, if anything, weren’t especially inspiring politically, and it was in the 30s back in Cambridge that he got more active. There’s a story that he was galvanized by the Russian delegation’s contribution to a major history of science conference held at the Science Museum in 1931, but I tend to think reports of damascene moments are worth taking with a pinch of salt. Some said Bernal eventually took to Marxism with a religious fever, a replacement for the Catholicism of his youth (a point others also have made about his adoption of Freud). Again, I’m sceptical when I read people are religious in their political zeal, it just seems a bit patronising. I don’t know though, maybe Bernal was. Apparently he wasn’t strictly a “card carrying” commie, having dropped his actual card sometime in 1933 and not bothering to replace it (see Fred Steward’s chapter in Swann & Aprahamian).

Bernal wasn’t unusual as a politically active left wing scientist in 1930s Britain. Eric Hobswam cites CP Snow as saying if you were to poll a couple of hundred of the brightest young physicist in the mid 1930s, you’d have found around fifteen communists, a good fifty more on left and a hundred admitting to leftie sympatheises, with the rest neutral apart from the odd handful on the right (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xii). Bernal could be seen as at the forefront of what some would call “red science” in three ways: the organization of scientific workers, part of political mobalisation of science against war and as one of the more influential prophets for the potential of science for progress (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xi).

One of the outcomes of they way Bernal was not only a scientist interested in politics but someone who felt the two should be connected was his 1939 book The Social Function of Science. The book paid strong attention to the way resources were allocated to various parts of science and technology had become crucial to the development of nations. It was highly influential, instrumental in the development of the social studies of science. As Chris Freeman summarises, for Bernal science is the most important thing humans do and so, in both short and long term, it’s own justification. It provides such a huge capacity for social change and improvement of peoples lives. It just had to be planned out in the right way. At the heart of Bernal’s book – and his political legacy – is a call to organise this great human power of science, and to organise it to serve the many, not the few. His particular inspirations and approaches contained, arguably, somewhat of an over-idealisation of USSR’s particular way of planning science by Bernal. But that doesn’t mean his central desire to try to organise science is necessarily wrong, just that we might disagree about the best way to go about it. There are a range of ways we might organise science, and a range of ways we might be explicit and hope to involve others in this process.

Freeman agrees with Bernal’s enthusiasm for ambitious well-organised use of science and technology for human welfare, but stresses need to be complemented with equally explicitly commitment to promotion of open critical debate (see also Freeman’s Vega lecture on Bernal). In reference to Bernal’s much publicsised support of Lynsenco, Freeman argues that the best way to criticise and expose reactionary ideas in science remains to point out they are unscientific in public, not to rely on political labels. Bernal’s view of organising science was basically “a vision of brains interlinked to form a complex hierarchical system” (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: 129), and that’s where the list of “great names” at the start sort of fit. Bernal venerated expertise, or at least he had a strong belief the benevolence of the scientific expert when it came to distributing the power to make decisions about science. In many ways this is what separates him from some contemporary social studies of science. It’s also one of the (many) ways his rather scientific and technological utopian approach diverges from greener left wing politics.

In 1938 Bernal was appointed professor of physics at Birkbeck, but at the onset of the Second World War he was pressed into service. Apparently John Anderson (that’s Anderson as in Anderson shelters) wanted Bernal as a scientific adviser “even if he is as red as the flames of Hell”. Together with his friend Solly Zuckerman, Bernal gave analysis of bombing a quantitative basis, which helped make a case against exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of Allied bombing, going on – with Patrick Blackett – to advise against the bombing of several German cities as a waste of manpower and resources. Later, Bernal and Zuckerman were seconded to General Mountbatten’s D-Day planning team, and a strong friendship sprang up between Bernal and Mountbatten.

After the war, Bernal resumed his professorial duties at Birkbeck, setting up the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948. Post war, although apparently he “helped put the S in UNESCO” (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xxiii) his politics sometimes got him into trouble with the scientific establishment. He was excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science after speech he gave in Moscow critiquing the nature and control of science in the capitalist west, and Julian Huxley refused to work with communist scientists. Bernal was also an active peace campaigner, involved in the World Peace Council. When the British Peace Committee attempted to host the World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a number of delegates ended up stranded in London, including one Pablo Picasso. Bernal organised a party in his flat for them, and Picasso drew a mural on the wall of Bernal’s sitting room. Bernal later gave it to the ICA, and it’s currently at the Wellcome Collection (only a few blocks from Birkbeck).

I haven’t really gone into his personal life here, but Hobsbawn, in his LRB review of Andrew Brown’s The Sage of Science described Bernal as having a “purple” approach to sex to complement his otherwise redder characteristics. Brown says Bernal and his wife took to their open marriage “with gusto” (pdf, see page 65). You can google around a bit for more. He had a few kids. His mum sounded pretty cool. Read the first few pages of Brown’s book for details on her. There are a few portraits of him in the national collection and a plaque outside his old flat in Camden. He died in 1971 and is buried in South London.

So there you go. John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971). A scientist, a leftie, a pacifist, a lover and a fighter. “Red as the flames of Hell”, but mates with Mountbatten. Not a card-carrying communist, but no less an enthusiastic one. You can make up your own mind as to what you think he’d have made of the threat of a protest over higher education funding, or of a lecture in his name being given by a Tory science minister. Birkbeck have published the text of the talk Willetts would have given, so you can make up your mind what Bernal would have thought of that too.

Happy birthday Frank Oppenheimer!

The conservation of angular momentum at the Deutsches Museum

The conservation of angular momentum being demonstrated at the Deutsches Museum, 1926.

I’ve written about Frank Oppenheimer before, but as today marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, I thought he was worth mentioning again.

Frank Oppenheimer had a fascinating life. I highly recommend KC Cole’s biography of him. The short version is that he was born into a reasonably wealthy American family and followed big brother J Robert (of Manhattan Project fame) into physics. Frank stood next to Robert when the atom bomb was first tested. After the war, however, Frank ended up being black-balled from academic research due to his brief membership of the Communist Party in the 1930s. I’ve read rumours that this was because of how sensitive his brother’s work was to the energy industry but only rumours, I’ve never seen anything strong on that. So Frank sold an old painting of his Dad’s and ran a cattle ranch instead. How’s that for alternative postdoc careers? When a vacancy for a science teacher opened at the local high school a few years later, he tried his hand at education. He sounds like a fun teacher, starting lessons with trips to the local dump to collect bits of old machines to use in demonstrations of thermodynamics. He also developed a large library of teaching resources to share with other teachers or students. His reputation spread and he ended up being invited back to teach at the local university. In 1965, he secured a fellowship to do some research at UCL and, while he was there, visited several of the major European science museums. These inspired him to set up something similar, but more informal, when he got home. This became San Francisco’s Exploratorium, opened in 1969.

As the Exploratorium website puts it, they broke the science museum mold. It was more science by way of the local dump than the rarified archive of the Patent Museum and Great Exhibition which set the basis of the London Science Museum collection. Many exhibits were put together from old bits of scientific equipment Oppenheimer had talked contacts at NASA and Stanford into donating. There is a lovely story that someone spotted new traffic lights in the street outside, so they asked the company that manufactured the lights to donate the old ones and that became an early optics exhibit. From the start, the Exploratorium was built on a very scientific commitment to the sharing of knowledge and continuous development as well as reasonably artistic sense of playful reinterpretation. As their website puts it, the exhibits are never “done”. Maybe I’ve read too much sociology, but this image of slightly messy, opportunistic, networked and tinkered-with science seems like quite an appropriate exposition of 20th century research. There was also a strong commitment to openness. Their workshops were set in the centre of the museum, with windows so visitors could see the exhibits being developed and fixed. Most importantly, perhaps, they shared instructions of how to make their exhibits with other institutions through training networks and a set of “Cookbooks“. It’s all a bit open source.

Their ideas spread far and wide, and Exploratorium exhibits have been made and remade around the world. I once stumbled across a sort of pop up Exploratorium in a subway tunnel in Brussels which included exhibits made by schoolchildren. Exhibitions have been developed and localised as they moved. I remember a “thong-a-phone” exhibit from a science museum in Brisbane I worked in for a bit in 2001, which I’m guessing would have a different name in the UK or USA (it was a musical instrument you played by hitting pipes with what Australians call thongs but I’d call a flip-flop). They all also drew on a longer history than just the Exploratorium. The Science Museum’s Children’s Galleries, opened in 1931, sits firmly in this history, as do books and shows by characters such as John Henry Pepper.  The picture at the top of this post is of staff at the Deutsches Museum in 1926 demonstrating an exhibit which looks very like a common Cookbook exhibit on the conservation of anular momentum. I think the idea for “Explainers” to staff the gallies came from France, but today there are a huge range of different Explainer-like programmes all over the world.

In terms of the UK, it’s worth stressing the role of Anthony Wilson in the early development of the Launch Pad gallery in London’s Science Museum and Richard Gregory in Bristol as well as some of the hands-on exhibits at the Natural History Museum. Those are just a couple of names I could mention though, lots of other people have had a role all over the place, as the field has grown with a culture of continuous development which was facilitated by, but not in any way limited to or even originated with, the Exploratorium approach. Moreover, whatever the hardware, these exhibits would be constantly re-interpreted by staff and visitors. If I learnt anything from my time as an Explainer, it was that you couldn’t know how someone would interpret an exhibit. Reading kids’ letters to the Explainers was especially illuminating (sometimes outright puzzling). Science centres are about interaction, and are themselves a consequence of such interaction too.

So, Happy Birthday Frank Oppenheimer! You old (sorta) commie, you helped make something lovely. The power of the Exploratorium has arguably been due to communication between people and things, not individuals. Still, Dr O had key role. As his museum readies itself for a move next Spring, I hope the story of Frank’s interesting scientific career keeps on being told and his legacy continues to be redeveloped and remade across the world.