Radiation. Policy and Biology of Governmentally Important Substances

Other involved Scholars: 

Heiko Stoff
Bettina Wahrig
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

Cooperation Partners: 

TU Braunschweig, Universität Freiburg

Since September 2004 this study, with Heiko Stoff’s work on “biological active substances” formed the life science section of the research group “History of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, 1920–70,” which is part of the Department for the History of Natural Sciences and Pharmacy, TU Braunschweig. This research project was part of a cooperation with Bettina Wahrig (Braunschweig) and the MPIWG's Department Rheinberger.

In this context, the study of radiation means following a trans­disciplinary object at the intersection of the molecularization of biology and a genealogy of risks and its governance in indus­trial societies. While the “whole world” was “full of radiation”—as popular titles of the period claimed—the interdependence of biological sciences and the inventing and producing of techniques formed a whole new world of “phenomenotechnique” (Gaston Bachelard).

In this story, the German Research Community (DFG) becomes a privileged place where society and science meet in a “determined contingency”—this means historiographically: beyond a constructive or objectivistic approach. The DFG may be seen as part of a radiobiological dispositif bringing together a variety of disciplines, technical instructions, constructors, and experimenters; the research policy then participated in an ensemble of practices that determined the “problematization” of radiation—that is, how or “as what” the effects of radiation on biochemical and living entities became a focus of possible knowledge.

Radiation, however, shares the epistemic and moral characteristics of precarious substances such as hormones and vitamins to be both powerful and autonomous. Since the story of “technical progress” and utopian visions is intertwined with the restriction of its dangers, the role of the DFG was to promote a general concept of (environmental) hygiene. Hence, the history of controlling and enhancing the performance of radiation becomes the history of the long-term transformation of the DFG from research organization to biopolitical organization.

  • “Prekäre Stoffe. Radiumökonomie, Risikoepisteme und die Etablierung der Radioindikatortechnik in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus,” in: N.T.M. - Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 17 (2009): pp. 5-33.
  • Viola Balz, Alexander v. Schwerin, Heiko Stoff, Bettina Wahrig (eds.): Precarious Matters / Prekäre Stoffe, The History of Dangerous and Endangered Substances in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Preprint no. 356, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science: Berlin 2008.

Funding Institutions