Project (2015-2017)

Worlds of Nuclear Age Knowledge and Expertise

This project followed concepts, practices, and experts as they traveled across the boundaries drawn by national security and secrecy in the Cold War. This was linked to the preparation of a book, based on Benjamin Wilson's dissertation, which explores the rise and complicated career of an interdisciplinary field of research and policy known as strategic arms control. Created toward the end of the 1950s by an eclectic community of American physicists and social scientists, the ambition of arms control was to stabilize the Cold War nuclear competition and reduce the risk of nuclear war.

Central to this project was an intellectual and social history of “stability,” which became, after 1960, one of the most important concepts in nuclear strategy and arms control. Stability did not spring spontaneously from the properties of nuclear weapons, nor was it delivered by Cold War theories of rational choice. Stability was borrowed from surprisingly distant fields of knowledge, and pressed into service to manage the crisis of the nuclear arms race. Its roots can be found in classical dynamics, economics, and cybernetics—fields in which several early arms controllers and nuclear strategists had received doctoral training and carried out professional research, long before wading into the world of nuclear policy and strategy. The meanings of stability were flexible and multiple; early on there were different flavors of stability to suit different tastes. Benjamin Wilson's project revives this moment of creative uncertainty, asking why one version—the “strategic stability” conjured by the economist-turned-strategist Thomas Schelling—became the dominant one.

A planned second book is to study the creation of hybrid fields of knowledge in recent physics, tracing the roots of these fields in nuclear age ambitions, institutions, and technologies. Many fields that were created or forever changed by postwar national security concerns—nonlinear optics, atomic spectroscopy, molecular dynamics, the physics of plasmas, turbulence, and shock waves, to name some few examples—seem to defy easy categorization. They were at once pure and applied, science and engineering, open and secret. The practices, concepts, and expert communities associated with such fields have extended a long reach throughout modern physics, touching a vast range of physical knowledge. And in many cases they have spread beyond the discipline, taking on new lives and forms in very different contexts. The task of this project was to recover the origins of these fields and practices in preparations for global conflict, and to ground their emergence and growth in the specific social worlds of expertise that gave rise to them.