Wachhund de Atomzeitalters: Geigerzähler in der Geschichte des Strahlenschutzes
Johannes Abele's Guard Dog of the Atomic Age charts the history of the Geiger counter from its invention in the early twentieth century until 1963. The main argument concerns the instrument's role in the science and politics of radiation protection after 1945. Geiger counters were actually "embedded in a network of committees, institutions and guidelines fixing the meaning of the measurements," but the public was fed only a simplistic message about boundary values: was permissible exposure exceeded or not? Government officials considered the populace irrational and prone to panic. Experts should simply be trusted—after all, only experts understood the device. A hierarchical, semisecret organization was implicitly justified by reference to the complex nature of the Geiger counter. In the same breath, overt distrust was "psychologized" and branded irrational. [End Page 869]
Abele is at pains to point to the Geiger counter's role as not only a quantifying tool within a bureaucratic system but also a potent symbol in the government's "propaganda" (the term used by contemporaries, which did not yet connote deliberate misinformation), signaling to the anxious public a responsible and trustworthy government dispelling danger through routine measurement. The soothing ticking of the counter and the shades of gray in which it was framed enhanced its symbolic power. The counter, writes Abele, became a "reliable talisman," a "fetish" with "quasi-magical powers."
Abele describes atomic physicists' self-understanding with these words: "We find ourselves to be the high priests of a religion equally capable of producing either the greatest evil or the greatest good and will moreover continue to be regarded as something mysterious and occult despite all we may do to dispel this impression." He juxtaposes the hubris of science with its opposite: irrationality, found at the heart of science in the form of the talisman, the fetish, magic, mystery, and the occult.
Though his source material focuses narrowly on the instrument itself, Abele has used archives extensively and thoroughly, in particular to trace the counter in the organization of radiation protection in Western Germany. The Deutsches Museum in Munich has provided a much-quoted scrapbook of newspaper clippings. In addition, Abele interprets a few movies, especially Dr. No, the first in the James Bond series (1962). The paternalistic and condescending attitude of the German government toward the populace comes through with great clarity.
Abele notes secondary literature in footnotes but does not engage with it. This is partly a virtue, as it keeps the narrative on target—the book is a good read. Nonetheless, I would have appreciated an engagement with some of the more obvious issues. For example, Abele has pinpointed nicely the source of anger prompting the next generation's deconstruction of expertise. As Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer state in Leviathan and the Air-Pump, in what came to be a clarion call: "Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend." Abele has nothing to say about the relevance of his book to such general questions.
The first half of Guard Dog of the Atomic Age, in which Abele traces the invention and development of the Geiger counter up to 1945, disappoints somewhat. The instrumental focus of the narrative only partly hits home, given the larger question of deference to scientific and governmental authority. The part of the narrative covering these years ought to have focused more on the sociocognitive basis of standardization or the shifting disciplinary boundaries within which the counter's users made their careers. Abele points to the "independence" of government tests (p. 29), but that presupposes the very problem! As a result, the fixing of meaning [End Page 870] with in a network of committees, institutions, and guidelines must remain obscure, and the reader can neither quite comprehend nor hold to account.
Dr. Hessenbruch is in the Science, Technology, and Society Program of MIT. His publications include “Calibration and Work in the X-ray Economy, 1896–1928,” Social Studies of Science 30 (June 2000).