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David Kaiser The Physics of Spin: Sputnik Politics and American Physicists in the 1950s NAZI RACE SCIENCE, STALINIST DENU NCIATIONS OF GENETICS: THE tw en tieth century provided no shortage of examples of the power of politics to corrupt science. Recoiling in horror from such perversions, m any scholars argued w ith great fervor half a century ago that science was—or should be—inherently apolitical. Others insisted w ith equal vehem ence th at there was a necessary relationship betw een science and politics: science could only function properly w ithin one unique form of political system, nam ely a democracy (see Hollinger, 1983, 1995). More than a tinge of wishful thinking lurked behind these anal­ yses. No Maginot Line has ever dem arcated w here science ends and politics begins. The politics of knowledge has been a part of scholarly life since at least the age of Plato’s Academy—just ask Socrates, or the twice-banished Aristotle. The present Bush adm inistration, it is true, has expended m ore effort than m ost American predecessors to smear any distinctions—imposing political tests on science advisers, censor­ ing scientific reports to better reflect political im peratives—but such clumsy cudgels should not m ask m ore pervasive, if m undane, interrela­ tions between the scientific and the political. To get a feel for the texture of the science-politics nexus, it may help to step back from present-day hectoring and exam ine episodes social research Vol 73 : No 4 : W inter 2006 1225 from the recent past. Consider, for example, Am erican physics and politics during the Cold War. On first blush, several areas of over­ lap stand out: elite atom ic diplomacy, low-brow dom estic anticom ­ m unism , and th eir occasional intertw ining, as in the 1954 security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Digging a little deeper reveals all m anner of additional connections. W ho can peel back the “politics” from the “science” in the circulation of cryogenics experts and factory­ sized m achinery from hydrogen-bomb tests in the Pacific to bubblecham ber laboratories in California (Galison, 1997: 351-52)? WThere on the ledger are we to place particle theorist Geoffrey Chew’s influential program of “nuclear democracy,” w hich enlisted term s and concepts from a liberal political tradition to interpret the behavior of subatomic particles (Kaiser, 2002a)? A similar blurring of categories surrounds American physicists’ efforts to learn about their Soviet counterparts’w ork during the 1950s. In this brief paper, I focus on two such episodes. The first involves inves­ tigations into the Soviet educational system, in particular its ability to train large num bers of scientists and engineers. The second focuses on efforts to learn how all those Soviet scientific workers spent their time, by m aking their leading research journals available in English trans­ lation. In both instances, the very act of gathering inform ation about the Soviet rivals carried political overtones—overtones, moreover, that were constantly open to com peting interpretations. In the first case, the physicists entered late in the game. They rem ained one interest group among many, vying w ith other educators, policymakers, bureau­ crats, and journalists to control the message and turn it to their advan­ tage. In the second case, the physicists controlled the interpretive field from the beginning, operating in a m ore organized, purposeful way. As both examples m ake plain, several leading American physicists proved adept at using the tools of politics to further their own agenda, be it increasing federal aid for science education or garnering behind-thescenes assistance to launch several new scientific periodicals. The physicists’ adventures in applied Sovietology illustrate the constant interm ingling of scientific goals and political means. More 1226 social research im portant, they show that such hybrid activities are not the sole prov­ ince of political bullies or repressive regim es. The physicists’ goals m ight have been lofty—w ho would argue against increasing access to education or strengthening the bonds of international cooperation in science and learning?—but even those fighting on the sides of the angels are inescapably, irreducibly political actors. The physicists were no political naifs, w...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1225-1252
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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