- Hybrid Zone: Computers and Science at Argonne National Laboratory, 1946–1992 by Charles N. Yood
Historians of technology might expect a book on one of the U.S. national laboratories to be about high-energy physics, particle accelerators, nuclear reactors, or bombs, or at the very least about some sort of esoteric, perhaps secret, research. In the face of such expectations, Charles Yood has produced a work of enlightening surprises.
Yood uses Argonne National Laboratory as a backdrop to investigate the “social history of the computer,” that is, “the intersection of people, science, and the activity of computing” (p. ix). Although better known as the host for one of the biggest U.S. particle accelerators (the Advanced Photon Source) and the birthplace of multiple advances in civilian nuclear reactors, Argonne also has been at the forefront of computing since the laboratory began in 1946. Yood examines Argonne computing through 1992, asking: “In what ways did computers provide new opportunities for the people who built, programmed, studied, and used them?” (p. ix). In the process, he charts the evolution of computing at Argonne from its beginning as an occasional tool for reactor engineering and physics, through the creation of its own division in 1956, to the elite status it gained with passage of the High Performance Computing Act in the early 1990s, which established computing as a discipline on par with biology, chemistry, and physics.
One of the book’s surprises (at least for me) is the distinction Yood draws between computer science and computational science, a distinction that, in fact, is at the heart of his tale. As Yood explains, what he is “interested in is the intersection of science and computing,” an intersection that has two distinct dimensions: “computers are a unique technology in that they have created a new science (computer science) and a new way of doing science (computational science)” (p. 229). I also found fascinating the different professional trajectories of each discipline. As Yood notes, computational [End Page 295] scientists were much more successful in establishing a research agenda (the use of computing techniques to solve fundamental problems in science and engineering) and therefore a disciplinary identity, funding, and status than computer scientists. Yood argues that a central difficulty in defining computer science was that computer scientists saw themselves as working in a “hybrid zone” existing “between scientific problems in the natural sciences and the calculating power of the computer.” This conceptualization ended up consolidating rather than uniting disparate notions of the activities and knowledge in the hybrid zone, which prevented a general, common understanding of what “was appropriate for a discipline focused on computers” (p. 226).
As a historian of the U.S. national laboratories, I applaud this successful effort to spotlight a significant contribution to science and technology in a setting that usually escapes notice. But I think this book will be of interest to a wider audience than national laboratories fans such as myself. The subject matter is widely engaging: Yood shows how computers have altered the way that most science and technology is performed, the different ways in which scientists and engineers construct identities and disciplines, and how, along the way, the process of knowledge production is shaped.
My only quibble is that the book is a bit repetitive, showing its origins as a Ph.D. dissertation. Overall, though, it is well-written, nicely argued, and organized so that it is easy to follow. I particularly liked the jargon-free, clear exposition, which makes it accessible to a wide audience. In short, this book is intelligent, thought-provoking, and yet a page turner. I therefore recommend it to all those interested in knowledge production, discipline formation, the history of computing, and the development of science and technology after World War II.
Catherine Westfall is a visiting associate professor at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University. She has done scholarship at five U.S. national laboratories, including Argonne. In addition to numerous articles, she has written, with co-authors, a history...