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Abstracts for Twentieth Century Think Tank

The Twentieth Century Think Tank offers broad coverage of 20th- and 21st-century topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place on Thursdays over lunch.

Think Tank meetings are held fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Mary Brazelton, Joseph Martin and Richard Staley.

Michaelmas Term 2018

Show overview

11 October Joe Bassi (University of Texas, El Paso)
How US science moved west: Boulder, Colorado and the development of US space sciences in mid-20th century America
From being considered a 'scientific Siberia' in the 1940s, Boulder as a scientific centre represented an important transition of US science as it 'moved west' in the 20th century. The answer to this question lies in the complex confluence of individual scientific ambitions relating to sun-earth connection research, the pre and early Cold War context of science in the US, and political machinations at various levels of government. This presentation lays out the early phases of this transition process, and particularly focuses on the efforts of solar astronomer Walter Orr Roberts, Colorado Senator 'Big Ed' Johnson, the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, and others in bringing sun-earth science to Boulder in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This investigation thereby sheds some light on the process by which scientific/academic centres (or 'peaks') were created in the US west in the 20th century.
25 October Koji Hirata (Emmanuel College, Cambridge)
A city of future past: urban planning and urban construction in northeast China after the Communist Revolution
This paper examines how industrial enterprises and ordinary people participated in construction of cities in the early years of the People's Republic of China (1949 to present), especially between 1952 and 1957. Much of the past scholarly literature on urban planning in the early PRC focused on the state bureaucracy. By contrast, I explore how urban-planning policies were implemented at the ground level, by focusing on the case of Anshan – a major steel industrial city in Manchuria (northeast China) that had previously been constructed as a Japanese colonial city prior to 1945. To examine the construction and reconstruction of this city, I draw upon a wide range of newly available sources, including interviews, local newspapers, official municipal histories, and confidential government reports. My paper begins with a brief overview of the establishment of the PRC city-planning bureaucracy, which is followed by a discussion of the process and outcomes of urban construction. I then discuss the population movement to Anshan from the countryside, and how this contributed to issues of housing shortages in the city. Altogether, this re-examination of the Chinese urban political economy demonstrates that local-level negotiations among various actors, including lower-level officials, enterprise managers, and even migrant workers, lay at the heart of urban construction in Mao-era China.
8 November Sam Robinson (University of York)
Anticipations of the ocean: technological futures of the Cold War ocean
The UN Law of the Sea (1968–1984) was intended to legislate for the new capabilities that developments in underwater science and technology opened up for developed nations. In reality the negotiations became a point when the superpower technological hegemony of the global ocean was challenged by the 'Group of 77' – nations that saw the negative potential of new technologies in terms of the external exploitation of their resources. Science policy was formed in response to the anticipated capabilities of such technologies which far outweighed the realities of extracting deep-sea minerals and resource exploitation in remote and inhospitable environments. Thus, the discussion of ocean science and technology within the treaty negotiations were built on anticipatory understandings of the potential exploitation of the oceans.

This paper will argue that international law-building for science and technology can be framed as an anticipatory response to claims made for potential future use. Thereby these negotiations, based on unsettling scientific futures, are themselves forms of scientific imaginaries. The navigation of potential uses of science, by diplomats, reveals the role of science communication within complex negotiations, and the importance of the distinction (and sometimes the blurring) of the real and the imagined in international relations. The Law of the Sea was a site where scientific futures were imagined in several contexts; a uniquely challenging moment in international law creation where lawmakers looked to the future rather than responding to their past or present situations.
22 November Tal Arbel (Tel Aviv University/University of Edinburgh)
'The American soldier' in Jerusalem: on measurement, travel and translation
The paper examines the cross-cultural migration of scaling, a technique of measurement that revolutionized social psychology in the 1930s and 1940s, and found multiple applications in education, government and industry in the United States. It focuses on an American-led and designed survey-based study of troop morale, which took place among Jewish militia fighters in Jerusalem during the 1948 Palestine War. Using rare archival materials, memoirs and reportage on life in the besieged city, the paper traces the difficulties involved in measuring individual attitudes and laying claims for statistical certitude in a politically foreign and often hostile setting.

Joining global historians of science who have rejected unidirectional narratives of cultural export and influence, I demonstrate that there was nothing inevitable or obvious about the eventual adoption of sample surveys. The institutionalization of this scientific practice in the nascent Israeli state was due primarily to individual initiative and personal charisma, and to the successful rendering of expertise intelligible in the vernacular. Yet, highlighting the 'iterability' of science in translation, I also show that embedded in officer reports, personnel selection procedures and field manuals, behavioural science concepts and claims have often been reframed and infused with local patterns of reasoning, or appropriated to promote other ends.
20 December Ksenia Tatarchenko (University of Geneva)
The thaw in the Pole: Cold War science and showcasing at the Siberian science-city and Antarctic expeditions (1955–1964)
This paper focuses on the interdependencies in the process of making international science and producing knowledge about extreme environments by establishing connections and comparisons between two historical episodes: the creation of the Siberian science-city and the early Soviet Antarctic expeditions. It reveals how the Cold War framework highlighted a key ambiguity of Soviet science: producing universal knowledge in socialist way. Thanks to recent works on Cold War sciences, we now know that circulating people, ideas and artefacts operationalized, breached, and occasionally transcended geopolitical divisions. Scholars working on polar regions also demonstrate how these regions are constructed both as strategic locations and rhetorical forms of domination over nature. This paper adds another dimension to a discussion of such entanglements among several historical sub-disciplines – Big Science as spectacle. It argues that showcasing was a constitutive element, not an accidental byproduct, of Khrushchev-era massive investment into ostensibly civilian scientific infrastructures across Siberia and Antarctica. In 1957, the year of Sputnik, the Soviet press announced the creation of the first Siberian science-city, Akademgorodok, and the images of 'Ob', the flagman of the Soviet expedition sailing south for the third time, proliferated. The aim here is not only to correct misleading historiographic claims conflating remoteness with 'freedom' and de-Stalinization with de-Sovietization, but to explain the very size of historical record associated with these projects. Situated across the globe, Siberian science-cities and Antarctic bases were presented in an unexpectedly similar way, as model scientific communities. In the process, both regions and their natural environments became not only the elements of scientific representations as circulating 'mobiles', but the stages for enacting the competing versions of modernity. Both locales enticed numerous visitors to record and share their experiences. Yet such visitors often passed over a key aspect of these sites – the co-dependency between the openness of international science and the secrecy regimes of national defence. Akademgorodok had many ties to 'plutopias', the closed cities of the Soviet nuclear programme, and Antarctica's international 'science and peace' to the Arctic's Cold War frontier.