Monday, June 1, 2009

[Yasmin_discussions] Fission and Fusion


First, I would like to say I am pleased to be part of this month-long
Fission & Fusion discussion @ YASMIN. I am a historian of modern science and
technology at the University of California which, of course, has long ties
to many aspects of the nuclear-realm: Ernest Lawrence¹s lab; discovery of
plutonium; Robert Oppenheimer; management of Los Alamos and Livermore.

In terms of my own interests ­ I teach a regular undergraduate course called
The Atomic Age which is a social and scientific history of nuclear weapons
and nuclear power. Finally, for the last year or so, I have been working on
the history of ITER, an international megaproject being built by the EU and
several other countries (US, Japan, China, India, Russia, South Korea).
Formally known as the International Experimental Thermonuclear Reactor (now
it is just called ITER, a renaming which itself suggests some larger issues
at work), this is a large-scale fusion energy project.

As my first contribution to this discussion, I would like to call attention
to an interesting book by Peter Kuran (VCE; 2007) called ³How to Photograph
an Atomic Bomb.² Ironically, I first saw this book in March 2009 when I was
visiting the Titan Missile Museum located outside of Tucson, Arizona (one of
54 Titan missile sites active during the Cold War, the missile site is now a
popular tourist attraction).

Part macabre coffee-table book, part history of science and technology,
Kuran¹s book presents the photography done at nuclear tests sites in the
South Pacific and Nevada as a compelling artistic expression that also
encompassed national security goals. However, what I found totally
engrossing in Kuran¹s book was the descriptions of how photographers had to
alter existing and develop entirely new photographic techniques in order to
capture the micro-second details of a nuclear blasts. This, to me, was a
fascinating and unknown part of nuclear testing. What does this say about
the intersection of nuclear weapons and art or, more generally, the ways in
which technology and art co-produce each other in the realms of fission and

W. Patrick McCray
Department of History
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9410
TEL: 805.893.2665

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