Seminars and Panels

'Broken Symmetry': Humanism, Militarism, and the Dilemmas of Scientific Identity in Nuclear Age America

Professor Jessica Wang

Feb 17, 2014
11:00 A.M. - 12:30 P.M.
232 Philip G. Hoffman Hall

Physicist Robert R. Wilson’s sculpture “Broken Symmetry,” which graces one of the roadways leading into Fermilab, explores the problem of perspective by presenting viewers with an object that appears perfectly symmetrical from certain vantage points, but asymmetrical from others. The sculpture offers an apt metaphor for considering the dual nature of post-World War II physics in America. In the postwar years, many elite physicists remained committed to a humanistic vision that emphasized the moral and aesthetic dimensions of science and viewed basic research as a worthy endeavor devoted to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Yet, cold war American science, in its tightly intertwined relationship with the national security state, was also immersed in military problems and the exigencies of global ideological struggle, so much so that the historian Paul Forman once declared the ideal of pure science nothing more than physicists’ own false consciousness. This talk will explore the divided political and ethical commitments of science and the challenges the cold war and nuclear age posed to scientists’ sense of identity in the postwar decades.

About Professor Jessica Wang

Jessica Wang is Associate Professor of U.S. History at the University of British Columbia and the author of American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War (1999), as well as essays in ISIS, Osiris, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Policy History, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and other forums. Her interests cover a wide range of topics, including cold war history; American political development; the political history of cold war science; the interplay between science and political theory; the nature of mid-twentieth century American scientific identity; the relationship between social science, the New Deal state, and public policy; and the history of medicine, disease, and public health in the nineteenth-century city. Wang's current projects include a social history of rabies in nineteenth-century New York City (tentatively titled Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Public Health in an American Metropolis, 1840-1920) and a co-edited volume on the international history and global contexts of cold war science.

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