This past term, I had the rare pleasure of teaching the history of modern American science and Technology survey course at WPI, an institution populated predominantly by engineering and natural sciences majors. Despite the high opportunity costs involved, I selected just two books to “cover” the twentieth century portion of this course, and both of these featured the role of physicists in developing the atomic bomb during World War II.
David Cassidy’s recently published A Short History of Physics in the America Century lived up to its title, providing my fact-obsessed but reading-averse engineering students with just 170 pages that introduce and contextualize all the important people, institutions, events, activities, and ideologies that transformed physics in America from its small-scale parochial late-19th century practical and experimental preoccupations, through its remarkable mid-century wartime theory-based revolutionary technological achievements, to its twin legacies as a international collaborative pursuit of ephemeral fundamental natural objects and a lavishly-funded bastion of nationally competitive military scientific employment.
To complement Cassidy’s dense but dispassionate chronological account, I chose to assign a highly personalized analysis of the central episode in this larger trajectory – Mary Palevsky’s Atomic Fragments. Using both published documents and an extensive series of interviews, Palevsky crafts an account of her own interactions with several leading Manhattan Project scientists, seeking to learn about the roles that they played in developing atomic weaponry, and to discern their retrospective feelings of responsibility for and reconciliation to the manner of exactly how the bombs were (or should have been) used in August 1945.
Educational policy debates trumpet the need to cultivate undergraduate engineering students’ ethical development (with an insistence and frequency that suggests that this need has not been fully addressed within the realm of engineering courses), so I figured: “Why not use history as a creative tool to support this important endeavor on behalf of my students?” By pairing these two quite different styles of historical analysis, I hoped to inspire my students to see beyond the black and white orderliness of standard chronology-based cause and effect arguments, so that they might begin to develop some more refined sensibilities about the richness of history’s gray areas. The moral questions that Palevsky probed with her venerable interlocutors seemed especially promising for student discussion.
The upshot: this experiment of mine came out surprisingly well. Despite a distance from the Cold War that has now grown so great for my students, none of whom were alive when the Berlin Wall fell, the history of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still provoke a compelling set of questions about the meaning of technical achievement in various contexts. On her final exam, one student wrote: “This book [Atomic Fragments] humanized the scientists, so when we watched the Los Alamos documentary [I had shown the class Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity], they seemed more real.”
Another student was sparing in his praise for the readings, but he directly apprehended my whole purpose in assigning that pair of course texts: “On their own, these two books are nothing extraordinary. Palevsky’s book is full of subjectivity and the importance of her personal inquiry overcomes the relevance of her interviewees on the development of American science. Cassidy’s book is not much more than a condensed summary of factual information about the ups and downs of American physics. Both books combined, however, provide the right balance of the scientific facts and the moral, ethical, and personal reasons behind the actions [which] introduced nuclear power to the world.”
To supplement these secondary source reading assignments, I devote some class time to what I call “primary source” workshops – a packet of excerpts of historical document are given to pairs of students to read on the spot, then discuss with each other, and then report out the class as a whole. For the atomic bomb topic, I gave the class the minutes of the Target Committee and Interim Committee meetings of May 1945, so that my students could figuratively eavesdrop on two of the rare instances where a handful of atomic scientists actually participated in specific decisions about how the bombs would be utilized in the ongoing war against Japan. The timing of these meetings is significant. Virtually all of the European refugee scientists had originally joined the Manhattan Project with some idea of preventing Nazi Germany from being the world’s first atomic power, but after the first week of May 1945, Hitler was already dead and Germany had surrendered.
The students were quite surprised to discover, from their analyses of these documents, the degree to which both scientists and policy-makers shared a deep concern that Japanese cities would soon be too damaged to adequately “see” the dramatic effects of an atomic explosion. A scientific attitude of experimentation had the effect of rendering all those inhabitants of a target city into an abstract material substance. That the committee members could simultaneously insist that the bombs be dedicated only to “military” targets, and still advise that city centers would be optimal locations for maximizing devastation (in order to achieve the intended “psychological” effect of totally disheartening a notoriously stoic enemy people), is an extreme paradox that young 21st century readers really found difficult but nevertheless imperative to sort through.
David Spanagel is an Assistant Professor of Humanities & Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the recently elected Chair of the Forum for the History of Science in America, which sponsors this blog.