The Atomic Age

Course Description: 

"On my way to the bakery on the morning of August 7, 1945, I stopped to glance at a newspaper and discovered President Truman's announcement that at eight a.m. the previous day, August 6, an atom bomb of enormous destructive power had been dropped on Hiroshima. I was so stunned that my legs practically gave way. There could be no doubt that my fate and the fate of many others, perhaps of the entire world, had changed overnight." Andrei Sakharov was far from alone in seeing the atomic bomb as a rupture in history, and our aim in this seminar will be to understand how this state of affairs came about, and what consequences the coming of the "atomic age" has had for historical sensibilities in the twentieth century.

We will range widely in this seminar, which does not presume any technical expertise or prior training in the history of science. Our questions for study include the following: How did the discovery of entities (atoms) well outside the human scale of experience help change understandings of the public role of the scientist? How did X-rays rival cinema in the popular imagination at the fin de siècle? What can the political economy of radium tell us about gendered roles in science? Did the introduction of fundamentally new ontologies of Nature have any relevance to the various philosophical debates about crisis in the interwar period? Why did scientists become involved in military enterprises, and how did their experience change the structure of universities in the postwar era? What happens when scientific institutions achieve industrial scales? How was this "fateful" weapon understood on the eve of its first use? Why were Hiroshima and Nagasaki targeted, and how did the treatment of radiological victims shape the understanding of the Bomb over a longer timeline? How did the Soviets and Americans understand each others' nuclear capacities (and what does this mean for the historiography of the Cold War)? Can one distinguish the "peaceful atom" from its warlike cousin? How did other states attempt to break the atomic monopoly? The seminar offers us the opportunity to address these questions in their technical, historical, and moral dimensions.

Learning Outcomes: 

Students will acquire a basic knowledge of the atomic age from the consolidation of modern physics in the early decades of the twentieth century to the development of deterrence doctrines during the Cold War. They will also gain experience applying standard methods of historical textual analysis to an unfamiliar corpus of works. Beyond this the class will also offer the opportunity to test the relevance of various methods of historical inquiry (biography, diplomatic history, social history, gender history, transnational history) to the ideas and institutions centered on the power of the atom.


Grading: 12-15-page research paper (50%); class presentation (20%); class participation (30%)