Articles of mine

This list is a few years out of date! I will try and get it fixed up this fall (2016).

In the meantime, here are the collected articles I have written for the New Yorker’s Elements Blog:

And the reviews I have written for Science:

If you’re interested in my more scholarly work on nuclear secrecy (and other topics), go no further! Here are some of my academic publications that you might find interesting. They are, naturally, written in a less florid style on the whole than my blog is, and some of them are full of many, many footnotes, so they will probably not appeal to everyone. But you’re welcome to make that decision for yourself.

Patenting the bomb: Nuclear weapons, intellectual property, and technological control,” Isis 99, no. 1 (March 2008): 57-87.

 The secret story of the Manhattan Project patenting program. Why would the United States go to extreme efforts to patent every part of the atomic bomb? “In the absence of a clear model for how properly to control a technology that he thought would be revolutionary, and for whose realization he was dependent on expertise outside the government, it is not surprising that [Vannevar] Bush looked to the patent system as a potential solution—and not so surprising that Roosevelt gave him the go-ahead. The patent system was a well-established and legally sound approach to technological control, both domestically and internationally, and, faced with a new—but still forming—conception of weaponry and power, Bush—himself an engineer with a rich history of involvement with the patent system—sought mastery first in preexisting systems of technological control while at the same time thinking about what systems would exist in the future.”

Inside the Atomic Patent Office,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64, no. 2 (May/June 2008): 26-31, 60-61.

 Another version of the bomb patenting story, this time focusing on the efforts of the Office of Scientific Research and Development to police the private sphere by means of an atomic patent censor, during World War II. ” “What had begun as a ‘survey of the art’ became a full program to ‘locate, examine, and make secret all non-gov’t-controlled U.S. patent applications related to S-1,’ as Shurcliff put it.

From Classified to Commonplace: The Trajectory of the Hydrogen Bomb ‘Secret,’ Endeavour 32, no. 2 (June 2008): 47-52.

A short article on the history of the H-bomb “secret,” and how it went from being one of most heavily-guarded pieces of information created by the US nuclear program, to something that is now routinely discussed in children’s encyclopedias. “How did the hydrogen bomb change from an icon of nuclear secrecy and nuclear fear to being yet another banal nuclear fact? If the H-bomb was once the ultimate secret, it has now become a sign of the limitations of secrecy itself, made largely irrelevant by the changing context of the nuclear world.”

States of Eugenics: Institutions and the Practices of Compulsory Sterilization in California,” in Sheila Jasanoff, ed., Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011): 29-58.

This article isn’t about nuclear things at all — it looks at the history of compulsory sterilization in the state of California, and comes up with an institutional argument for why California ended up sterilizing far more people in mental institutions and mental hospitals than any other state in the country. “One is tempted to speculate that any future eugenics in America, however defined, will remain of a distinctly American character: decentralized, well-intentioned, quiet, but — if left unregulated — deeply troubling in its ramifications.”

“So Long, Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb: A Case Study in Public Usage of an Educational Tool,” WMD Junction (3 May 2012), online.

A case-study of usage of my NUKEMAP tool. “If a nuclear weapon went off in your hometown, what sort of damage would it cause? This question has been asked by millions of people since 1945 in both formal and informal settings. As an historian of the bomb, I’ve found that students in both high school and college remain fascinated—and horrified—by the subject. While images of distant mushroom clouds from Cold War nuclear testing films and photographs can still inspire awe, it can be easy to lose a sense of scale. Transposing nuclear weapons effects onto local maps has, since the early Cold War, been a method of communicating these kinds of concerns to lay individuals. It was with this communication goal in mind that I created NUKEMAP in early February 2012.”

“A Tale of Openness and Secrecy: The Philadelphia Story,” Physics Today 65, no. 5 (May 2012), 47-53.

An account of the failed attempt of a group of university scientists to publish how an atomic bomb worked, just after World War II. “The young scientists had started their endeavor in the flush of excitement that followed the birth of the nuclear age. They had set out to prove that science could not be held back by secrecy. If they could deduce the workings of the bomb, so could anyone else. But they found that the realities of postwar America were unresponsive to such feats of clever logic. Instead of proving the ability of physics to transcend political matters, their story became a woeful tale of their own impotence in the face of state power.”

“Bomb Appétit!” Lucky Peach no. 6 (Winter 2013), 144.

In an article in a high-end food magazine, I answer the question, In the event of nuclear war, what would happen to our lunch?, with reference to the results of the experiments in Operation Teapot (1955), Project 32, which looked at the effects of nuclear weapons on food and beverages.

“We Don’t Need Another Manhattan Project,” Public Interest Report (Federation of American Scientists) 66, no. 4 (Fall 2013).

An editorial on the nature of what “the Manhattan Project” should mean as an evocation of technological “success”: “The Manhattan Project ought to mean much more than just ‘a big government investment,’ should it not? But if we did want to draw out lessons from the Manhattan Project, in order to better use it as an exemplar for contemporary discussions, what would we say? What would a call for a new Manhattan Project really mean if we took it seriously?

And here are some book reviews that I have written that I thought came off well:

State Secrets,” Endeavour 32, no. 4 (December 2008): 123-124. (Review of Kristie Macrakis, Seduced By Secrets: Inside the Stasi’s Spy-Tech World.)

A review of a book about the Stasi’s technical intelligence gathering services. “By their own account, the Stasi were immensely successful at this: in return for an investment of 2.5 million DM in the infrastructure of espionage (which included payments to corporate moles), they claimed a return of 150 million DMworth of stolen R&D, an impressive profit for any industry, legitimate or clandestine. By the 1980s, this sort of high-tech espionage had become common enough that on one pilfered chip the East German technicians found a message for them (and their Soviet friends) written in Russian: ‘When are you going to stop stealing?’ “

“Our Special Bomb,” Endeavour 33, no. 2 (June 2009): 44-45. (Review of Michael Gordin, Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War.)

A review of a book which I cite fairly often in my blog posts; Gordin argues that the construction of the atomic bomb’s “special” status was contingent and not inevitable. “The heart of the book involves carefully tracing the myriad of stances on the bomb after its use but before Japan’s surrender – a time when the interpretation of what the bomb ‘meant’ was still very much in flux. Gordin shows convincingly that many of those close to the production and use of the first atomic bombs considered them large firebombs: powerful weapons, but usable ones. Not all shared this view, of course. Many scientists in particular judged the weapon to be ‘revolutionary’ long before its use, but for many others it was at least up for debate.”

“Contingencies of the Early Nuclear Arms Race,” with S.S. Schweber, Metascience 20, no. 3 (2011): 443-465. Review of  Michael Gordin, Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly.)

A review of Gordin’s second bomb book, on the testing, detection, and announcement of the first Soviet atomic bomb. “There is both symmetry and asymmetry in this history. At one level of description, the arms race as a whole was, until the 1980s at least, a largely symmetrical process, with the two nations mirroring one another in periods of buildups and negotiations. But at a finer level, the differences in the ways the two superpowers made decisions, and got information, are striking.”

Review of Matthew Kroenig, Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear WeaponsMarine Corps University Journal 3, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 106-108.

A review of a book that makes a strong argument about why states help other states proliferate. “For France, a nuclear Israel would be an asset, as it would serve to complicate the goals of Egypt, which France saw as a direct security threat because of Egyptian actions in Algeria. Giving Israel the bomb would serve to reorient Middle Eastern politics in a way that would not adversely affect France’s interests, even if it did affect the interests of both the United States and the USSR, which lobbied extensively to avoid Israeli proliferation. (The United States only acquiesced to the idea of an Israeli bomb after it was a done deal.)”

“Nuclear Others,” review of Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade; Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42, no. 3 (June 2012): 235-243.

An essay review of a book about the history of the uranium trade in Africa, and what it means about how we should write nuclear narratives. Being Nuclear occupies an unusual place within our standard nuclear narratives. It is neither an internal history nor an external one: it takes residence some place in between, tacking between moments of each. It is reflexive about the problem of “nuclear knowledge”: it draws attention to, explicitly, the ways in which the very possibility of these histories can, or cannot, be written. Epistemological concerns are the provenance of all historians, to be sure, but the problems of nuclear history are not those of the archive damaged by fire or war, or even of the fickle individual who destroys or doctors his or her files. They sit, in perhaps an exceptional way, at the troublesome intersection of security, safety, and governmentality; they promise to be variously inaccessible as long as the infrastructures that support them survive.”

“Heterodoxy and Its Discontents,” review of Michael Gordin, The Pseudoscience Wars Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe; Science 338 no. 6104 (12 October 2012): 194-195.

The unedited author version of this review is here. A review of a book about a very kooky character, and “pseudoscience” in general. “The biggest question is, of course, why did the scientists raise such an outcry in the first place? Velikovsky’s book might have entered obscurity much faster had it not been given so much inadvertent publicity. The answer Gordin gives highlights the particular historical context of Velikovsky: it was a particular moment of high Cold War anxiety. American scientists had learned from watching the Lysenko Affair from abroad that crackpots could be dangerous. In Cold War America, increased government involvement in the funding of science was taken by some to mean the possibility of increased government regulation of science. This Cold War context pervades the early sections of the narrative, and crops back up in the re-embrace of Velikovsky in years of popular ambivalence to technological progress.”

Review of Sean Malloy, “‘A Very Pleasant Way to Die’: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb Against Japan“; H-Diplo (17 October 2012).

A review of an article about what was known, and by whom, about radiation effects prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The long and short of it, in the end, is that the story of radiation and the first atomic bombs lacks a simple, moralistic punchline. Enough information was known by the low-level scientists to make a case for further study; the middle-level scientists and administrators who could have done something with that information, for various reasons, dismissed it. The higher-level politicians never got wind of the issue at all, until after the fact. Instead of a story of cover-ups, decisions, or even just pure ignorance, what Malloy tells is a story about how organizations make — or fail to make — knowledge, and how that knowledge circulates — or fails to circulate — within those organizations. Malloy’s article is important not just because it illuminates this particular issue and opens up an entirely new line of examination for these events, but because of its wider-ranging methodological significance. This is how serious histories of ‘who knew what’ should be done.”