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Anthropologist explores weapons-science culture

Hugh Gusterson, associate professor of anthropology and science studies, was once an anti-nuclear weapons activist in 1980s San Francisco. But his subsequent interactions with weapons scientists changed his views and led him to write a book about the people who do what he views today as "important and honorable" work.

Professor Gusterson said that for years, he feared he would one day die in a nuclear war. But his views began to soften during a debate at a local high school with a scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the facility that designed the neutron bomb and the warhead for the MX missile. The Livermore scientist so impressed Professor Gusterson that three years later, in 1987, he moved to Livermore to start field research among the weapons scientists.

"...The man I was debating believed passionately that his work, far from being dangerous, was important and honorable," writes Professor Gusterson in his new book, Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, just published by the University of California Press.

Professor Gusterson said he chose to do an ethnographic study of a nuclear weapons laboratory for three reasons. First, the American public debate on defense policy, and nuclear weapons in particular, has been sorely in need of a cultural perspective. Secondly, he feels it is important to extend anthropology by studying institutions of power in the West. And there was also a personal reason: his anti-nuclear protester roots.

Another natural interest in Livermore scientists is that MIT educates many of the scientists who go to work there, Professor Gusterson said.

During his research, he stumbled upon some surprises. For example, nuclear scientists do not fear the weapons they create; three-fourths of the weapons scientists are active Christians; and they are politically diverse, including an unexpected number of liberals who opposed the Vietnam War and the Reagan-Bush agenda.

Some suffered greatly to do their work, especially those who were Christians and found Livermore under attack by local churches in the 1980s.

In the book, Professor Gusterson goes inside the top-secret culture of the scientists. He analyzes the ethics and politics of laboratory employees, the effects of security regulations on their private lives and the role of nuclear tests as rituals of initiation and transcendence. He also unrolls the dark humor that accompanies their secret work in the relatively isolated community of Livermore.

To the outside world and even to their own families, the scientists' work is invisible; the security of their jobs meant they couldn't bring work home, nor could they discuss frustrations at work in detail. And if they decided to leave nuclear weapons work, they might not be able to show potential employers all they had done.

"They've really mortgaged their careers to American national defense," said Professor Gusterson.

So why do the scientists make so many sacrifices? He points to the lure of pursuing science relatively freely and with strong funding. Many weapons scientists didn't want a university career in which they are not well paid, where they would constantly have to write grant proposals and fight their way through the tenure system. They also didn't want a career in industry that would greatly curtail their research freedom.

Dramatic changes are underway in the community of nuclear scientists with the advent of the nuclear test ban treaty.

"The whole debate over the test ban treaty really split the lab (Livermore) along generational lines," said Professor Gusterson. The older scientists still feel bombs must be exploded to test them. The younger scientists believe some aspects of nuclear testing can be simulated, notably at the Nuclear Ignition Facility being planned by the government.

"Their greatest fear is that as a community they would disappear," said Professor Gusterson. But he doesn't think that will happen, partly because some scientists are supporting "virtual" testing of some aspects of weapons and because he feels nuclear weapons work is not completely over, but is "moving into new space."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 6, 1996.

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