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Nuclear weapons scientists' histories probed

Hugh Gusterson
Hugh Gusterson

The personal and working lives of nuclear weapons scientists were discussed at the AAAS meeting by Hugh Gusterson, associate professor of anthropology in the Program in Science, Technology and Society.

Gusterson's talk, "Understanding Nuclear Weapons Scientists Through Oral Life Histories," summarized more than 100 tape-recorded interviews of scientists, focusing on their decisions to adopt nuclear weapons design as a career. He explored areas including their understanding of the ethics of weapons design as a vocation, the relationship between their work as weapons designers and their religious and political commitments, the joys and frustrations of their work and their feelings about antinuclear protestors.

Gusterson acknowledged it's possible to explore such issues through standardized written surveys. However, there are unique benefits to using life histories as an investigative tool, he said. These include "the opportunity for detailed dialogic investigation of key episodes, the revelation of a person's inner life through the use of metaphor and the production of vivid personal testimony," he said. "We should, however, beware of seeing either method as objective, since the constantly shifting world of the self and of memory is too complex and fragmented to be definitively objectified."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 27, 2002.

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