Justin McBrien, Resident Scholar

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Justin McBrien

Justin McBrien, a Ph.D. candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, is the most recent individual to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC). The Resident Scholar Program, which is currently accepting applications for the 2016-17 academic year, awards stipends of up to $2,500 for a month’s study in the OSU Libraries. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students as well as independent scholars are all welcome to apply.

McBrien’s visit made use of SCARC’s collecting strength in the history of atomic energy, and he studied multiple collections including the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, as well as several of our agriculture-focused collections.  Working in support of his dissertation, McBrien was specifically interested in exploring ideas on human-altered weather and the risks that have arisen in kind.

In his Resident Scholar lecture, titled “Making Climate Change: The Atom Weather Controversy and the Question of Human Planetary Agency, 1945-1970,” McBrien delved into the question and chronology of atom weather as it has played out in the United States. His talk delineated a theme of his dissertation, which focuses in part on the problems posed by nuclear weapons when used in deliberate ways to affect the Earth.

In his presentation, McBrien’s chronology began in the wake of the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ran through the 1970s, when ideas about atom weather began to fall out of favor with scientists and the general public.  As has been well established, the military use of atomic bombs in 1945, and the subsequent desire by the United States government to test more and new weapons as the Cold War escalated, posed both new questions and new fears for scientists and the public alike. As part of this rapid shift in the culture, appeals were also made to President Truman to explore other uses for the bombs – peaceful uses that would ostensibly deploy the technology through means that could potentially benefit humanity.  One such branch of inquiry was atom weather.

But what is atom weather?  Simply stated, the concept of atom weather centers around the degree to which nuclear explosions might be used to alter the planet’s weather in varying ways. Many ideas related to atom weather were worrying. Some held that atomic debris could act as a nucleating agent and could alter the albedo of the Earth, perhaps triggering a new ice age. Others feared that nuclear explosions could change the electrical conductivity of the atmosphere due to ionization effects resulting from the blasts.  All of these ideas eventually would be connected to the debate over fallout from nuclear weapons; a debate that, of course, involved Linus Pauling as a central character.

A more optimistic take on atom weather posited that, while the bomb could certainly serve as a trigger for natural disaster, it might also protect humans from nature by changing unfavorable climates for the better.  Equipped with the power of the bomb, humans could take control of the weather and climate, and thus, for the first time, insure a viable future for the planet.

As public discourse on nuclear disaster management became a matter of routine, and as the rebound from a nuclear conflagration came to be discussed as if society were recovering from a tornado or a hurricane, nuclear bombs increasingly became linked to broader environmental concerns. These environmental concerns and subsequent debates over human planetary agency came to inform discussions of environmental contaminants like Agent Orange, and remain central to current conversations on global climate change.

Though nuclear weapons testing has now largely ceased, the question of atom weather stands as an early marker of the public’s understanding of the fact that humans are capable of influencing the Earth in ways that are unintended and often negative. Indeed, although interest in actively exploring atom weather had basically died off by the 1970s, early ideas concerning human altered weather patterns remain and have informed the growing interdisciplinary study – within the earth, social and ecological sciences – of environmental change.

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During his time exploring nuclear topics in SCARC, McBrien made use of the Pauling Papers, as well as those of Theodore Rockwell, among others.  The Pauling materials provided many jumping off points for new avenues of research to explore, while at the same time encompassing a multitude of topics of interest, including nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and disarmament.

In particular, McBrien made heavy use of a series of letters that Pauling received from the public asking him for advice and clarification on the feasibility of human-controlled weather.  Although he believed himself to be no expert in the field and was unable to weigh in authoritatively on the debate, Pauling believed the idea of atom weather to be entirely possible.

McBrien also capitalized on SCARC’s agricultural collections to explore research done on Oregon farms in the 1950s, work carried out as part of a larger federal study on weather control and cloud seeding.

The Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries is now in its ninth year of operation. For more about past Resident Scholars, please see the program’s homepage.

 

Now Accepting Applications for 2016 Resident Scholars

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its ninth year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in SCARC. Stipends of $2,500 per month, renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500), will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 29, 2016.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon, the history of science and technology in the twentieth century and/or rare books. Many past Resident Scholars have engaged primarily with the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/residentscholar.pdf

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients – some of whom have traveled from as far away as Germany and Brazil – are available here.

Now Accepting Applications for 2015 Resident Scholars

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its eighth year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Stipends of $2,500 per month renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500) will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2015.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon, the history of science and technology in the twentieth century and/or rare books. Many past Resident Scholars have engaged primarily with the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/residentscholar.pdf

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients – some of whom have traveled from as far away as Germany and Brazil – are available here.

Mary Mitchell, Resident Scholar

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Mary Mitchell

Mary Mitchell, a doctoral candidate in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, recently completed her term as Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Center.  Mitchell is the first of the 2014-15 class of Resident Scholars to complete her work here in Corvallis.

Mitchell’s research subject was the Fallout Suits, a topic that has been examined by two previous resident scholars, Toshihiro Higuchi (2009) and Linda Richards (2011).  However, where Higuchi examined this chapter of Pauling’s activism through the lense of environmental impact and Richards viewed the case as an instance of early human rights intervention, Mitchell, who has a background in law, is interested in the broader socio-legal milieu that surrounded the Paulings and their allies as they pursued their objectives.

The Fallout Suits can trace their origin to March 1st, 1954, when the United States tested the most powerful bomb ever to be exploded. The site for test Castle Bravo was Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, then a U.S. territory. The blast came from a hydrogen bomb and was seen over 100 miles away. Radioactive debris from the test exploded high into the atmosphere and spread across the Pacific Ocean, carried by wind and water and causing damage to fisheries and ecosystems across the region.

"Castle Bravo," the first hydrogen bomb test, March 1, 1954. (U. S. Dept. of Energy photograph)

“Castle Bravo,” the first hydrogen bomb test, March 1, 1954. (U. S. Dept. of Energy photograph)

The strength and destructive power of the blast far exceeded the expectations of the scientists who developed the bomb and quickly became an issue of international attention, mainly due to concerns over the spread of radioactive debris – fallout – which resulted from the test. Activists who saw radioactive fallout as a threat to the health and well-being of the public began to protest the continuation of these tests, leading at one point to a series of lawsuits filed against the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

This bundle of litigation, which sought to obtain judicial restraint to end nuclear weapons tests, quickly became known as the Fallout Suits.  The American plaintiffs were Linus Pauling, Karl Paul Link, Leslie C. Dunn, Norman Thomas, Stephanie May and William Bross Lloyd Jr.  This group was joined by several additional plaintiffs from Japan and Great Britain.

Mitchell’s research indicates that, during this chapter of the Cold War, Pauling was able to voice his opinions in a more successful way than was the case for lower-profile scientists of the time. While Pauling was indeed tracked by the FBI, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and other U.S. government entities hellbent on sussing out communist activities, Mitchell suggests that Pauling’s celebrity was both “his sword and shield” throughout the struggle. Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for chemistry and the fame that came with it protected him, at least to a degree, from being quieted as easily as was the case for other citizens at the time. Yet Pauling could not argue alone; in his fight against government policy he would need the support of other scientists to provide not only their opinion, but also their research, showing that nuclear testing is a threat to the public.

According to Mitchell, this strategy in Pauling’s fight against nuclear testing stemmed from his belief that democracy was only complete when citizens are given complete information in order to participate in the politics of their nation. As a scientist, Pauling knew that while nuclear testing could strengthen the military power of the United States, there were much broader consequences to this practice. He believed that the public should be informed about the dangers of nuclear testing and that the citizens of the United States should have a voice in determining whether or not these tests should continue. Pauling was especially firm in his belief that, as citizens, scientists should participate in public affairs by providing the public with information that would help individuals to make informed decisions when exercising their democratic rights.

Fallout Suits brochure, 1958.

Fallout Suits brochure, 1958.

Though they gained the support of other scientists, the plaintiffs behind the Fallout Suits lost without even getting a trial; the courts took a stance on issues of justiciability (limitations on issues over which a court can exercise its authority) and standing (appropriateness of a party initiating a legal action) in dismissing the lawsuits. Additional Marshallese lawsuits were dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs were not U.S. nationals, even though the Marshall Islands were a territory of the United States.

Mitchell concluded her Resident Scholar talk by noting that, despite their ineffectiveness in compelling immediate government action to reduce nuclear testing, the Fallout Suits led to “new forms of participatory democracy, stretching trans-nationally across the Pacific Ocean,” forms of democracy which “had risen from the ashes of America’s testing program.”  Moving forward, Mitchell will continue to dig into the research that she conducted at OSU as she develops her dissertation on legal challenges to atmospheric testing.

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, now in its seventh year, please see the program homepage and our continuing series of posts on this blog.

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Rebecca Mertens, Resident Scholar

Rebecca Mertens

Rebecca Mertens

Rebecca Mertens of Bielefeld University, located in northwest Germany, is the latest visitor to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center.  A Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy and history of science, Mertens spent a month stateside, visiting both the OSU Libraries as well as the Caltech Archives.

During her stay she braved both a major (and unusual) snow event in Corvallis as well as torrential rains in southern California.  Despite these obstacles, Mertens enjoyed a fruitful visit to the west coast as she pursued her research on Linus Pauling’s contributions to the lock-and-key model of biological specificity and the influence that this model imparted upon the sweep of modern biochemistry.

The conditions that awaited Mertens upon her arrival at OSU.

The conditions that awaited Mertens upon her arrival at OSU.

An outgrowth of his research on antibodies and antigens, Linus Pauling’s work on biological specificity comprised a major contribution to contemporary thinking on biochemical topics.  Pauling biographer Thomas Hager gives us this primer on what is meant by by the term, “biological specificity.”

Pauling demonstrated that the precise binding of antigen to antibody was accomplished not by typical chemical means – that is, through covalent or ionic bonds — but solely through shape. Antibodies recognized and bound to antigens because one fit the other, as a glove fits a hand. Their shapes were complementary. When the fit was tight, the surfaces of antibody and antigen came into very close contact, making possible the formation of many weak links that operated at close quarters and were considered relatively unimportant in traditional chemistry — van der Waals’ forces, hydrogen bonds, and so forth. To work, the fit had to be incredibly precise. Even a single atom out of place could significantly affect the binding.

In her Resident Scholar presentation, Mertens described the thrust of her research, which focuses on how one should interpret the contributions that Pauling made in this particular arena.

In the course of his research on antibodies, Linus Pauling postulated that the complementary structure of two molecules or two parts of a molecule determined the specificity of reactions in the living organism. However, the idea that molecular complementarity and biological specificity are deeply connected was already mentioned by Emil Fischer at the end of the 19th century. Thus, Pauling’s novel contribution was not the initial articulation of the model, but rather his emphasis on the importance of molecular complementarity for all biological phenomena.

Through examination of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, as well as the institutional records held at Caltech, Mertens is pursuing the idea that “Pauling’s interdisciplinary reputation, his public presence and his engagement in the organization of scientific institutions led to the popularity of the lock-and-key model and to its standardization in the second half of the twentieth century.”  These forces of Pauling’s status and personality in turn made an impact on questions of “financial support, networking and science popularization within the administration of scientific projects.”

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Beyond uncovering and detailing the history of Pauling’s role in the development of the lock-and-key model, Mertens is also using her research to “suggest an approach to the study of analogical models that considers social and political factors on successful model usage…[and] the formation and consolidation of model-based research programs.” Mertens returned to Germany with a large volume of content to sift through and absorb as she continues to develop her thinking on these issues.

Now entering its seventh year, the Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries provides research stipends of up to $2,500 to support work conducted in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center.  Applications for the 2014 class of scholars are being accepted now – the deadline for entry is April 30, 2014.  For more details, please see the program homepage.

Now Accepting Applications for 2014 Resident Scholars

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its seventh year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Stipends of $2,500 per month renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500) will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2014.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon, the history of science and technology in the twentieth century and/or rare books. For 2014, proposals that focus on using the history of science and technology collections will receive highest consideration, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/residentscholar.pdf

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients – some of whom have traveled from as far away as Germany and Brazil – are available here.

Shannon Cram, Resident Scholar

Shannon Cram.

Shannon Cram

Shannon Cram, a Ph. D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography, is the most recent individual to have completed a term as Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  She is also the latest of many long-term researchers to dig deeply into our wealth of collections related to the history of atomic energy.

Cram’s research focus is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located on the Columbia River in Washington state, and the most contaminated landscape in the country. The cause of this contamination is an extensive legacy of weapons-grade plutonium manufacture that began there in 1943. Since then, an estimated 450 billion gallons of nuclear waste has entered Hanford’s soil and water table. Trace amounts have accumulated in plants and animals, humans included. Leakage also has spread to the Columbia River through direct dumping and groundwater seepage.

Hanford is home to over two-thirds of the United States’ high level nuclear waste. The ensuing cleanup has since comprised the most expensive environmental remediation project in human history. The cleaning project is also complex because planners must take into account the fact that the existing waste will still be harmful to humans for at least 10,000 years. Thus, long reaching and permanent containment solutions are required.

Under the Superfund Act, which governs hazardous waste cleanup, an area is considered fully remediated when the risk for contracting harmful cancer is, at maximum, 1 in 10,000.  In her rich and entertaining Resident Scholar lecture, Cram argued that successful remediation of the Hanford site will require not just the disassembly of all of the site’s physical nuclear structures and containment of its nuclear materials, but also the erasure of Hanford’s impact on the local environment.

This context established, Cram suggested that nuclear waste is not socially inert, but distinctly productive. She argued that, just as above-ground nuclear testing affected the populous in Pauling’s era, the contemporary issue of nuclear remediation also affects the public. She contended that former nuclear sites like Hanford have helped to redefine nuclear threats to the future, with nuclear waste posing a long-lasting risk to future populations.

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Hanford and the Columbia River. Photo by Shannon Cram, 2012.

In her talk, Cram also discussed the history of nuclear radiation protection standards with a particular focus on the Human Health Risk Assessment for the Hanford site. Back when atomic warfare was still new to the American people, guidelines for radiation exposure had to be developed. A handbook created by the U.S. Department of Commerce, titled “Permissible Dose from External Sources of Ionizing Radiation,” based its data on a Cold War political structure which regarded the U.S. to be under threat and saw the sacrifice of some as necessary for the survival of many more. The handbook also described the strategic advantages of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield and estimates of how long soldiers could function before they were “rendered ineffective.”

Having cited this handbook, Cram then described the attitude of standard makers toward the protection of nuclear industrial workers. Specifically, she quoted a member of the National Council for Radiation Protection who said

I see no alternative but to assume that [an] operation is safe until it is proven to be unsafe. It is recognized that in order to demonstrate an unsafe condition you may have to sacrifice someone. This does not seem fair on the one hand, and yet I see no alternative. You certainly cannot penalize research and industry…by assuming that all installations are unsafe until proven safe. I think that the worker should expect to take his share of the risk involved in such a philosophy.

Radiation protection guidelines of this sort clearly relied upon contentious judgments about the relative value and meaning of life in the nuclear age. Questions over quality of life were mixed with concerns about national security and economic efficiency. Cram’s research asserts that, in deciding on official terms for radiation exposure, life and death became matters of political and strategic calculation. In this, the U.S. government used public radiation standards as both a benchmark for nuclear safety and as a distraction for the public from the negative impacts of nuclear testing.

The Resident Scholar Program, now in it sixth year, offers stipends of up to $2,500 in support of researchers wishing to make extensive use of materials held in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  More information about the program, is available here.  Applications for 2014 scholarships will be made available in January.

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