Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975

Kelly Moore, Princeton University Press, Princeton (2008) 311 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-11352-4 (hard cover), $35.

Reviewed by Joe Levinger

Kelly Moore discusses in great detail (700 references) social movements in the physical sciences during the three decades after World War II. Since I was a nuclear physicist during these thirty years, I knew well many of the physicists featured by Moore. Also as a Quaker, I enjoyed reading about Quaker activities a half century ago.

Still, because Moore writes as a sociologist, her approach was unfamiliar to me and may also be unfamiliar to many readers of this review. She is concerned with organizations of scientists, as influenced by the political atmosphere of the McCarthy hearings, and the “trial” of J. R. Oppenheimer. But I am interested mainly in the science and technology behind the scientific/political debates of the period. First, how dangerous was the worldwide fallout from atmospheric tests of H-bombs? How dangerous were herbicides (such as agent orange) used by our Air Force in Viet Nam? Finally, could the U.S. construct an effective anti-ballistic missile system (ABM)?

My responses to these three questions differ. First, the dangers of relatively small doses of nuclear radiation (of order 5 Roentgens/yr or 50 millsieverts/yr) were a source of controversy among scientists fifty years ago; and the controversy continues--see the article by Zbigniew Jaworski, followed by letters to the editor in Physics Today in the spring of 2000. But I can give firm answers to the second and third questions. Agent orange caused severe harm to civilians in Indochina, and harm to our American soldiers. And an effective ABM was a figment of Teller’s and Reagan’s imaginations.

Moore starts her account with a brief treatment of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). While the FAS was victorious in its fight for civilian control of atomic energy in America, it failed in its fight for international control of atomic energy. As the political environment grew more repressive, this short period of political activism by physicists and other scientists came to a halt. In Ch. 3 Moore describes an alternative to political activism: the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (SSRS) founded by Quaker Victor Paschkis. The SSRS replaced the political activism of FAS by their missionary work to awaken individual scientists to their moral responsibility to abstain from “military science”. Meanwhile Joseph Rotblat and others organized the Pugwash conferences to promote communication among scientists throughout the world. This was political activism among a small group of scientists, instead of a mass political movement.

In Ch. 4 Moore concentrates on the St. Louis committee for nuclear information (CNI) formed by Barry Commoner after the deaths from radiation sickness of members of the crew of the Lucky Dragon. They died from massive doses of radiation from the Bikini H-bomb test of 1954. But eminent scientists disagreed on whether much smaller doses of nuclear radiation were dangerous. (It’s easy for physicists to measure the radiation; but possible health effects are controversial, as noted above.) These scientific controversies were exemplified by the “startlingly ferocious debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller in February, 1958....” The controversy continued on the political level in debates between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. These debates led to loss of the previous high respect fort scientists; but it also led to the Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement in 1963 to ban atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons.

In Ch. 5 Moore discusses “Science for the People: Enactment of a New Left Politics of Science.” Some chapters of Science for the People (SftP) used confrontational tactics: Disrupting Science, as noted by Moore in her title. Usually the disruption was noise at conferences; but unfortunately there was violence and death. These confrontations mainly involved scientists working in the Jason Program, founded in 1958, and active during the Viet Nam war. Prominent scientists were prevented from speaking at international scientific conferences. Jason scientists defended themselves. Richard Garwin wrote “What is under attack is the right of an individual, in his own time, away from his regular job, to engage in legal activity to which some individuals are opposed...”

Besides these disruptive activities, there were constructive efforts to convince professional organizations ( such as our APS) to broaden their activities to include work on the social consequences of science. In our APS we now have our forum on Physics and Society, and the publication for which I write this review.

The three possible roles of scientists discussed by Moore are still at issue today: the role of “Scientists as Moral Individuals” stressed by the SSRS; the role of scientists as providers of information for the public, as exemplified by the CNI; and the role of scientists as advocates, as proposed by the SftP. I believe these roles are complementary, rather than competitive. For instance, Joseph Rotblat played each role very well.

Joe Levinger
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.