Physicists in the Postwar Political Arena: Comparative Perspectives: A Conference at the University of California, Berkeley

Thursday - Sunday
22 Jan - 25 Jan 1998

The Lipman Room, 8th Floor, Barrows Hall

Event Type

A striking phenomenon of the post-WWII era has been the emergence of scientists, notably physicists, as key political actors in the public arena. Because of the national framework for many political processes, scholarly study has often operated with country-specific frames of reference. The conference, to be held at the University of California at Berkeley, on 22-25 January 1998, will bring together an international group of scholars to undertake an historical comparison of the public roles of physicists in a wide range of political systems.

Organizing committee:
Jim Williams
Peter Westwick
Ethan Pollock
David Hollinger
Cathryn Carson

Schedule: The conference will open with a reception and a first panel on Thursday afternoon, 22 January. Three panels will be held on Friday, 23 January, with two panels and a final roundtable on Saturday, 24 January. Although no panels are scheduled for Sunday, 25 January, many participants will be staying over until Sunday morning. A detailed schedule is available.

Further information will be also posted on this website as it becomes available, or may be obtained by contacting:

Professor Cathryn Carson
Office for History of Science and Technology
543 Stephens Hall
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-2350

phone: 510-642-4581; fax 510-643-5321

For University of California System Graduate Students:

Special funding has been made available by the UC Office of the President for eight UC-system graduate students to attend the conference. Full coverage will be provided for transportation, lodging (double occupancy), and meals. Anyone interested in applying for this funding should send a note to Cathryn Carson at by December 15 explaining what they work on and why they would like to attend. (Anyone is welcome to come without funding, of course.)


Informal Reception, 3:00 p.m.

Welcome, 3:30 p.m.

PANEL 1: Science as a Model for Politics, 3:45 – 6:15 p.m.

Finn Aaserud (Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen): “The Scientist and the Statesmen: Niels Bohr’s Crusade for an ‘Open World'”

Richard Beyler (Portland State): “Physics and ‘De-Ideologization’ in Post-1945 West Germany”

David Holloway (Stanford): “Physics and Civil Society in the Soviet Union and China”

Xu Liangying (Chinese Academy of Sciences): “Chinese Physicsts’ Sense of Social Responsibility” (paper delivered in absentia by Zuoyue Wang)

David Hollinger (UC Berkeley): commentator

Dinner, 7:00 p.m.


Coffee, 8:30 – 9:00 a.m.

PANEL 2: Insiders and Outsiders, 9:00 – 11:30 a.m.

Gennady Gorelik (Boston University): “Andrei Sakharov: From Russian Theoretical Physics to International Practical Humanics”

Lyman Miller (Johns Hopkins): “Xu Liangying and He Zuoxiu: Divergent Responses to Physics and Politics in the Post-Mao Period”

Mary Jo Nye (Oregon State): “A Physicist in the Corridors of Power: P.M.S. Blackett’s Opposition to British Nuclear Strategy following the War”

Sam Schweber (Brandeis): “The Moral Responsibility of the Scientist: Bethe and Oppenheimer”

Martin Sherwin (Tufts): commentator

Lunch, 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

PANEL 3: Making Institutions, 12:30 – 3:00 p.m.

Barton Bernstein (Stanford): “Lawrence, Teller, and the Quest for the Second Lab”

Igor Drovenikov (Russian Acacemy of Sciences): “Flerov’s Choice”

Dominique Pestre (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales): “From Colonial to Cold War Politics and Science: A History of Military / Scientist Relations in France, 1938-1962”

J.M. Sanchez-Ron (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid): “Spanish Physicists in Post-WWII Public Life: Physics at the National Institute for Aeronautical Technology

James Bartholomew (Ohio State): commentator

Break, 3:00 – 3:30 p.m.

PANEL 4: Actors and Strategies, 3:30-6:00 p.m.

Cathryn Carson (UC Berkeley): “Trying on Roles: Heisenberg in West Germany”

Fan Dainian (Institute of Policy and Management, Chinese Academy of Sciences): “Nuclear Physicist Wang Kan-chang in the People’s Republic of China”

Alexei Kojevnikov (American Institute of Physics): “Soviet Scientists and Politicians: Dialogues about Power in Authoritarian Political Culture”

Gregg Zachary (Wall Street Journal): title TBA [Vannevar Bush]

Spencer Weart (American Institute of Physics): commentator

Dinner, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. (in the Lipman Room)

Informal Session: Film and History, 7:30 p.m.


Coffee 8:30 – 9:00 a.m.

PANEL 5: Closing Down and Opening Up, 9:00 – 11:30 a.m.

Lawrence Badash (UC Santa Barbara): “Science in the McCarthy Period”

Dieter Hoffmann (MPI f¸r Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin): “The Divided Anniversary: The 1958 Max Planck Centennial in Berlin and the Cold War in Science”

Ethan Pollock (UC Berkeley): “The Anti-Cosmopolitan Campaign and Soviet Physics”

Jim Williams (UC Berkeley): title TBA (China)

Jessica Wang (UCLA): commentator

LUNCH 11:30-12:30 p.m.

PANEL 6: National and International Networks, 12:30 – 3:00 p.m.

Morris Low (Australian National University): “Japanese Physicists and the Reorganization of Science in Postwar Japan: The Physicist as Public Man and Policy-maker”

Paul Josephson (University of New Hampshire): “An End to Scientific Autarky: Khrushchev, Soviety Physicists, Geneva, and Beyond”

Zuoyue Wang (UC Santa Barbara): “US-China Scientific Exchange, 1971-1989”

Peter Westwick (UC Berkeley): “National Labs and National Goals”

Gene Rochlin (UC Berkeley): commentator

Break, 3:00 – 3:30 p.m.


Paul Forman (Smithsonian Institution)

Lyman Miller (Johns Hopkins)

Wolfgang Panofsky (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center)

Ethan Pollock (UC Berkeley)

Etel Solingen (UC Irvine)

Dinner, 7:00 p.m.

Conference Memo:

One of the most striking phenomena of the post-WWII era, marking a re-evaluation of science in its relation to modern society, has been the emergence of scientists as key actors in the public political arena. In many countries and many contexts, the period saw a reconstruction of the political possibilities of the scientist as a player on a wider, public stage. In this development physicists have taken a particularly prominent place, from their contributions to public debates on nuclear weapons to their visibility and leadership in postwar scientific institutions. Because of the national framework for many of these processes, scholarly study has often operated with country-specific frames of reference; thus historians and social scientists have recognized the increased public role for physicists in the United States, often taken as the exemplary site of this development, while recent scholarship has begun to raise similar questions and offer different answers for other postwar national contexts. The conference proposes to initiate a systematic historical comparison of the public political roles of physicists in these various political systems, bringing scholars with expertise in particular contexts into dialogue with colleagues who address similar themes for other nations.

To begin with, World War II ushered physicists onto the public and political stage in the U.S. They appeared on the covers of magazines, formed political lobbying groups, and served in highly visible positions on governmental advisory committees. In the Soviet Union as in the U.S., the strategic importance of nuclear weapons and other technological applications lent importance to their designers, but the Soviet regime assigned to them different roles from their American colleagues. Physicists need not to have worked in strategically driven fields to occupy a place on the stage, either in the nuclear nations or elsewhere: in China, the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi led opposition to the Maoist regime and its successor, while in Brazil the exclusion of physicists from the nuclear energy program sparked their opposition to the government. The absence of defense-related experience could indeed strengthen the moral position of domestic opponents of the state or of those in nations fighting the propaganda battles of the Cold War. With or without defense work, the resources required for the practice of Big Science, the claim of physicists to fundamental knowledge, and technocratic tendencies in national governments all gave physicists public and political exposure in the postwar era.

Some themes thus emerge from a cross-national comparison of the postwar role of physicists in the public sphere. Of course, each national context presented strikingly different avenues for physicists, and at different times; but physicists in disparate contexts sought to share in political power and shape debates about the role of science in society. These far-flung physicists used science as a model for political action, as in their references to the scientific community as a democratic system based on the free interchange of ideas and consensus, or their invocations of the universalist ideals of science. Similar appeals to scientific rationalism, however, were muted by its use in support of technocratic regimes, which suggested elitism and could coopt scientists into alliances with authoritarian governments. In addition to the uses of science in general, individual physicists could adopt various strategies and roles in public support of or opposition to the state; for instance, those of Robert Oppenheimer or Linus Pauling, Sergei Vavilov or Andrei Sakharov, Werner Heisenberg, Patrick Blackett, and Fang Lizhi. Scientific institutions, in particular the new temples to big science erected to house the physicists, expressed political culture in their organi-zation; hence the national laboratories of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission formed a diverse, decentralized, competitive system, while the USSR relied on centralized labs.

Moreover, physicists insisted that they participate in the international public and political arena in addition to the domestic one. Some did so through their alignment with national governments and their contributions to national defense, which shaped international strategic balances. Others took the opposite route: scientific universalism spawned internationalist rhetoric from physicists, whose faith in and promotion of world government was based on the ideals of their experience in the international scientific community. The personal itineraries of physicists could reinforce their internationalism, from the emigré physicists who fled totalitarianism to their Soviet colleagues who had practiced their craft in German and British labs. Hope for international political cooperation through collaborative scientific projects was expressed by both physicists and national leaders, most prominently in Eisenhower’s speech on “Atoms for Peace,” which had the side effect of easier scientific communication between the Soviet Bloc and Western countries. And increased international interchange led Soviet and American physicists in the late 1950s to consider collaborating on the next generation of high energy particle accelerators, a plan which was itself in part a response to the joint European accelerator at CERN. Finally, Atoms for Peace, along with fallout, invigor-ated efforts at arms control, and the negotiations over the test ban treaty further blurred the boundary between the physicists’ scientific and political advice while highlighting their internationalist efforts, exemplified by Pugwash.

Although these developments speak clearly to the international framing of the issues, much of the historical literature on physics in the post-war period has until recently focused on the United States, where the depth and breadth of attention has produced unusually thorough analyses. Fortunately, over the past few years this literature has been complemented by a number of new articles and monographs about the extra-scientific role of non-American physicists. Though many scholars have made fundamental contributions, a few works can be mentioned to indicate the trend. For instance, working with previously inaccessible archives, David Holloway and Alexei Kojevnikov have broadened our understanding of the role of physicists in Stalin’s Russia. InStalin and the bomb, Holloway describes the political maneuverings of a number of Soviet physicists and shows how the community of physicists maintained a slice of intellectual autonomy vis-a-vis the state. Kojevnikov’s work on Peter Kapitsa and Sergei Vavilov offers two vastly different examples of how prominent physicists interacted with Stalin and the state. Together these scholars have deepened our understanding of the “milieu of the scientific intelligentsia” which Sakharov believed was at the root of his political activism. Likewise, Jim Williams’s study of science and democracy in Mao’s China and H. Lyman Miller’s recent work on science and dissent in the post-Mao period have opened previously uncharted historiographic territory, while studies on Western Europe are beginning to explore the postwar reconstruction of existing ideals of the scientist in relation to the public and the state. Such recent scholarship invites informed historical comparison of physicists in the public political arena–indeed, begins to make it possible.

This body of literature thus opens up a new aspect of the emerging field of comparative study of postwar science, which has begun for some topics to bear fruits like the volume on physicists and the military edited by Forman and Sanchez-Ron. In a different fashion this new subject also suggests points of contact with recent work in political science and related fields, which often takes a more organizational approach to international questions of science and politics. For instance, Peter Haas’s discussions of epistemic communities frame the general problem of the impact of scientists on policy-making, while a recent collection of essays on Scientists and the state, edited by Etel Solingen, raises issues of international comparison across political contexts.

We thus intend the conference to advance scholarship in three ways. First, the relatively rich literature on the American physics community will help outline projects and questions for those scholars working on physics in other nations; in turn, strategies and questions formulated in response to Soviet, Chinese, and other national contexts will inspire new ways of looking at the history of American physics. Second, with its attention to the public sphere the project will enrich the existing comparative literature on postwar science, which has often focused on the structural relations between science and the state. Finally, the conference will help scholars advance new research programs that are international and collaborative in their conception. Postwar physicists did not confine their activities within national borders; the history of physics and the public role of physicists should likewise transcend the national boundaries that now organize the field.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Office for the History of Science and Technology

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