I won the FHSA Phillip J. Pauly Prize!

I am very pleased and honored to announce that the Forum for the History of Science (FHSA) in America has awarded my chapter “A Heightened Controversy” in James Fleming and Ann Johnson’s Toxic Airs the Phillip Pauly prize.  The FHSA prize for 2015 was for the best best article or chapter in an edited volume published in the last three years by an early career scholar.

The FHSA was founded in the late 1970s to promote the history of American science and became a formal “interest group” of the History of Science Society in 1988.  The FHSA nowadays largely promotes American science through the AmericanScience blog.  You can also follow them on TwitterPhillip Pauly was an active member before his untimely death in 2008.

My university generously supported my travel to the History of Science Society meeting in San Francisco last month so I could receive the award in person at the Forum’s annual business meeting.

Paul Lucier, a member of the prize committee, delivered a wonderful commentary on my chapter before handing me the award.  In one flattering remark, Paul noted that my chapter “stood out among a strong group of articles by junior scholars because of its detailed and effective research, its attention to scientific and technical detail, and its well-illustrated case study that opened into a larger environmental perspective. This is an essay that touches on significant issues in the making of science in the post-World War II era that should be noted not only by historians of science but also by scientists and the broader public.”

After Paul’s comments, the Forum asked me to speak a few words, which I had not anticipated.  I was a bit shocked when they asked me to come up, but I nonetheless managed to communicate semi-coherently, first by shamelessly promoting the monograph I am working on (which, btw, is now under contract with the University of Washington Press, Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series) and then by thanking Jim Fleming who was in attendance.  Getting chance to thank Jim was especially important to me.  I first met Jim after delivering a paper on which the chapter was based on a panel on the history of meteorology at the American Meteorology Society conference in New Orleans a few years back.  It was over some shrimp Po’ Boys after my talk that Jim asked if I’d be interested in contributing to the edited volume that he and Ann Johnson were putting together.  Would I?  Of course!  Jim has been an enthusiastic supporter of my work ever since.  Below is a pic that Karen Rader posted on Twitter as I was extemporaneously riffing on the award.  Not sure why my arms were raised in such an animated way!

E. Jerry Jessee receiving the Phillip Pauly Prize from the Forum for the History of Science in America.

E. Jerry Jessee receiving the Phillip Pauly Prize from the Forum for the History of Science in America.  Photo by Karen Rader.

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Global Environmental History

I am teaching a new class this semester: Modern Global Environmental History. Although the course is supposed to be “modern,” I take the long view to more fully explore the relationship between world history and the global environment. As you’ll see from the syllabus (which you can access here, or in my teaching page), the course is divided into four units, each of which is geared toward exploring a particular topic from the agricultural revolution to markets and the state as engines of environmental change to global warming.

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My contribution to Toxic Airs is published.

My chapter entitled “A Heightened Controversy: Nuclear Weapons Testing, Radioactive Tracers, and the Dynamic Atmosphere” was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press late last month in Toxic Airs: Body, Place, and Planet in Historical Perspective, edited by James Rodger Fleming and Ann Johnson.  You can buy the book here.

Toxic Airs nuclear fallout radiation nuclear weapons testing E. Jerry JesseeThe chapter explores the controversy over the injection of radioactive particles into the stratosphere from American thermonuclear testing in the mid-1950s to the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.  As I show in the chapter, much of the US Atomic Energy Commission’s assertion that the tests had little impact on human health revolved around the notion that the tropopause (the layer between the stratosphere and the troposphere–the air we breathe) functioned as an effective boundary layer, preventing the extensive levels of radiation produced by the tests from reaching the earth.  This notion of atmospheric containment gradually eroded throughout the later years of the 1950s as meteorologists from the US Weather Bureau (specifically Lester Machta) demonstrated that the tropopause was far more porous than the wishful thinking of the Commission had originally proposed.  This kind of atmospheric dynamism, I conclude, contributed to globalist views of the environment that stressed how seemingly distant and isolated events in one part of the Earth could have profound repercussions for us all.

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Review of Mackedon’s Bombast

Read my review of Michon Mackedon’s book on the nuclear West in Nevada that appeared recently in Montana: The Magazine of Western History 63:3 (2013): 84-5.

Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert.  By Michon Mackedon.  (Reno: Black Rock Institute Press, 2010).

Michon Mackedon’s Bombast offers an Orwellian tale of the rhetoric employed by federal officials to justify the nuclearization of Nevada and the desert Southwest generally, from the 1945 Trinity test to the recent Yucca Mountain waste disposal controversy.  As the subtitle suggests, Mackedon recounts a world of “spin,” where “official rhetoric [was] used to pull the wool over our eyes” (p, xiii).  “Words,” Mackedon argues, “have been used to make the unsafe appear safe, and the unthinkable, well, thinkable” (ibid).

A work of synthesis, the book draws insight and analysis from other scholars familiar to readers well-versed in the sociological and historical literature of the Atomic West.  I offer this not as a critique (although Mackedon frequently lets the analysis of others have the last word), but to acknowledge its general effectiveness: by culling together these often disparate strands of work, Mackedon admirably conveys a cohesive account of the discursive manufacturing of Nevada as a nuclear wasteland.

Organized roughly chronologically, the book contains fourteen diverse chapters, including one of images from artist Peter Goin’s personal collection of atomic kitsch.  Initial chapters deal primarily with the the siting and establishment of the Trinity and Nevada test sites.  Both sites, according to Mackedon, were selected not because they offered the best protection from atomic mishap, but because officials deemed these spaces worthless desert land and thus sacrificial to the interests of the nation.  Of course, these landscapes were hardly deserted.  Yet, as Mackedon argues, officials justified testing in the region by similarly marginalizing the peoples near these nuclear landscapes; through Atomic Energy Commission public information pamphlets or reports by “eastern” journalists, Southwesterners were represented as backwards, idiosyncratic “Wastelanders” (p, 39).  The middle section of the book contains a couple of interesting chapters that explore the euphemistic codenaming of the tests, including analysis of the ways that nuclear engineers gendered the bombs.  Final chapters deal with underground testing and the Yucca Mountain controversy.  In the latter, Mackedon finds the culmination of years of nuclear colonialism; as with Trinity and the Nevada Test Site, the selection of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s waste repository was not based on “sound science” (after all, the mountain would have to be extensively engineered to be regarded as “suitable”).  Rather, it was the language that portrayed Nevada as both “barren and expendable” that lent legitimacy to the notion that Nevada deserts were fitting landscapes to store the lethal byproducts of the atomic age (180).

Mackedon’s narrow focus on the discursive will leave some readers searching for a fuller account (and critique) of the construction and maintenance of the Atomic West.  At times, the text too neatly separates the rhetorical and political from the scientific.  In Mackedon’s analysis of nuclear site selection, for example, the reader is left with the impression that these discursive practices often trumped the ostensibly “good” science that pointed to more feasible alternatives.  Neglecting the interplay of politics and science in the creation “safety” or “risk” overlooks the technoscientific hubris that imbued federal officials with the confidence that nuclear bomb tests rested squarely within their control.  To be fair, the perceptive reader digging deep into the text can find some of that in here.  However, such critical areas remain disproportionally unexamined compared to the theoretical sophistication Mackedon applies to atomic rhetoric.

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Fallout and Hamburgers

Check out my guest post on Denzil Ford’s blog page.  http://eatknowsing.com/category/environment-2/

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Website name

So this is my first blog.  I’ve had this site up for a while but have not had time with teaching and what not to really start any blogs.  Let’s hope this is a beginning of good things to come.  Also, I’ve obtained a domain name for this site: http://www.jerryjessee.com.  Yo check it and pass it on!

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