Event at Perry World House to examine the impact of nuclear technology on diplomacy and defense


Perry World House on October 12, 2022. Photo credit: George Botros

The Perry World House will present a lecture on Tuesday on nuclear technology and the debate surrounding its use in science, diplomacy and defense.

The hour-long lecture will feature a discussion between M. Susan Lindee, Professor of History and Sociology of Science, and Lynn Meskell, Professor of Anthropology and Historic Preservation. It will be moderated by Thomas Shattuck of Perry World House. The hybrid talk begins at 4 p.m. on Zoom or in person at the Perry World House.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to Lindee and Meskell ahead of their talk about nuclear technology.

A key focus of the presentation will be to understand how the current nuclear weapons situation in the world has evolved. For many, the threat of nuclear weapons may seem normal. However, according to Lindee, this is not “business as usual”.

“It is the invention of a specific time and the result of a technological system that has had devastating consequences that will never go away for humans,” Lindee said.

Sean Bray, a sophomore at the college studying international relations, agrees and thinks nuclear weapons are one of the fundamental issues the world needs to come to terms with.

“They are universally important, defining the nature of every relationship between every state. They have completely changed the way we think about war,” he said.

For Meskell, part of this understanding is examining the history of the disciplines of both anthropology and archeology to see how they have been affected by nuclear developments.

“It’s not just politics and political science, but there are other areas involved in the story [of nuclear development]’ Messell said. “I want to look back and see these unrecognized legacies.”

Another focus of the presentation will be the connection between science and military technology and how the latter drives the pursuit of the former.

Lindee said that military and defense technology affects almost all science. The Department of Defense, she explained, is the “most important potential funder” in a scientist’s life. What the Department of Defense wants shapes what scientists choose for their research, she said.

“We know how to destroy the world in the blink of an eye, but we don’t know how to save it,” Lindee said.

Lindee said she would like the audience to leave the lecture with a better understanding of defense’s role in shaping science.

“Any type of technology you’ve ever used probably has a military dimension,” she said.

Meskell agreed, adding that “even areas that seem quite distant, like archeology, have benefited from developments surrounding the atomic bomb.”

This will be another focus of the talk – how these seemingly distant fields like anthropology and archeology benefited from new techniques and processes related to nuclear development.

“Archaeology was and still is very directly linked to military technology, be it carbon-14 dating, rubidium, cesium magnetometers, underwater submarines or U2 spy planes,” Meskell said. “We really had a very close relationship with military technology.”

Meskell added that she believes it is time that students who have benefited from nuclear technology understand their history and question the ethics of their past.

“I want people to leave [from the talk] Think about why on earth so much science has been devoted to government power and how we can support science that isn’t focused on causing human harm,” Lindee said.

Nuclear weapons are something we cannot ignore, even if we have no interest in international issues, Bray said.

“The United States once had 30,000 nuclear weapons when it was possible to destroy the entire world with about seven,” Lindee said. “So why do you have 30,000?”


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