2012 Honors Day Address: David Hecht

“Telling Stories About Science”
Assistant Professor of History David Hecht

Assistant Professor of History David Hecht delivered the following remarks during the 16th annual Honors Day ceremony recognizing the college-wide academic and extracurricular achievements of Bowdoin students and faculty. The ceremony was held May 9, 2012, at Kanbar Auditorium, Studzinski Recital Hall.

Thank you very much. I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to President Mills, to Dean Judd, to my colleagues on the faculty and staff, and to the students. One of the great pleasures of Honors Day is to see students that I have taught, or otherwise know, receive recognition for their work. It is equally satisfying to learn about students that I don’t know, but who have been doing similarly great work across the disciplines. It serves a wonderful reminder of the intellectual vibrancy of Bowdoin that there is too much first-rate intellectual activity going on for any one person to see on a daily basis.

David Hecht

It is therefore a great honor for me to be here. It is also, in a curious way, a problem. You see, I am supposed to craft a talk related to my research. But my research, as some of you know, is not exactly what I would consider conducive to a happy occasion such as this. I study the atomic bomb. And my suspicion is that it would not be the best idea if I were to preface a celebration of your academic achievements by telling you, in detail, about thermonuclear war.

I was expressing this dilemma to a colleague, who teaches in the English Department here. She suggested — with what balance of humor and seriousness I’m still not sure — that I could talk about nuclear weapons in terms of … the common good. I laughed. But then I thought: that’s brilliant. I can absolutely do that. I think that I really can make the link between the atomic bomb and the common good. And, even if I can’t, I’m sure everyone will have fun watching me try. So here I go.

My research is in the history of science, specifically, public attitudes toward science. What do people think about science, and why do they think it? In particular, I am interested in the role of narratives — that is, stories — in shaping these opinions. How do we tell stories about science? What gets included, and what gets left out? Who tells them, on which occasions, and in what forms? And what sorts of meanings or perspectives on science do they convey?

Take for example — and it is not a happy example — a classic question about the atomic bomb: was its use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? As a historian of cultural narratives, I am not particularly interested in adjudicating which of the many perspectives on this matter is correct. Instead, I am interested in the stories that are told about why the bombings occurred. To take one such story: it is often claimed that the atomic bombs saved lives. By ending the war quickly, this narrative goes, both the United States and Japan were spared the high casualties that would have accompanied an American invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Whether or not this claim is true, it seems clear that it was advanced more loudly in the postwar years than during the war itself. Claims about lives saved, therefore, have to be read as stories that were produced after the fact, as part of retrospective justification of the decision to use the bombs. This is a common pattern. In fact, all stories about science are told with some mix of cultural, political, and personal commentary. This is the first way that narratives are useful in studying public attitudes toward science. Such stories invariably reflect and shape public opinion, and so analyzing the nature of a given tale helps reveal what these attitudes are.

A second utility of narratives is to reveal surprising patterns underlying cultural discourse. Quite apart from the meaning of specific stories, narratives enable us to ask why we debate issues under the terms that we do. There is a curious and frankly disturbing similarity between defenders and critics of the use of the bomb. In each case, telling the story of the atomic bomb is a way of using it to stand in for the myriad moral issues war raises. By presenting the atomic bomb as the anomaly to be explained — whether positively or negatively — we obscure other ethical and historical issues involved in the bombing of civilian populations; and that is a line militaries crossed well before Hiroshima. There is thus something oddly comforting — again, even for critics — in assailing the atomic bomb decision as something unique in the annals of warfare.

By saying this, I do not mean to challenge the saliency of nuclear weapons as a political issue. They should be — and, in fact, I’m personally pretty worried about the consequences that might befall us if nuclear weapons fade from public view along with our active memory of the Cold War with which they were so long associated. But I do think that it is interesting to consider what is placed on the table — and what is taken off it — by exploring how atomic bombs came to hold the almost mythical position they do. A similar sort of analysis on a different topic involves the nature-nurture debate, which has been remarkably culturally persistent despite a mountain of evidence complicating the binary it suggests. Beyond the content of particular opinions on this question lies a deeper issue: why do we frame the debate in this way? What is at stake politically, culturally or intellectually in the very attempt to construct individual identity as something traceable to such specific and identifiable causal factors?

Finally, since narratives tend to assume comprehensibility of their subject, they make a gesture toward simplicity. Paul Fussell, one of the most articulate defenders of the decision to drop the atomic bomb, nevertheless qualified his support with a nod toward the almost irreducible ambiguity of the issue. In his classic essay “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” a version of which he first published in 1981, Fussell wrote that “the atom-bombing of Japan was a vast historical tragedy, and every passing year magnifies the dilemma into which it has lodged the contemporary world.” The notion of tragedy was key for him. “There are two sides,” he wrote, “that’s why it’s a tragedy instead of a disaster — and unless we are … simple-mindedly unimaginative and cruel, we will be painfully aware of both sides at once.”

It is this complexity that I’d like to dwell on for just a minute. I’m currently finishing a book manuscript on the public image of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer. For those of you unfamiliar with his name, Oppenheimer was the director of a key atomic bomb laboratory during World War II. For his work at this laboratory and subsequent prominence as a policy advisor, public intellectual, and general statesman of science, Oppenheimer has been dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb.”

He was also a very complex and elusive personality; this is perhaps why scores of novelists, filmmakers, and artists have been drawn to his story. Oppenheimer could not quite resolve his own stance toward science’s proper place in the world after Hiroshima. He could neither articulate regret about his role in nuclear weapons work, nor wholeheartedly advocate the new national security state. He could neither reject science nor forget what the war had revealed about its potentialities.

Little in Oppenheimer’s life had prepared him for the challenges of the postwar world. He had been educated at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, an institution that aimed to instill students with a progressive and intellectually rigorous education designed specifically to make them leaders capable of harnessing their learning in the service of the common good. The phrase “common good” was not used, but the core principles ran quite parallel to the tradition at Bowdoin.

What Oppenheimer, and others, faced after the war was a situation in which wrestling with the common good was not as easy it appeared. In an ideal world, working toward the common good would be a fairly straightforward matter, requiring only the finding of time and the application of effort. But it does not always work that way. We often are forced to reckon with the common good in non-ideal situations, in ones in which there may be no totally comfortable course of action. Several years after World War II, for example, Oppenheimer found himself arguing for the development of small, tactical nuclear weapons that could be used in conventional battlefield situations. This actually increased the likelihood of their future use. But it decreased the chances of a much larger, all-out nuclear catastrophe with scores of more powerful weapons. Whether Oppenheimer was right to advocate for such a position, I don’t know. But I sympathize with the dilemma he faced, and the fact that the common good held no easy answer for him.

I’m leery of drawing too facile a link between my research as I’ve presented it today and a message that I might offer you, appropriate to this occasion. But I will leave with you this thought: stories are ways of dealing with complexity. They are ways of acknowledging that reality is composed of uncertainty, contingency, and ambiguity — but also that we need to make sense of this messiness somehow. In my own work on public images, I’m intrigued by the relationship between narrative and scientific ways of understanding the world. The intellectual intricacies that motivate each of you are no doubt different. But I would imagine that central to the achievements for which you are being honored today is the embrace of the complex reality beneath surface explanations. This is an important and commendable skill, as you enter a world that loves stories, but is too subtle to be fully captured by them.

Congratulations!

Thank you.