No Half-life: My Atomic Origins

Andrew LeaBy Andrew Lea

On a cool spring morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I met with Steven Shapin over a cup of coffee to discuss his distinguished career in the history of science. Shapin, the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, belongs to an early cohort of historians of science who entered the field prior to its professional elaboration throughout the late 20th century—before it developed anything like its current clear career structure, independent training programs, and its well-defined canon. “I was taught by people, some of whom were essentially amateurs,” he explained. “They were certainly admirable and able, but only one or two people who taught me had had training in the history of science; the rest had drifted in from other fields.”

From the time of Shapin’s early years as a graduate trainee, among the greatest transformations in the history of science, intellectual changes aside, has been the field’s professionalization. “The professionalization of the field,” Shapin told me, “has made it such that people know what the field is and they know what they’re getting into.” What brought Shapin into the history of science, then, was a burning interest in certain questions about science and knowledge—questions combined, of course, with a dose of serendipity, or as he put it, “a set of happy accidents.”

As much as the history of science has evolved as an independent discipline, I can’t help but dwell on a basic similarity between Shapin’s path into the field and my own: even today, not many students spend their high school years hoping to be a “historian of science.” Most historians of science, whether seasoned or aspiring, stumbled into the field in one way or another.

Stumbling often makes for vivid stories of professional development—a reflection of the simple fact that circuitous paths tend to be more interesting than linear ones. My own path is one that took shape in a small town with an enormous historical legacy.

On August 9, 1945, a four-engine heavy bomber carried the atomic bomb dubbed “Fat Man” into Japanese airspace. The bomb’s destination, Nagasaki, is permanently embedded within public memory; it is, however, the bomb’s point of origin, the plutonium production plant at Hanford, Washington, in the Northwest of the U.S. that is permanently embedded within mine. I grew up at this node of the Manhattan Project, among the scattered testaments of the city’s nuclear legacy.

While the nuclear reactors at Hanford were entombed and decommissioned well before my birth, their legacy remained all around me, integrated into the city’s local identity and preserved in its urban design, economic character, and natural environment. I encountered this legacy not only in the city’s national research laboratories and its eccentric street and shop names (e.g., “Proton Lane” and “Atomic Ale Brewpub”) but also, and more unnervingly, in its ongoing nuclear cleanup effort, the largest in U.S. history. In short, I grew up in a town where the production of scientific knowledge interfaced with cultural identities, social processes, and human lives in very real and tangible ways. Inherently in my upbringing, and now deliberately in my academic pursuits, I grapple with the ethical and social contours of scientific knowledge.

The more I delved into my city’s history, the more I found my interests resisting conventional disciplinary boundaries. I soon became as interested in the scientific challenges behind manufacturing the plutonium bomb as I was in the ethical questions around the decision to deploy such a bomb. It was by way of these questions—questions spanning scientific, historical, and ethical domains—that I arrived in the history of science. Since few questions are totally foreign to the history and philosophy of science and since interdisciplinarity is built into the field’s very core, I, like many others, turned to the field as a way of engaging with science in all of its richness and complexity.

It is the practice of the historian of science to point out the contexts and contingencies of scientific knowledge. Science, we continuously remind others, is more than a catalogue of natural facts; it is a human activity, situated in and textured by its historical moment.

As I reflect on my own intellectual trajectory, I have come to appreciate how the work of the historian can be just as situated as the work of the scientist. Certainly historians should not confine themselves to studying the past solely through the narrow prisms of their own lived experiences—the past is thick, layered, and varied. Some of these layers of history will manifest differently in the eyes of different people. Inevitably, my background has guided—and will continue to guide—the questions I ask and the answers I give as a historian. My atomic origins have no half-life.

Raised in Richland, Washington, Andrew Lea graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University in May 2014 with a degree in History and Science and a minor in the Studies of Mind, Brain, and Behavior. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, Andrew was awarded the Sophia Freund Prize for graduating as the highest ranked undergraduate in his class. His undergraduate thesis explored the mainstreaming of sex reassignment surgery in the United States through the 20th century. This research received top university honors, including the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarly research, the Robert and Maurine Rothschild Prize for the best thesis in the field of the history of science, and the Patricia King Fellowship for its creativity and intellectual promise.

As the editor-in-chief of Synthesis, the only undergraduate journal of the history of science nationally, Andrew co-sponsored an exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History organized around the question of how art and artistic production can rework and reimagine the established conventions of natural history as represented by the museum. Outside of the history of science, he has served as a patient advocate at the Boston Medical Center, a supervisor at various Cambridge homeless shelters, and a senior editor of the Harvard College Global Health Review. This fall, Andrew will begin graduate work in the history of science and medicine at the University of Oxford with the support of a Rhodes Scholarship. In this personal essay, Andrew explores the history that preceded his intellectual interests in the ethical and social dimensions of scientific knowledge.