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"I think of myself as a six-foot-tall, blond, blue-eyed male" says an MIT trained physicist to an ethnographer in the waning years of the Cold War, "The work (I am doing) is quite interesting and that was definitely a consideration. But I decided to work in the lab, I think, because I had a fear of big weapons. I really wanted to see what was happening for myself. I wanted to see what was going on, rather than take other people’s word."
The speaker is in reality a much shorter, dark-haired, dark-eyed Japanese-American woman who is the only non-white member of an elite group, Warhead Designers at the Livermore National Laboratory. Sylvia (to give her her code name) is quite proud of her Japanese heritage. Her aunt had witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima and suffered radiation sickness as a consequence.
Sylvia considers herself a feminist but one who is "fighting for everybody’s rights, not just women... I think I’m protecting children. I feel as if I’m protecting the country." As a weapons scientist, she is opposed to the suspension of nuclear testing that was being strongly advocated, as that would be risky. "I would like to see testing of things that have already been built, just to make sure that nothing has happened like the quality of the sample, because things change..... I like to poke things and tear them apart. I would like these systems to be as predictable as possible."
It is the fall of 1987, and an ethnographer has chosen to live at Livermore, a small town forty miles east of San Francisco. He has gone to study the patterns of culture of an exotic but powerful tribe – those who design and test nuclear weapons. The town, though somewhat unprepossessing, has some good features for those who want to raise a family, a low crime rate, a very good school system, parks and churches. It has the second highest proportion of PhD’s per capita of any community in the US.
In standard fashion, the ethnographer sought out informants (Sylvia being one). He is struck by the diversity of political opinions and religious views. The weapons scientists included atheists, Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians, Baptists, Mormons, Evangelists and even three Buddhists.
Gusterson, H. (1995) 'Becoming a Weapons Scientist' in Technoscientific Imaginaries edited G. E. Marcus, U. Chicago Press Chicago
Gusterson, H. (1998) Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. U. California Press, Berkeley, L.A.
Many of the students who take my course have their sights set on medical school since they believe that by becoming doctors they would “help” people. This problem forced them to reconsider the meaning of that word. They realised that many scientists may become weapon designers for the same reason. The topics discussed ranged from the profile of weapons scientists, the case for and against nuclear disarmament , the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the creation of the bomb and the effects of nuclear explosions.
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