Thursday, July 16, 2009

Science as nationalism

Posted by Darin Hayton on 07/16 at 02:21 AM The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch reminds us how deeply rooted science is in particular nationalist narratives. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union struggled for supremacy through any number of surrogate conflicts. Often these contests might seem to be poor indicators for the success or failure of the two superpowers: Bobby Fischer’s famous chess match against Boris Spassky in 1972 was appropriated as a contest between the lone American hero (a sort of Horatio Alger figure) and the great evil empire (for an interesting analysis of the match, see David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s recent book Bobby Fischer Goes to War).

Perhaps the most famous of the Cold War contests was the “space race,” which began in October 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 into orbit around the earth. Four years later, on 12 April 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and the first to orbit the earth. The success of the Soviet space program shocked the United States into action. In less than a decade NASA put two men on the moon. Nobody could fail to see that the Apollo program was not only a success for science, technology, and engineering but also the triumph of the American political system over the Soviets.

Nearly every facet of the Apollo 11 mission was inextricably bound up with U.S. nationalism. For example: the lunar module was named “Eagle,” an unmistakeable reference to the national bird; the mission’s insignia shows the bald eagle carrying the olive branch as it lands on the moon; the command module that stayed in orbit around moon while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface was named Columbia, the traditional name for the U.S. used in poetry; the U.S. flag plays an important role in most of the iconic photos from the lunar landing (e.g., Armstrong’s photo of Aldrin or Aldrin’s photo of the U.S. flag on the moon’s surface).

But the Apollo 11 mission did not simply reassure the U.S. that it was better than the Soviet Union, it also distracted the public from the other pressing issues, including the Vietnam War, civil unrest and protests in 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. By putting a man on the moon, the government could refocus public attention on its successes rather than allowing the people to concentrate on its failures.

Far from some antiquarian event, the lunar program continues to play an important part in our nationalist narrative through our telling and retelling of the story. Newspapers in the United States are marking the 40th anniversary with articles and slideshows. Some of the better ones are:

NY Times:

On Hand for Space History, as Superpowers Spar

Readers’ Moon Memories

Mission to the Moon

Boston Globe:

Remembering Apollo 11

LA Times

40th Anniversary of Apollo 11

By contrast, newspapers in Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria have devoted little or no space to the anniversary.

The Apollo 11 mission is just one of many (most?) scientific endeavors that have served our nationalist agenda. Some scientific achievements have been more overtly nationalist, such as the development of the atomic bomb. Others, like Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, seem even less political than the Apollo missions but for some reason continue to tap into some collective myth of the United States. Careful analysis of these case studies will reinforce the argument that science is never merely about pushing back the boundaries of knowledge or solving intellectually challenging problems—the main reason scientists claim they chose to become scientists in the first place (see the Pew Charitable Trust’s recent findings here under “Why Science”); instead, science seems always to be political.

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