Written by on December 4, 2015

Cal Poly Authors: Scientists at War

On Friday Nov. 6, Kennedy Library welcomed History Department assistant professor Sarah Bridger and Shelley Hurt, an associate professor in the Political Science Department to discuss Bridger’s new book Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research.

Inspiration for the Book

During this casual conversation, Bridger reflected on the origins of her research into the history of ethics for 20th century science.

As an undergraduate at Brown University, Bridger focused her research on labor history.

“Labor history may seem like a far field from the topic of Cold War science but in retrospect these two topics have a lot in common,” Bridger said. “We don’t think of nuclear physicists as workers or as part of labor history but we probably should.”

According to Bridger the questions she was asking about labor history were very similar to the questions she asks in her book.

“The questions that I was asking about labor history had a lot to do with how people think about what they’re doing. How do you understand your labor in a context larger than yourself?” Bridger added.

Another experience that shaped Bridger’s research interests was her stint as a professional investigator. In between undergraduate and graduate school, Bridger worked as a professional investigator for the city of New York investigating police misconduct cases.

“I think that job in retrospect oriented me to think about questions of ethics and questions of professionalism in ways I maybe wasn’t fully aware of,” Bridger said.

The Impact of being a Scientist

One of the defining features of Bridger’s work according to the author is the sharing the perspective of scientists grappling with ethical dilemmas rather than philosophers or political scientists confronting these issues.

“I wanted to examine how scientists themselves have thought about questions of ethics as they relate to their own research,” Bridger said. “How do they generate and debate these ideas and how do they act in response to these ideas.”

From a historical standpoint, Bridger and Shelley also talked about the era Bridger focuses on her in book.

“The heart of the book looks at the Vietnam War era,” according to Bridger.

Instead of focusing on the notorious Manhattan Project, Bridger deals with the period after the Manhattan Project to answer the question: “What happened to the Manhattan Project Generation?” In addition, Bridger felt the escalating conflict in Vietnam spawned a lot of ethical challenges. “[The War in Vietnam] created a second moment of ethical crisis,” according to Bridger.

Scientists Today

“One of the big themes that runs throughout Professor Bridger’s book is how scientists in these different eras tried to navigate this difficult terrain,” Shelley said.

During the conversation, Shelley also asked Bridger how she would advise today’s young scientists based on her research.

“Having some transparency and some democratic deliberation is almost always a good thing,” Bridger advised.


Listen to the podcast below for more of the conversation between Bridger and Shelley:




Read more on cal poly authors, cold war, and Science.

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