Science is a human activity

Victor Weisskopf, the Nobel laureate, used this expression in a retrospective of the 40th anniversary of the founding of Los Alamos National Laboratory. C.P. Snow has elegantly discussed the void between “Two Cultures”, sciences and the humanities.

But the UC-LANL entity is of multicultural, not biocultural origin; it is really communities of diverse peoples, often conflicting in values, language, goals, etiquette, even dress.

The University of California/Los Alamos National Laboratory is multicultural in that a greater divide exists between the University and the Laboratory than that between disciplines, such that it interferes with cross-institutional collaboration of people within the same academic cultural origin.

There are two further senses of multicultural which are overlooked in discussions of “science” and “society”, even explicitly so in the University’s own rhetoric, such as the 1989 Science advertisement for a “Coordinator [to] promote… research between Laboratory staff and campus faculty and students…” [emphasis added]. Above all else, Los Alamos National Laboratory is a community of people: who are “technical” and “support” employees, “staff” with a status enhancing “S” on the badge and “nonexempt”, paid by the University of California and by Johnson Controls and PTLA.

But essential to its very establishment and to the continuing of a fundamental, generative (life-enhancing) core of its existence, Los Alamos National Laboratory is a community of diverse peoples who themselves have lived among los alamos for thousands of years, made the pilgrimage of Holy Week for hundreds of years, took over the Boys Ranch five decades ago, and graduated from our universities this spring.

It is only because of the Pueblo way of life, its successful adaptation to the upper Rio Grande and its consequent influence on later arriving cultures, that the world has seen in the past 50 years—

  • nuclear weapons used only twice for mass destruction and
  • up to now, such irresponsible and criminal acts of betrayal to the environment, employee safety, and community health on the scale of Rocky Flats and Hanford occurred there, and not in New Mexico.

But, the Laboratory’s core being can be overwhelmed or disintegrated through even small ignorant changes in institutional management, compounding those of the past. It can be demonstrated scientifically that the basic support for those who challenge assumptions and directions, who push for quality and meaning of research and policy at Laboratory and national levels, has come from the essential human ecology of the Pajarito Plateau, Rio Grande Valley, and Jemez Mountains.

In 1986, the Laboratory director argued that he would not add a cultural scientist to the Laboratory staff because “I already have four political scientists” to tell him what was going on in Washington, DC. Less than three years later, the Secretary of Energy in his nomination testimony said there had to be a cultural revolution in the national nuclear weapons complex. To date, the UC-LANL director, and the Laboratory, still has difficulty using this elementary science term correctly in a sentence, equating something as one-dimensional as “safety” or “open” to all the richness and complexity of Pueblo or Hispano culture. The Laboratory’s new environmental ethic is demonstrated by the new water tank blocking one’s first view of the magnificent Jemez-someone did think to decorate it with the 50th anniversary logo.

In 1985, the Laboratory director, in a colloquium on creativity in science, Management’s Challenge: Nurturing Creativity At Work, responded unfavorably to the suggestion that freedom of choice in research or even when to do research tasks, such as that enjoyed by postdoctoral fellows and Laboratory Fellows, might be extended for a short period to a larger segment of the staff as a reward for creativity, in addition to the traditional salary and certificates. The Director would not consider this for fear that at a mission-oriented Laboratory, members might wish to do “irrelevant studies such as poetry”.

In 1986, the Laboratory director said the only reason there was a life sciences division at the Laboratory was because there was a Nobel prize in the field, and the Laboratory needed someone who could keep up with the news from that area. In 1989, UC looked for a liaison between LANL and the University in order to enhance UC-LANL interactions. In responding to the question of whether the very few women who had applied were from the life sciences, the Office of the University of California President answered yes, “but, of course [those sciences] are irrelevant” to UC-LANL.

In 1986, a senior Laboratory scientist wrote to the head of the UC-LANL Center for National Security Studies of the need to overcome barriers between scientists (and their institutions) and the general public, “this hostility to science as the enemy….” He went on to say “To call the problem educational is to underestimate it…. It has not always been thus, and it may be possible for science to rejoin the human family…. [A program such as human ecology] could make a contribution to this problem, which is one of the most serious problems that the Laboratory or science itself faces for its own survival”.

Northern New Mexico people do value the statement “Los Alamos National Laboratory operated by the University of California”.

But the relationship must be revitalized to become more relevant than a letterhead graphic, an exchange between senior management, and a news item every five years about faculty discussions. From a single mission at its origin, the collaboration must realize its multidimensional responsibilities for the future. The current interaction of laboratory, university, and community is not successful.

It is a University’s responsibility to remind all of us that “beauty”, “charm”, and “elegance” are also attributes of sub-atomic particles and theoretical physics; that the sensitive dependence on initial conditions of non-linear dynamic systems is a “butterfly effect”; that the behavior of coherent light (LASER) is described by the language of mathematics and within Diné view of nature; that some of the finest contemporary art is done at home in Santa Clara by those Lab employees that separate our transuranic waste. It is time UC-LANL turned to its cultural roots.

(c) M. Pamela Bumsted 1989, 1993


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2 responses to “Science is a human activity

  1. My points in this essay were–

    * it’s bad science (incomplete science)to ignore or misunderstand how science is actually done

    * it’s dangerous for the DOE and UC-LANL to overlook or misrepresent science

    * it’s bad science to manage a community (of science or anything else) as if it were a business (see also, MANAGING THE UNMANAGEABLE. Authors: Crease, Robert P. Samios, Nicholas P. Source: Atlantic Monthly; Jan91, Vol. 267 Issue 1, p80, 8p , Subject Terms: *RESEARCH *SCIENCE Geographic Terms:UNITED States NAICS/Industry Codes:5417 Scientific Research and Development Services, Abstract: Focuses on basic science research in the United States. Missions of applied and basic research; Cultural impact of scientific research; Aim of science management; Origin of administrative contracts in the United States.)

    Here are sources of additional information on CP Snow’s essays–

    * http://academics.vmi.edu/gen_ed/Two_Cultures.html Web sites relating to the Snow-Leavis Controversy

    * http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/ SCIENCE IN CULTURE portal at Bryn Mawr College

    * http://jonchristensen.typepad.com/uneasychair/2005/02/beyond_two_cult_1.html Beyond Two Cultures

  2. Pingback: Anthropology in a climate of change, war, and internecine environments « Biocultural Science & Management