Brown Bag Lecture: “Atomic Trauma and New Territory: The Rise of Nuclear Geochemistry at the University of Chicago”

Brown Bag Lecture icon
Date: March 27, 2012
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free

A Talk by Matthew Shindell

The University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies, born in the aftermath of World War II and the success of the Manhattan Project, became home to some of the brightest stars of nuclear chemistry and physics. It also became home to pioneering work in the application of nuclear techniques to the earth and planetary sciences. Analyzing the postwar paleotemperature research program of Harold C. Urey, one of the founding members of the institute and a pioneer in the field of isotope geochemistry, I make the following arguments: the traumatic experience of wartime atomic work turned Urey away from the development of isotope separation techniques and toward the use of stable isotopes in answering fundamental questions about the earth and planets; and the institute, which brought together the interests and support of the university, industry, and emergent Cold War funding agencies, became an ideal place for the development of Urey’s new research program. Along the way I also address the development of new mass spectrometers and spectrometry techniques at the University of Chicago that occurred under Urey and his associates. I argue that this technology did not simply emerge fully developed from the war to dictate what research could be done at the institute but rather that the technology developed alongside the research programs and that their development required a dedicated group of advocates within the field in order to promote their usefulness.

Matthew Shindell received his Ph.D. in history of science from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Department of History and Science Studies Program in 2011. His dissertation, “The New Prophet: Harold C. Urey, Scientist, Atheist, and Defender of Religion,” was supported by grants from UCSD, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Shindell is now an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the UCSD history department, working on a study of the National Research Council’s expert assessment process. This work is part of the NSF-funded collaborative research project, “Assessing Assessments: A Historical and Philosophical Study of Scientific Assessments for Environmental Policy in the Late 20th Century.” In 2013 Shindell will take up a second postdoctoral fellowship co-located within the University of Southern California Department of History and the Huntington Library.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

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