A generation of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists of science has learned from actor-network theory and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) to focus on the building of scientific institutions and facts, and from Thomas Kuhn to expect a certain historical rhythm in the evolution of scientific fields of knowledge: first, a dynamic burst of creativity (the “revolution”) as the foundational ideas of the new field are laid down; second, a period of “normal science” in which gaps are filled in as the new knowledge is institutionalized; and, finally, as puzzles emerge that cannot be fully explained by the established paradigm, a new burst of creativity as another generation redefines the fundamental precepts of the field.
In this essay, looking at three generations of nuclear weapons designers, I follow and then depart from the Kuhnian script. Although the first two generations of nuclear weapons scientists conformed perfectly to the Kuhnian storyline, the final story is not about the punctuated equilibrium of scientific revolution, but about a process of scientific involution as nuclear weapons science has simultaneously matured and withered in a way that is beautifully evoked in a blues ballad once sung for me by a group of weapons designers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:
Went down to Amarillo
Lookin’ for my sweet ’533
It was laying on a long white table
Looked cold and hard to me
Let it go, let it go, retire it
No city scrapers do we need
Take a 614 and modify it.
Call it the mod 11-E
Now you can search this whole world over
From Frisco to Albuquerque
You can mentor anyone that you want to
But you’ll never find designers like me
Now when I’m gone, just put me way down
In a hole off the old Orange Road.
’ttach a cable to my device can
So I can run those legacy codes (fading)
So I can run those legacy codes
So I can run those legacy codes.5
…The 1970s and the 1980s, when nuclear testing moved underground, were a period of routinization: the institutional apparatus for nuclear weapons design and testing grew, its scientific achievements shrank, and the arteries of the weapons design bureaucracy hardened. Attempts to perfect a third-generation nuclear weapon—the x-ray laser—failed and were abandoned in an atmosphere of scandal and disgrace.11 The art of weapons design progressed, but by increments rather than great leaps: weapons designers learned to squeeze greater yields out of smaller quantities of plutonium so that nuclear weapons could be made lighter and smaller, weapons were made safer through the addition of Permissive Action Links (PALS) and the substitution of Insensitive High Explosive (IHE) for conventional explosives,12 and the supercomputer codes used to model the behavior of nuclear weapons were gradually refined. The names of the men (and now women) behind these achievements are largely unknown outside the nuclear weapons bureaucracy, and in some cases their achievements are only partially known within the weapons laboratories, thanks to the compartmentalizing effects of official secrecy in the weapons complex.13
Nuclear tests were forbidden after the end of the Cold War, and the practice and pedagogy of nuclear weapons science shifted again. Forced to largely abandon their nuclear test site in Nevada—a place where the desert sands encroach on the old bowling alley and cinema, now disused, as tourist buses disgorge camera-laden voyeurs to gawk at the nuclear craters—many of the old-timers elected to retire. Those that stayed have regrouped their forces in the virtual world of simulated testing, where they are attempting to train a new generation of scientists to maintain devices they cannot test. In some ways the scientific challenges of nuclear weapons design have shrunk to microscopic proportions: new designs are not built or deployed, and even the decision to substitute a new epoxy in an aging weapon can send a tremor of fear through design teams unsure if their weapons will still work. In other ways, the scientific challenges are suddenly magnified: how to design implosion, shock wave, and laser fusion experiments that will shed light on the performance of aging nuclear weapons in the absence of nuclear testing? How to use the physics knowledge of today to understand test data, long buried in dusty filing cabinets, from the 1950s and the 1960s? And how to convert old two-dimensional codes designed for Cray supercomputers into three-dimensional codes that can run on massively parallel systems now being designed?