Hugh Gusterson: Who Are Nuclear Weapons Scientists? (Full Transcript)

Watch and read here the full transcript of anthropologist Hugh Gusterson’s TEDx Talk: Who Are Nuclear Weapons Scientists? at TEDxFoggyBottom conference.

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Hugh Gusterson – Anthropologist

I’m an anthropologist. When you think of anthropologists, you think of people who study cannibals in New Guinea, people in grass skirts in Samoa. I’ve spent my career as an anthropologist studying American nuclear weapons scientists. I wanted to know why someone, when they graduate from university would want to give the rest of their life to designing weapons that could kill millions of people, what it feels like to do that for a living, what effect it has on people and how they talk about it.

So, towards the end of the Cold War, I started talking to weapons scientists of the Lawrence Livermore Lab, about an hour east of San Francisco. I’ve also spent time at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, where the weapons scientists designed the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This resulted in a couple of books: Nuclear Rites and People of the Bomb, and I’m just finishing up a third book on the nuclear weapons labs this summer.

Anthropologists like to hang out with the people they study, they like to follow them around, listen to what they say, watch what they do, write it all down in notebooks. I obviously could not do that with the weapons scientists. They work behind that barbed wire fence. They have top secret clearances, which I didn’t have. So except from being allowed to go to the cafeteria at the lab, I wasn’t allowed inside the lab.

So, how do you study people when you can’t follow them to work? Well, I did a lot of interviews. When I arrived in Livermore, I knew one person. He was the son of a nuclear weapons scientist, and he introduced me to his father. His father was kind enough to invite me to his house and spent three hours telling me his life story. At the end of that evening he said, “Tomorrow I’ll call you with the names and phone numbers of five colleagues,” which he did. And they referred me to other people. So soon I had dozens of nuclear weapons scientists, willing to talk to me.

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I also moved into housing, that I shared with people who worked at the lab. Over a couple years I lived in three different homes, with three different people, who worked at the lab. I went to church every Sunday if I could, met lots of weapons scientists at church and tried to get to know the ministers, who had to minister the congregations full of nuclear weapons scientists. Spent a lot of time in bars and cafes, ran up quite a bar tab. And I even joined a baseball team and a basketball team in the lab sports league to get to know people that way.

So, what kind of people are nuclear weapons scientists? And before I answer this, I want to pause a moment and invite you to imagine what you think the answer will be. What are your stereotypes? What kind of people do you think they are?

So, I assumed that they would be right-winged republicans. And I was wrong. More of them were liberal than conservative, some of them had protested the Vietnam War as students, they’d been active in the civil rights movement, they gave to environmental causes, they supported women’s rights. Now, some were conservatives as well, but most of the ones I got to know actually were liberals. Vastly more of them were men than women, and that represents the demographics of American physics.

About 70% of the weapon scientists I talked to were active Christians, in mainline denominations: Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians. There are quite a number of Jews as well, quite a lot of Mormons — there’s a big Mormon church in Livermore — and a couple of Buddhists.

So, they weren’t political ideologues, they didn’t do this because they felt passionately hostile to Communism. They didn’t do it because they were ultra-nationalist Americans. They did it out of a kind of pragmatic sense. If you asked them, “Do nuclear weapons keep the peace?” They thought that they were making devices that just pragmatically forced countries to behave themselves, and not attack each other.

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So, when I asked them, when they came out of grad school, why they decided to accept a job at a nuclear weapons lab, they didn’t talk much about the politics of it. They didn’t say, “Well, I really wanted to design nuclear weapons.” They talked about the attractive ambiance of the lab, this laid-back atmosphere. You didn’t have to wear a tie to work. There’s this strong emphasis on team work. The lab had cutting-edge technology, super computers, the latest lasers, and so on.

I interviewed a professor at a university, who trained a number of people who went on to work at the weapons labs. And he commented that it was a kind of paradox that it was his kinder, gentler students who went on to become weapons scientists. He told me that the cut-throat, aggressive, ultra-competitive students went on to become professors.

And what did they say about the ethics of their work? In every life history, as I was gathering it, I would ask them, “So, do you think about the ethics of your work when you’re offered the job? Did you work through that?” And over and over again, I heard the same thing, “You know, you’re so lucky that you’re talking to me, because I think about the ethics of my work, but my colleagues don’t think about it like I do.”

So I soon realized that the people were thinking about the ethics of the work, but the lab didn’t create a space where they could talk about that collectively.

As I hinted, they believe that nuclear weapons keep the peace and save lives. I made a point of asking weapons scientists, “Do you think weapons you work on will ever be used?” And they said, “No, of course not.” I asked if they had nightmares about nuclear war. “No, of course not.”