My Role in the Workshop on “Chemical Weather and Chemical Climate: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective”

I attended recently at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia a fascinating workshop, “Chemical Weather and Chemical Climate: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective.” Organized by my friend and colleague James Rodger Fleming of Colby College, Waterville, Maine, this workshop brought together nearly 40 scholars from a variety of disciplines to discuss 18 papers (6 each) on body, place and planet.

One of the student posters offered at the workshop.

My task was to comment on the six papers that related to planetary problems at the conference:

  • David DeVorkin, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, “Gaining Authority for the High Atmosphere”
  • Dania Achermann, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt, “Atmospheric chemistry at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IPA) in Germany during the Cold War”
  • Alison Kenner, RPI, “Quality Counts: Understanding Biological Agency in Air Pollution Control”
  • Linda Richards, Oregon State, “An Oregon Snapshot: Breathing Fallout”
  • Matthias Dörries, Université de Strasbourg, “Nuclear Weapons, Ozone Depletion, and Uncertainty during the Cold War”
  • Jim Fleming and Noah Bonnheim, Colby College, “Fixed Air and Fixed Sky: Wild Spirit and Wild Ideas”

Each of these papers was introduced by another participant charged with giving a synopsis of it, then with a response by the author. After discussion of each paper, I was asked to make some remarks about these with the intention of drawing them together. Each of these papers offered a unique perspective on the nature of planetary-wide perspectives relating to atmospheric chemistry. At a fundamental level they were inherently transnational in their vantage-point. At the same time, all of them took something of a U.S.-centric approach to their topics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it was certainly the case.

I then launched into three basic themes that I saw present in every one of these papers; again these are not necessarily flaws in the papers but they are worth pondering. First, each of the papers was quite personal in their approach, perhaps they were even a bit idiosyncratic. I was especially taken in two instances by this personalness. Linda Richards offered an impassioned analysis of the nature of fallout in Oregon coming from atomic testing in the 1950s. She offered a very fine paper, but it was sometimes hard to see where the work of scholarship ended and the work of advocacy started. The same was true of Allison Kenner’s paper, that was really about an effort to understand the nature of asthma and how widespread it is. She is involved in a website called “Asthmapolis” and told of an effort to incorporate GPS tracking devices on inhalers and thereby being able to aggregate information on where and when asthma attacks are taking place. This represents a fascinating possibility, but also one that I find disturbing because of privacy issues. This led some of us to ask what other possibilities existed for tracking people’s activities that might not have already been implemented. There were several suggestions which I won’t go into here.

Not everything was serious. Here I am on a 3D image that was a lot of fun.

Second, each of these papers discussed issues of authority and power and compilance. We debated issues of who decides what, how, and why. How is a decision accepted and made acceptable in society. Who has the authority to dispense decisions/perspectives/ideas for society as a whole. David DeVorkin’s paper dealt with this issue directly. One of the most important issues in any technical endeavor is having a standard set of specifications, measurements, etc., for those involved in the project. Who gets to decide what those standards are. Who has the authority to make these decisions. In DeVorkin’s case there was a debate over who set standards for atmospheric measurements, U.S. or European entities? The fight took place for years and was quite difficult before it was finally worked out through international negotiation.

Third, all of the papers related in a multi-faceted manner to the related issues of politics, polities, and policies. The History Department of the Johns Hopkins University had on its wall in the 19th century the statement, “History is Past Politics, Politics is Present History.” Those of us brought up on the new social history thought that a bit of a simplistic statement, but I’m not so sure anymore. All of these papers, indeed all of them at the conference, really embraced thisa concept. Politics seemed to be the common lens through which everything was viewed and changed. Much of the discussion revolved around power politics and the role it played in shaping policy.

Of course, the entire conference was really quite fascinating. I want to thank Jim Fleming for organizing it and for inviting me to participate. I also am always pleased to see what happens when a broad group of people come together for a workshop such as this. We represent different disciplines, perspectives, geographies, and places in our careers. Yet we emerged from the event with a lot of new ideas that may be applied. I took a lot of notes, coming up with several ideas for questions that I wouls like to pursue in my own field of space history. We’ll see what happens.

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2 Responses to My Role in the Workshop on “Chemical Weather and Chemical Climate: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective”

  1. What precisely honestly moved u to write “My Role in
    the Workshop on Chemical Weather and Chemical Climate: Body, Place,
    Planet in Historical Perspective | Roger Launius’s Blog”? I personallyreally enjoyed reading the post! Thanks -Ruben


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