Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Scientific Peak: How Boulder Became a World Center for Space and Atmospheric Science”


The Scientific Peak-Front cover-05A Scientific Peak: How Boulder Became a World Center for Space and Atmospheric Science. By Joseph R. Bassi. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2015. Abbreviations and acronyms, archives consulted, foreword, acknowledgments, images, notes, index. 246 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-935704-85-0. $35.00 USD.

Joseph P. Bassi, now assistant professor of arts and sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, has been investigating the building of scientific institutions dedicated to the study of meteorology for more than twenty years. This book, a revised version of his dissertation, provides a window into the establishment and evolution of several such organizations in the picturesque Rocky Mountain city of Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado. In the Cold War era a large number of scientific research centers sprang up around the university. These include most importantly the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and two units of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Coupled with those federal research facilities were a series of private sector firms supporting these scientific pursuits, especially IBM, Lockheed Martin, and Ball Aerospace.

This is fundamentally a history of a “city of knowledge,” but not in the way that planned cities of the Cold War era emerged in such places as Los Alamos, New Mexico, or the “Research Triangle” of North Carolina. Like those more structured entities, this research city grew up around the University of Colorado. It became the anchor tenant in the endeavor, but so much of what took place there has been less about the university than about Federal investment. It also grew like topsy over time. Bassi spends considerable time asking questions about this process. For example, is there some type of formula for turning a place such as Boulder into a scientific research capital? What role did the various actors place in creating this center place for Earth systems science?

Bassi notes how business leaders, politicians, and science leaders worked tirelessly, sometimes together and too often at cross purposes, to ensure the advance of this “city of knowledge.”  In the end, a combination of capital, leaders, skilled workers, and institutions—supported by sufficient capital investment largely from the Federal government—succeeded in establishing a “mecca” of scientific investigation and output.

While the requirements of the military during the Cold War prompted the building of this institutional framework at Boulder, it served needs far beyond national security. Over time the federally-funded NCAR, NIST, and NOAA transformed both Boulder, Colorado, and the nature of scientific understanding. Between the 1940s and 1960s the modern research center emerged in Boulder, one committed to climate science.

Bassi’s study is relatively straightforward, following in the footsteps of the work of W. Stuart Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (1994); Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (2003), and Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (2004). It offers a creative synthesis of broader versus local perspectives combined with an examination of tensions between public and private entities whose objectives were often allied, but not always so.

Unlike those other works, Bassi offers a narrative that is largely positive. It is a story of progress, writ large, his contribution is a generally positive assessment of innovative scientists, local leaders, and other supporters. There is little of the critique apparent in those other works. For example, Leslie makes the case that government contracts changed the nature of university research, focusing attention in certain areas of immediate use to the entities supporting them. He emphasizes how this compromised intellectual inquiry. No doubt the same happened in Boulder, but perhaps in not quite the same way.

A Scientific Peak makes an important contribution by laying out the creation of a climate science community. I welcome its publication. I’m looking forward to other similar studies of research centers and their relation to the communities in which they reside. For example, I would dearly love to see a related work on Huntsville, Alabama, the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Any takers?

 

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Scientific Peak: How Boulder Became a World Center for Space and Atmospheric Science”

  1. Pingback: (More) remedial reading: three remarkable books, and a call to action. | Living on the Real World

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