Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War

Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War


By (author) Hugh Gusterson

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  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Format: Paperback | 392 pages
  • Dimensions: 152mm x 226mm x 24mm | 499g
  • Publication date: 10 February 1998
  • Publication City/Country: Berkerley
  • ISBN 10: 0520213734
  • ISBN 13: 9780520213739
  • Edition statement: Revised ed.
  • Sales rank: 255,879

Product description

Based on fieldwork at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - the facility that designed the neutron bomb and the warhead for the MX missile - "Nuclear Rites" takes the reader deep inside the top-secret culture of a nuclear weapons lab. Exploring the scientists' world of dark humor, ritualized secrecy, and disciplined emotions, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson uncovers the beliefs and values that animate their work. He discovers that many of the scientists are Christians, deeply convinced of the morality of their work, and a number are liberals who opposed the Vietnam War and the Reagan-Bush agenda. Gusterson also examines the anti-nuclear movement, concluding that the scientists and protesters are alike in surprising ways, with both cultures reflecting the hopes and anxieties of an increasingly threatened middle class. In a lively, wide-ranging account, Gusterson analyzes the ethics and politics of laboratory employees, the effects of security regulations on the scientists' private lives, and the role of nuclear tests - beyond the obvious scientific one - as rituals of initiation and transcendence. He shows how the scientists learn to identify in an almost romantic way with the power of the machines they design - machines they do not fear. In the 1980s the 'world behind the fence' was thrown into crisis by massive anti-nuclear protests at the gates of the lab and by the end of the Cold War. Gusterson links the emergence of the anti-nuclear movement to shifting gender roles and the development of postindustrial capitalism.

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Author information

Hugh Gusterson is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Science Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Review quote

"Reading this fascinating and fairly written book is the best way to understand the moral dilemma that has haunted the inventors of high explosives, from Alfred Nobel to J. Robert Oppenheimer. . . . An anthropologist with a keen sense of humor, Gusterson illuminates this thorough study with poignant details."--Roger Rapoport, "San Francisco Chronicle

Editorial reviews

If you've ever wondered what it is that makes nuclear weapons scientists - as opposed to their products - tick, look no further than this excellent and original study from an authority in the field, anthropologist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Hugh Gusterson. After becoming an anti-nuclear activist in the 1980s, in San Francisco, Gusterson soon realized that he was more interested in studying the whys and wherefores of nuclear weaponry than in winning his argument. This book sets out his findings, starting with his arrival at the US nuclear site Livermore in 1987 to conduct fieldwork. He includes numerous accounts from those working in the industry, such as that of a young US weapons designer, Richard, who reveals: 'If you get a degree in physics, there's almost nowhere to get a job where you're not part of the military-industrial complex.' Gusterson deals with the process of becoming a nuclear scientist, the secrecy involved, the traumas of testing and the touchpoints of crisis. His work is not designed so much to enlighten those already knowledgeable about nuclear science, but rather to develop a much wider critique of the way in which the industry has evolved, and why it functions in the way that it does. (Kirkus UK)

Back cover copy

"An extremely important work. . . . It demonstrates the power that ethnographic analysis can have when directed at an examination of our own society's central nervous system."--Faye Ginsburg, author of "Contested Lives"Essential reading for anyone trying to understand what Cold War science was in all its cultural aspects and what this same science now in transformation might yet be."--George E. Marcus, co-editor of "The Traffic in Culture