The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge is well known as a center of play and learning for the young and young at heart. The museum’s lesser-known collections of historic papers recently brought a senior academic historian from Scotland to Oak Ridge for several days of research.
Professor Sean Johnston, a professor of science, technology, and social studies from the Dumfries Campus of the University of Glasgow, searched through the papers of Alvin Weinberg, former director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as part of a two-year project funded by the British Academy titled “Trusting the Technological Fix.”
His visit highlights the value of the collections the museum began gathering in the 1970s to tell the cultural and social history of the area for its Regional Appalachian Center.
“Not only was Weinberg the prominent head of the national laboratory (1955-73), and very much a member of the establishment, but he was somebody who was curious and worried about the wider social implications of nuclear technology,” Johnston said.
“That was really quite unusual. I want to see how his ideas germinated and developed and how he began to influence people,” Johnston said.
Another remarkable thing about Weinberg, Johnston added, was that he influenced wide numbers of people in different fields, publishing dozens of articles in different journals of broad interest well beyond nuclear physics.
“His essays are cited for graduate students to read, not in physics, but in social sciences. That, in itself, is unique,” Johnston said of Weinberg’s continued relevance today, adding that he didn’t know of any other scientist who had such influence beyond his field of science.
Among terms and ideas Weinberg generated were “big science,” his term for the science ORNL did after World War II, and the “technological fix,” Johnston said.
Technological fix refers to the use of technological innovation to solve human problems, such as poverty or illness, Johnston explained, taking technology beyond just making better machines. For example, if an individual has a heart problem and expects a drug to fix it, that’s a technological fix, Johnston said, as opposed to changing diet and lifestyle.
“He was a vocal technological optimist. That is one reason he is still talked about today,” he added.
Weinberg was also very tuned into how to get his messages across and how to make academic impact, in a way others weren’t doing in the 1960s.
Johnston’s visit began with Margaret Allard, Children’s Museum exhibit designer, leading him on a tour of the museum’s exhibits related to the Manhattan Project and then to the large Weinberg collection. Then Tim Gawne, ORNL archives and records conservator in the Office of the Director, helped Johnston search the museum’s Weinberg collection for evidence of the scientist’s network: who he was talking to and who he confided in, including Eugene Wigner. Wigner was named research director of Clinton Laboratories (which became ORNL in 1948) in 1946 and a winner of the 1963 Nobel prize in physics.
Gawne directed Johnston to two file drawers of Weinberg and Wigner’s correspondence, noting that Wigner, senior to Weinberg, saw something in the younger scientist and promoted him to be director of physics at Clinton Laboratories. As the relationship evolved after Wigner left the national lab in 1947 to return to Princeton, the two men mentored each other and developed a close friendship. They co-authored a book in 1957-58.
When Weinberg left the national lab in 1973, he moved his papers with him to Oak Ridge Associated Universities. At some point, he split his collection, giving his papers from 1974 back to the Children’s Museum, and those from 1974 forward to ORAU.
Later, the ORAU papers were given to the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, where Johnston also did research while in East Tennessee.
Weinberg’s friendship with Selma Shapiro, longtime director of the Children’s Museum, and his appreciation of the museum’s focus on Oak Ridge history likely influenced his decision to place his early papers at the museum.
While supporting other community efforts in Oak Ridge, they found out they had a lot in common, Shapiro’s daughter, Rhonda Bogard, said.
“They were both Jewish, both children of Russian immigrants. Both were natural born leaders and, from my perspective, two people who were ahead of their time,” she said.
“They saw in each other the ability to have a vision for the future. One of the things Alvin Weinberg really loved about the museum was how it put together the Oak Ridge history.”
While the American Museum of Science and Energy told Oak Ridge’s science story, the Children’s Museum collected the early cultural and social history of Oak Ridge through its Regional Appalachian Center, and later added the “Difficult Decisions” exhibit, highlighting the difficult decisions made in Oak Ridge and the nation during World War II.
“What he saw here was this wonderful museum, with this wonderful woman dedicated to the history of Oak Ridge, and that is where he wanted his papers,” Bogard said of the Children’s Museum.
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