Disarm Them With Science: Seismologists and the Birth of Science as Activism (Evolution of the Earth Sciences in the 20th Century, Part 3) / by Adeene Denton

Welcome to the third and last section of my blog post on earth science in the 20th century! We’re here to close out the Cold War and speculate on the future, now with even more sources for your reading pleasure.

As earth science moved further into the second half of the 20th century, fragmentation occurred from within. A sundering of the fellowship, even.  The 1970s and 1980s saw a splintering of the fields, spurred partially by increasing numbers of scientists flooding the community and partially by the dissolution of the remaining bonds that tied the earth sciences to the military.  Earth science had found success in its goal to professionalize itself, and now there were so many scientists that finding common priorities among the population seemed almost beyond reach.  Some scientists became public advocates for disarmament, climate change, and other hot-button issues, while others looked to the oil industry for high-paying jobs instead.  The universal concept of who an earth scientist was – those who probed the earth looking for answers – remained, but the field became so big and bloated with subfields and different groups with their own agendas that cohesion became elusive.

Big, Bold Failures: Shaking the Foundations of the Scientific-Military Partnership

American scientists now tend to look back on the early and mid-Cold War as a “golden age,” when the U.S. government gave them both freedom and funding to do their research as they pleased.  This was not strictly true.  While the U.S. military did fund endeavors that to the casual observer appeared to be outside of their mission objectives, they generally only supported scientists whose work had potential applications to the military’s goals – however vaguely expressed those might be.  Some projects had no clear relevance to the Cold War other than proving the dominance of American will and engineering, thus winning the Cold War based on morale (e.g., the Apollo program).

One such effort was Project Mohole, an ill-fated attempt in 1961 to drill through the Earth’s crust offshore of Hawaii all the way to the boundary between the crust and the mantle, an area known in seismic data as the Mohorovičić Discontinuity.  Similar to the Space Race, this outlandish attempt was motivated by Russian ambitions to do the same, though Soviet scientists actually succeeded in drilling the Kolar superdeep borehole in 1970 (they didn't drill to the Moho, but it's still the deepest hole in the world, so yay).   U.S. researchers, envious of the projects pursued by their Russian colleagues, didn’t have to try very hard to convince the military of the necessity of attempts like Project Mohole, which was pitched as a second Space Race to the center of the earth. When such bombastic goals like Project Mohole failed, however, the military increasingly chose to put more operational concerns at the forefront both to reign in costs and avoid further embarrassment. Scientists noticed the change.

  Figure 1:  Scientists lowering one of the six buoys used to make a circle, with the CUSS I drilling vessel positioning itself at the center using sonar. (Image via NSF)

Figure 1: Scientists lowering one of the six buoys used to make a circle, with the CUSS I drilling vessel positioning itself at the center using sonar. (Image via NSF)

The later period of the Cold War saw scientists feeling distanced from both their military protectors and politicians who had previously turned to them for advice.  The early years of the Cold War had seen scientists serving on presidential committees and universally admired as the arbiters of truth.  As the U.S. government pursued ideas that scientists increasingly objected to, scientists went from trusted advisors to fraught adversaries.  In turn, the 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of what some described as the “scientist-activists,” who actively involved themselves in political issues by arming themselves with their own scientific expertise, building on J. Tuzo Wilson’s earlier declaration that science is “everybody’s business.”

One of the major venues for activism by scientists was centered on the field of seismology, as Thomas Cochran tried to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and bring about a nuclear test ban.  That seismology should be the nexus of scientific activism is not as surprising as it may seem.  The advent of the nuclear age had a profound effect on seismologists and geophysicists, who were in high demand for their expertise for the detection of underground nuclear tests.  When nuclear-arms control talks began for the first time in the late 1950s, U.S. and Soviet scientists were enlisted to determine if seismology could assist in monitoring underground nuclear explosions.  If the government could use the nerds studying rock signals from seismic traces to spy on the Soviets, they were going to do it.

Good Vibrations: Seismologists Weigh in on Nuclear Tests

While 1950s tests found that contemporary seismological knowledge was incapable of sensing small nuclear explosions with any kind of accuracy (and thus could not check in on the Russians), the military was not deterred, and brought substantial cash to throw at the problem.  Over the course of the 1960s, seismologists partnered with the Department of Defense in Project Vela Uniform, which drastically increased the federal funding of seismology by more than a factor of thirty and drew another subset of earth scientists into a close partnership with the military

Scientists of all backgrounds were drawn to military for the chance to modernize their equipment and slingshot their fields into the future – how could you turn down immense funding and unusual projects? Seismologists watched oceanographers reap the benefits of their Naval patronage and accepted the Department of Defense’s offer to fund the development of seismology for the express goal of detecting Soviet weapons tests, with the knowledge that this was their chance, both as individual researchers and as a field. Indeed, within the span of a decade seismology went from a “small academic discipline” populated by tens of researchers who knew each other intimately to an immensely popular field glutted with newcomers.  Allying with the military, however unsavory some of them might find it, was an undeniably successful practice.

While seismologists worked furiously to develop more sensitive technology, the explicit purpose behind their work was never far from their attention as the nuclear test ban debate raged furiously in the background.  The debate took on a new dimension with the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, as the administration actively refused a test ban in order to test next-generation weapons as part of the aggressively polarizing Strategic Defense Initiative.  Such a hostile stance pulled scientists into action.  Many scientists of all backgrounds (and on both sides of the iron curtain) were pro-test ban, and none more so than Thomas Cochran, a prominent nuclear physicist and governmental advisor who decided that the only way to manhandle the Reagan administration into a test ban would be to prove that seismology had finally advanced to the point where it could sense Soviet nuclear tests.

In a direct affront to earth science’s previously chummy, nationalistic relationship with the U.S. military, Cochran sought international cooperation from the outset.  He allied with Yevgeny Velikhov, a prominent Russian physicist and trusted advisor of Mikhail Gorbachev, to propose a joint project between Cochran’s National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Velikhov’s Soviet Academic of Sciences to establish three U.S. monitoring stations near a Soviet test site in Kazakhstan in exchange for three Soviet stations near an American site in Nevada.  These stations would enable scientists to monitor the great power’s nuclear test agreement – science would keep them honest, if the seismologists could do it.  Proposing such a project, which was undeniably as political as it was scientific, established Cochran as a scientist-activist, and he published newspaper articles and gave speeches about the project nearly constantly.  If Cochran, a prominent scientist, was going to attempt to subvert his government’s nationalistic policies, he was going to do it publicly.

The Reagan administration despised the project, deeming it an “absurd…excursion,” but overwhelming support within the scientific community as well as pressure from the Soviets forced their hand.  Cochran and Velikhov accomplished what previous administrations had wanted since the days of Eisenhower - scientists established in a base on Soviet soil.  U.S. seismologists set foot in Kazakhstan for the first time in 1987, and on February 26, 1988 they recorded their first Soviet weapons tests. The Joint Nuclear Test Ban Verification was a success – seismologists could detect nuclear explosions, and thus keep the U.S. and USSR honest after the treaty had been signed.  Cochran and Velikhov’s success, as well as the Reagan administration’s humiliation at having to comply, foreshadowed the growing change occurring in the relationship between the scientific community and the U.S. government.  

  Figure 2:  No one was allowed to take photos during these tests for classified reasons, so here's a picture of Sedan Crater, the largest man-made crater in the world that was produced through a shallow nuclear test in 1962 (image via the US federal government).

Figure 2: No one was allowed to take photos during these tests for classified reasons, so here's a picture of Sedan Crater, the largest man-made crater in the world that was produced through a shallow nuclear test in 1962 (image via the US federal government).

Science, the Media, and the Government: Who’s Watching Whom, Here?

The later years of the Cold War saw American scientists going increasingly public with their opinion on federal decisions, especially if they disagreed with them; indeed, Thomas Cochran’s success with his seismic project was largely due to his highly public campaign that waged in a way the government could not ignore.  Physicists, seismologists, and earth scientists were swept up in the general public’s concern about disarmament and the coinciding fear of the “nuclear winter” that would follow a descent into nuclear war.  By becoming more in tune with the public scientists could capitalize on their concerns by writing high-profile articles that shot them further into the spotlight.  Volcanologists in particular used the nuclear winter concept to attract the public to their work on ancient supervolcanoes and the “volcanic winters” that could arise from catastrophic eruptions.  Writing the Cold War scholarly equivalent of “clickbait” was a not uncommon strategy; earth scientists saw the continuing population growth of their field and looked for more and more ways to stand out of the crowd.

Of course, the collision between scientists and the public was more complex than that; some scientists went public with their science knowing it would polarize the nation.  The discovery of global warming the seemingly unstoppable, exponential increase of CO2 in the atmosphere drew climate modelers like James Hansen into the public eye.  Roger Revelle, one of the oceanographers who worked most closely with the Navy during the early Cold War, was one of the first scientists to study and identify trends of global climate change in 1957 (which the Navy immediately tried to weaponize), though it would not be come a robust theory until Hansen’s corroborating climate models in the 1980s.

Global warming as a concept was subject to scrutiny from the instant Hansen began publishing his papers.  Scientists like James Hansen were summoned to Congressional hearings from 1986-1988 to testify to the veracity of their claims, facing much more adversarial situation than any previous relationship that earth scientists had held with their government.  Earth scientists on the stand stood by their data, making unsolicited recommendations on government policy while they did, like the benefits of curbing fossil fuel emissions. No longer did scientists feel obligated to be faithful to their government, to follow where it led; instead, many made it a priority to publicize their data and its ramifications for the community.  This was the beginning of the push for truly open data sharing, for transparency in government agencies like NASA and NOAA.  As sections of the government began to openly distrust earth scientists they turned instead to the public, attempting to demystify science and build trust.

  Figure 3:  James Hansen testifying before Congress in 1988 on the results of his general circulation model.

Figure 3: James Hansen testifying before Congress in 1988 on the results of his general circulation model.


How did we get here, and why? It’s difficult to document the fragmentation of the earth science in the 1970s and 1980s, simply because so much was happening at once.  Climate change (i.e., global warming) was discovered relatively early on in the second half of the 20th century, splitting scientists into different groups based on who acknowledged the problem as well as who was willing to move outside of the scientific community to push for change.  Tackling problems like climate change and disarmament forced scientists to re-acknowledge the truth that we are not impartial observers but instead part of the political machine. 

Simple things like collating global datasets on oceanic topography became political when scientists on opposite sides of the iron curtain were supposed to ignore the wealth of data the other side possessed.  Pushing for something as basic as global data sharing touched on the primal fears that the U.S. government harbored during the Cold War – that when scientists shared their data, it lost its value as ‘”American” data, and the U.S. lost prestige.  It’s not easy doing science in the face of a government that saw everything American as a status symbol that could be easily taken away.

On the flip side, it is very possible that earth scientists pushing back against the U.S government for their projects and disassembling their cozy relationship with the military in favor of globalization is what set the stage for the profound distrust in science that many policymakers harbor today.  During the first half of the 20th century when geologists, oceanographers, and others were coopted to fight the nation’s wars, they knew that they were essentially U.S. citizens first and scientists second. They could do great science, but in order to keep military funding they had to do American science – which in the Cold War came to mean that the military owned their machines and their data.  From the point of view of the American government, it’s much easier to trust scientists when you can exert control over what science is done and the goals towards which scientists were supposed to strive.  Now scientists are spread across academia, industry, and the government, with a myriad of different trainings and agendas. The Cold War wasn’t just a “golden age” from the point of view of the scientists, but also for the military-industrial complex that they worked for.

In this series of blog posts we’ve traversed almost a century of evolution for the earth sciences in the U.S., including checking in on specific disciplines at different periods in their development.  The message I want to leave you with is this: our field developed in a political and social spectrum, and as scientists today we are not immune from our complicated past. We have the technology we have and the knowledge we have because of partnerships that went far beyond the scientific community.  Remember this in your research. Remember this when you leave the lab. We build a sense of impartiality for ourselves when we exist in our day-to-day pursuit of scientific truth, but the human truth of it all is that science is built on the science that was done before.  Plate tectonics is the result of many discoveries, but it is also the result of Maurice Ewing’s decision to collaborate with the Navy to examine the North Atlantic!

We clean up our science for publication, but the truth of the matter this – science is human, and science is messy.  Don’t forget how we as a field got where we are, and use that knowledge to decide where we’ll go in the future.

That’s all for this science history series. Good luck out there, and stay informed! 

 If you're ever feeling down, just remember: you didn't try to drill to the crust-mantle boundary  way  before underwater drilling technology was ready to do so.

If you're ever feeling down, just remember: you didn't try to drill to the crust-mantle boundary way before underwater drilling technology was ready to do so.

Selected References

Barth, Kai-Henrik. “Catalysts of Change: Scientists as Transnational Arms Control Advocates in the 1980s.” Osiris 21: 2006. 182-206.

Barth, Kai-Henrik. “The Politics of Seismology: Nuclear Testing, Arms Control, and the Transformation of a Discipline.” Social Studies of Science 33.5: October 2003. 743-781

Cochran, Thomas. “Joint Nuclear Test Ban Verification Project of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the National Resources Defense Council.” Borscht II Lecture, Museum of Natural History. June 11, 1987. 1-10.

Dörries, Matthias. “The ‘Winter’ Analogy Fallacy: From Superbombs to Supervolcanoes.” History of Meteorology 4 (2008): 42-43.

Hansen et al. “Global climate changes as forecast by Goddard Institute for Space Studies three-dimensional model.” Journal of Geophysics Research, 93: 1988. 9341-9364.

Revelle, R. and H. Suess, “Carbon dioxide exchange between atmosphere and ocean and the question of an increase of atmospheric CO2 during the past decades.” Tellus 9: 1957. 18-27.