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Tracing the History of Isotope Sciences in Europe: Circulation and Uses of Radiocarbon, 1945-1965

Final Report Summary - EUROISOTOPES (Tracing the History of Isotope Sciences in Europe: Circulation and Uses of Radiocarbon, 1945-1965)

In recent years, historians have debated the prospect of offering new'transnational'or'global'perspectives in their studies. Historians of science have been notoriously absent from this discussion, but they have not neglected using transnational or global approaches; they have just being peripheral to current debates on its historiographical implications. By examining the disciplinary literature, we can identify four different ways in which history of science has recently appropriated this approach: by the comparative and transfer history of science and technology, by the focus on the international transfer of scientific materials and instruments; by looking at the history of transnational scientific organisations, and by examining the historical coupling of science and diplomacy. Our analysis suggests that we can enrich this variety of transnational approaches by focussing on hybrid domains (scientific and geopolitical at the same time) in which flexible identities (the scientist-diplomat-politician) operate. We can define these domains as "transnational scientific networks" and use this notion to explain the mechanisms of knowledge production and the role of science in global affairs.

The interest of this approach is evident in our first case study, with deals with the spread of radiocarbon dating techniques. The dating technique was created in the Chicago Institute of Nuclear Studies by Williard F. Libby (1908-1980) and his collaborators. The technique soon spread to other American laboratories, such as those of Lamont and Yale. In Europe, the technique first arrived at Copenhagen Laboratory in 1951, after chemist Hilde Levy stage with the Chicago team in 1950. A chronology of the spread of the technique shows was obtained, showing the emergence of important centres such as Heildelberg and Groningen. Our survey of the process of dissemination of the technique shows that, despite the archaeological use of the technique featured most notoriously in the public sphere, research in European centres mainly involved geophysical research. Indeed, a correlation is found among some of the laboratories and the establishment of stations for the monitoring of environmental radioactivity.

These networks play a pivotal role in our second case study, which aimed to trace the development of transnational systems of radiation monitoring. National systems monitoring of radioactivity were initially established as part of military and intelligence projects for the detection of nuclear tests. The best known case is that of monitoring systems established in the United States and Britain to monitor Soviet nuclear tests. The transnationalisation of these networks is inextricably linked to the controversies related to the health effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear tests. In 1954, Castle Bravo tests in Bikini atoll produced a huge fallout cloud affecting inhabitants of nearby islands and a hundred Japanese fishing boats. Some fishermen suffered radiation sickness and died. An international controversy erupted, and calls for the end of nuclear testing reach United Nations. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) was established as a result. Our research has studied the origins of this institution and the debates leading of the release of its first report in 1958, and points out as this institution as first international data collection centre on environmental radioactivity.