Past Event

David Munns - "The Atom Goes to College": The Teaching Reactors that Trained the Atomic Age

September 10, 2021
12:30 PM - 2:00 PM
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Event Description 

This paper will describe the nuclear reactors that were built and used to train the next generation of modernist nuclear engineers. Nuclear engineering students and their teachers understood that nuclear reactors were not merely representative of the Cold War era, they essentially were the Cold War. The familiar portrait of closed off and well-funded laboratories were fixtures on many university campuses, but, as I want to stress in The Atom Goes to College, so too were open and integrated educational facilities. The teaching reactors seem rosily optimistic in contrast to the pessimistic weapons laboratories preparing for a global nuclear war few thought distant. Thus, on college and university campuses around the United States between 1952 and the 1970s, accessibility and visibility were the preeminent demands on those teaching reactors built explicitly for students and their professors by the Federal patron. Accessibility and visibility came via the little talked about “swimming pool” reactor that most colleges and universities acquired for teaching and research purposes. Students saw a model for a modern technocratic society’s systems of feedback and automation that established containment, control, and safety. To learn about the atom necessitated learning about the cores, housings, and systems that made nuclear power available, visible, and accessible.

Teaching reactors forged a generation’s understanding of nuclear engineering as a scientific and technical field, shaped ideas about nuclear technology, and concretized the foundation for the confident role of nuclear energy within the United States. By being played with, experimented on, taken apart and put back together—graduate student exercises all—training in a reactor shaped the students’ worldview and expectations. Though later much chastised for their rosy optimism, to its new disciples at the time, the nuclear reactor was a model of complexity, danger, and power. Theirs’s was a technical reality far from any simple political solution to the overarching problems of how the United States saw itself as a new global industrial power locked in a long-term Cold War. For graduates of nuclear engineering programs, the reactor was able to be understood, its dangers appreciated, and its lessons made clear; indeed, they participated in the making of that knowledge. The reactor core itself was moderated but ever-changing as was the postwar United States now forced to be an international presence, moderated, running hot, and itself ever-changing. 

The history of science workshop provides historians of science in the New York City area with a collegial, informal environment to share works-in-progress. Presenters circulate a paper a week in advance and discuss it with workshop attendees.

Event Speaker

David Munns, Associate Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Event Information

This event is free and open to the public. To register and receive a copy of a paper, please email Sean O'Neil at [email protected].

This event is part of the New York History of Science Lecture Series.

Sponsoring Organizations:

  • The University Seminars at Columbia University
  • Columbia University in the City of New York
  • NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study
  • The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • The New York Academy of Medicine
  • The New York Academy of Sciences

The Center for Science and Society makes every reasonable effort to accommodate individuals with disabilities. If you require disability accommodations to attend a Center for Science and Society event, please contact us at [email protected] or (212) 853-1612 at least 10 days in advance of the event. For more information, please visit the campus accessibility webpage