Want to speed up the pulse of nature?

Atoms For Peace symbol
Symbol used by the United States Atomic Energy Commission to promote the Atoms For Peace program, circa 1955. Note on the left-hand side the wheat-sheaf representing agricultural applications.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

I am fanatically enthusiastic about the organizers of this summer’s Congress on the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, in Manchester, UK.  This is how conferences should be done! They have rejected curmudgeon-hood and have fully embraced social media. They have started a blog beforehand, and they have included a list of presenting historians of science — there are many — in the twittersphere! The following was written for them, and it is also posted on their blog.  Thanks especially to Alex Hall (@greengambit) for soliciting it.  It’s about my paper on the death, and rebirth, of atomic agriculture:

They said it was like condensing a thousand years of evolutionary history into one intense moment.  Quickening nature’s pulse.

If you want to feed the world, Norman Borlaug said when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, you have to use science to help food supplies match the rate of population. He knew all about the supposed miracles of science, although he refused to call them miracles. He’d seen his own hybrid strains of wheat double and triple yields in India and Pakistan in the 1960s. Here was a region of the world that everyone agreed was on the brink of collapse.  It called to mind the Malthusian thinking that Paul Ehrlich would panic about in The Population Bomb and that historian Tom Robertson and others wrote about in the H-Environment round-table on his recent book The Malthusian Moment.

I came at the story from a different angle. I was researching my book Arming Mother Nature, looking for evidence that military-style thinking about crop vulnerabilities influenced planning at major institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Rome. But what I found at FAO astonished me and got me thinking about a new project on the rise and fall of peaceful nuclear applications in the so-called developing world – and their connections to not-so-peaceful applications in those same regions.

What I found at FAO was the story of a plant breeder who had a career meltdown while trying to fight the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That agency, the plant breeder (whose name was Ronald Silow) alleged, had encouraged scientists all over the world to provide “success” stories about the peaceful applications of anything that could be called atomic, especially if those success stories were in the developing world. That led to all kinds of projects, many that FAO frowned upon, but it also led to false claims. Silow saw the IAEA scientists as opportunists who cared nothing at all about what was good for any particular country.

There were many different applications in agriculture, from food irradiation to grain disinfestation and insect control. But the one that captured the imagination most was mutation plant breeding. With radiation, you could quicken the pulse of nature, speeding up the rate of mutations, giving hybrid experimenters so much more to work with! With greater variety lay the greatest promise. That promise fed directly into the rhetoric of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, suggesting it might hold the key to humanity’s survival in the long term.

Mutation plant breeding was itself a hybrid of Western genetics and the rhetoric of Trofim Lysenko. The latter was reviled in the West for dismantling the study of genetics in the Soviet Union. Lysenko had disliked how much of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian inheritance was based on chance. He asked: why wait for favors from nature? That wasn’t what true scientists did, he believed. Mutation plant breeding, while strongly anti-Lysenko in every other way, adopted similar rhetoric. They didn’t have to wait around for Mother Nature’s favors. Even if they could not tell her what to do, they could at least quicken her pulse.

I ended up writing about Ronald Silow and his ill-fated attempt to fight, single-handedly, the IAEA’s mutation plant breeding programs. He accused the IAEA of covering up false claims, particularly that the miracle wheat in India had been transformed into high-protein wheat, after having been subjected to the ionizing energy of a radioactive source. Even though Silow’s accusation turned out to be accurate, he had alienated so many of his colleagues that it was extremely difficult to associate oneself with him by the late 1960s. Sadly, his hostile and unprofessional behavior made it quite easy to quash any legitimate claims he might have had. But the IAEA scientists didn’t exactly behave well either, and they maneuvered very effectively to silence him.

Since writing that article, I’ve continued to research the topic and have visited the IAEA archives.  Hilariously, compared to the mountain of material at FAO on Silow, the memory of Ronald Silow at the IAEA during this critical period has been all but erased. He’s not mentioned in official histories, and any internal record of the disputes he had during his own short stint at IAEA were not available to me. That’s okay, there’s plenty of material elsewhere; at ICHSTM I’ll be speaking in more detail about what I’ve found.

There’s so much more to the story than Silow, however, and I have been developing it more fully since finishing Arming Mother Nature. The documents at the IAEA show a small group of mutation plant breeders attempting to create a viable, international community even when their work is sidelined at home. And I’ve taken the work further, exploring the creation of “nuclear” or “atomic” communities in Central America, South Asia, and the Middle East, including extensive efforts to create a viable nuclear community in Iran. It’s a fascinating yet troubling history, as we are only now beginning to fathom the connections between ostensibly peaceful pursuits and military ones, between international programs and national ambitions, and between rhetoric and reality.

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