Can the atom quicken the pace of evolution in order to feed a hungry world?
The notorious Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko used to claim (or shout) that real scientists don’t wait for random changes to happen. They don’t wait for favors from nature! Real scientists use tools and knowledge to shape human destiny!
He wasn’t the only one who talked this way. The IAEA started doing it too, though in a slightly less authoritarian context. If they couldn’t exactly order up useful mutations on-demand, they could at least dramatically speed of the rates of change in the hope of finding a good one.
In the 1960s, mutation breeders seemed poised to use atomic energy to speed up mutation rates in plants in order to develop new crop varieties, for the benefit of all people. The US had once been the center of such work. But in the 1960s, skepticism had slowed this work in the US and tempered enthusiasm. Yet such scientists enjoyed the backing of a community of experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who encouraged them to build up mutation plant breeding in their countries and to connect their research to problems facing the developing world. Despite considerable opposition, and lacking evidence that atomic agriculture was worth the investment, the IAEA nurtured a scientific field, a community of experts, and an imagined version of the future that put humans in control of their destiny, powered by the atom.
Such is the premise of my essay “Quickening Nature’s Pulse,” which has been published in the history of science journal Dynamis. It grew out of my research in the IAEA archives in Vienna, and was spurred by a workshop I attended in Mexico City a few years ago. The essays from that workshop ended up in this special issue of Dynamis! Many thanks to Gisela Mateos and Edna Suarez for getting the ball rolling.
The research for this project is part of my book project on atomic energy in the developing world, and the use of environmental arguments to do so. If you are interested in the history of the IAEA, FAO, or related nuclear topics, please don’t hesitate to contact me.