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New York Times May 21, 2002

Finding Rich Fodder in Nuclear Scientists By CLAUDIA DREIFUS

OSTON ‹ Say the word “anthropologist” and images of Margaret Mead in Samoa or Bronislaw Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders may spring to mind. But for Dr. Hugh Gusterson, 43, a professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the intensive scrutiny of scientific investigation is applied not to island natives but to mostly affluent white men with “Ph.D.” affixed to their names.

Since 1984, Dr. Gusterson has studied nuclear weapons scientists based at the Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories, exploring the ways they adjust to culture-shattering events like the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing.

The results of his research are described in “Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War,” published in 1996. Now he is working on a sequel, and a book of essays is due in 2003.

Dr. Gusterson lives in Somerville, Mass., with his wife, Dr. Allison Macfarlane, and their 6-month-old child, Graham. Dr. Macfarlane is a geologist specializing in nuclear waste. Around M.I.T., the Gustersons are known as the “nuclear couple.”

“Why shouldn’t I study nuclear weapons scientists?” Dr. Gusterson asked. “Anthropology is the study of humanity and this is a part of human life.”

Q. How did you first decide to study the folkways and mores of nuclear weapons scientists? A. It started for me in the 1980’s. I was in graduate school, Stanford, where I’d been admitted to do African anthropology. Before that, I’d worked as an activist for the nuclear freeze in San Francisco. What I thought about, whenever my mind was at rest, was the arms race ‹ why it existed, how to stop it.

One day, while I was still with the nuclear freeze, I was sent to a high school to debate a weapons designer from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Tom Ramos.

I was shocked to discover that I really liked him, as a person. Till that moment, people on the other side of the debate were very abstract to me. I’d never met any of them. Yet, my whole life was devoted to undoing their work. I began to wonder more about what kind of people they were.

Back at Stanford, I began thinking about dropping Africa and wondering about doing fieldwork at Livermore, this famous nuclear weapons lab only a hour’s drive from the university. In 1984, it was unusual to be doing fieldwork in your own culture. If you did it at all, you studied down ‹ ghetto residents, welfare mothers. Nowadays, there’s a fast-growing field, the anthropology of science.

Q. How did you find your way into a tight community of scientists? A. There was an undergraduate in my department whose father worked at Livermore. My adviser said, “Why don’t you drive down there and see so-and-so’s father?” So I drove there one evening. I had really intended to just to talk with him about the feasibility of doing this research. This gentleman, who was a weapons designer, immediately asked me if I had brought a notebook and when I said yes, he said, “I will now tell you my life history.”

He then spent the next three hours reciting his story. He came from this aristocratic family in North Korea. He had escaped from North Korea as a very young man. When he came to the U.S., he learned physics. He wanted to work on nuclear weapons to make a contribution to the struggle against communism.

This man led me to other people in the lab. Thereafter, whenever I interviewed someone, I’d ask my subject to refer me to others. I also began a program of “deep hanging out.” I moved to the town of Livermore. My roommates often worked at the lab. I went to local churches, to bars, to the singles group. I ate lunch at the lab’s cafeteria.

Q. What’s the difference between your methods of getting to know scientists and spying? A. I always identified myself and explained what I was doing. In anthropology, there are strong ethics codes. People have a right not to be studied if they don’t want to be. Q. What kind of information did your hanging out with scientists net? A. For starters, I was surprised to find out how many weapons scientists were liberals ‹ at least at Livermore. The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where they also do nuclear research, is a somewhat more Republican place.

Many of the Livermore weapons scientists had been active against the Vietnam War when they were younger; some had been active in the civil rights movement. One guy had been a Vietnam protester in graduate school. But when he got out of school, it was a very bad time in the physics job market, and he didn’t have many options. He decided if he took a job as a conventional weapons designer, he’d be making weapons that actually killed people. On the other hand, as a nuclear weapons designer he felt that he was making weapons that would save people’s lives through “strengthening deterrence.”

Q. Were the weapons designers interesting people? A. They were often mavericks, eccentrics.

One of my favorites was an H-bomb designer, who when I gave a presentation on my research showed up dressed in a loincloth and carrying this goat’s head with a rattle inside it. Every time I made a point, he’d shake the goat’s head. He was satirizing me, I think. He was saying, “We are your primitives. We are your boys in the woods.”

Q. So what moved the scientists? A. Some people, like the Korean gentleman, wanted to fight communism. Others liked working in a place that had the best equipment, lots of support staff and really interesting science to do. People often said that there was something intoxicating about the physics. It becomes deeply fascinating to try and figure out how to make the weapons make a bigger bang with less plutonium or how to reshape the inner configuration of the weapon.

These guys worked at it 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and the testing of their designs was what they lived for. It captured all their imaginative resources. They were making a small star. A hydrogen bomb is a small star you’ve created on earth.

I became fascinated by what the tests meant to these scientists. I found their mannerism became so intense when they talked about nuclear tests. If you were an elite designer, you spent 18 months preparing for this event that lasts for two shakes of a lamb’s tail. They might go weeks and weeks without a getting a good night’s sleep as they approach this climactic moment of The Test.

Q. Why was testing the weapons so important? A. That’s when they got their feedback. They got to know whether they had understood the physics by whether the bomb goes off, and it goes off with the strength they predicted. I think there’s this sense of transcendent power: to mobilize that force, to make the earth move. It’s the biggest bang you can make and it’s your bomb that does that!

But I think also at a deep unconscious level, this is where the scientists convinced themselves, “We’re in control the weapons, they don’t control us.” You build the bomb, you predict how it will work, you see the prediction come true, and you say, “I’m in control of this.” But I also think at the end of the day that scientists just like to do experiments.

Q. How did your subjects react to the 1992 halt of American nuclear weapons testing? A. They talked a good deal about being thrown away. There was one guy who put a sign on his office door, “Will work for food.”

It was only when this bargain was struck between the Clinton administration and the weapons labs people that some of this anxiety abated. The government agreed to buy them all sorts of expensive equipment that simulated nuclear weapons tests.

But the older guys will say that nothing can really replace a live nuclear test. The younger guys have this forlorn wistfulness about having missed out on something really important. Nowadays, some of the guys go camping at the Nevada test sites on weekends. It’s their sacred place.

Q. How did you perceive the marriages and personal relationships of your weapons scientists? A. I often found emotional distance in their relationships. I think the physicist’s temperament is not one that’s conducive to emotional intimacy, by and large, anyway. On top of that, the demands of classification and secrecy can cause a tremendous distance in a marriage, cause a lot of pain. The women who did best at being married to physicists were very independent resourceful women who expected to live independent lives. Q. How were you changed by your time among the weapons scientists? A. I came into the project like many antinuclear activists, convinced that the bomb was a threat to human survival, afraid of it, full of bad dreams about it. Interestingly, over time, I absorbed the weapons scientists’ sense of ease with the bomb. I no longer have the bad dreams I used to have about nuclear war.

In some ways, I’m like the monogamous anthropologist who has spent years with a polygamous group: seeing men with four wives comes to seem natural, after a while. But then, I think, if you’re not changed by the culture you’ve studied, you haven’t done the fieldwork properly.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company