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Science in the age of invincible surmise: nuclear optimism and the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project.

Martin, Joseph D. (2021) 'Science in the age of invincible surmise: nuclear optimism and the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project.', Historical studies in the natural sciences., 51 (2). pp. 179-208.


The Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project at the University of Michigan was an unusual specimen of the post–World War II nuclear research initiative. Its origins were modest; it sprang from a student-led effort to construct a living war memorial—a mission it maintained even as it grew into a peaceful-atom program. Rather than taking advantage of the copious government support for scientific research available after World War II, it drew funds from Michigan alumni and from industry, based on the conviction that these routes offered greater possibility of academic freedom. And its architects conceived of nuclear research unusually broadly, including not just the physical sciences and engineering, but also the biological, social, and human sciences, law, education, medicine, and other areas. These ways in which the Phoenix Project was exceptional nevertheless tell us much about how it was exemplary. The optimism that animated the project contrasts with widespread and well-documented currents of nuclear fear, but indicates a stable vein of nuclear optimism in the early post–World War II era. The suspicion of government secrecy regimes harbored by its founders led them to pursue unorthodox patronage relationships for a nuclear research initiative, which nevertheless reveals the flexibility of the contemporary funding context. And the project’s unusually broad notion of nuclear research indicates the local flexibility of nuclearity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This paper is part of a special issue entitled “Revealing the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project.”

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:Published as Martin, Joseph D., Science in the age of invincible surmise: nuclear optimism and the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (2021) 51 (2): 179–208. © 2021 by the Regents of the University of California. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by the Regents of the University of California for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center.
Date accepted:21 July 2020
Date deposited:23 July 2020
Date of first online publication:01 April 2021
Date first made open access:No date available

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