“Broken Symmetry”: Physics, Aesthetics, and Moral Virtue in Nuclear Age America
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During a century of high modernist confidence from roughly the last third of the nineteenth century onwards, scientists and other proponents of scientific investigation frequently claimed that scientific inquiry embodied both epistemic and moral virtues. This essay examines the lives and careers of two American physicists, Merle A. Tuve and Robert R. Wilson, in order to explore the history of the pure science ideal and the centrality of moral virtue to scientific identity in the mid-twentieth century. For Tuve and Wilson, belief in the humanistic qualities of science and the virtues—both epistemic and moral—of austerity and contemplative isolation, as well as an instinctive disdain for post-World War II Big Science despite the heavy involvement of both men in large-scale research projects, defined their faith in science as a morally virtuous activity. In a cold war era of military patronage, in which political and institutional trends seemed headed increasingly in the direction of instrumentalist expectation rather than transcendent humanism, Tuve’s and Wilson’s insistence on the moral virtues of scientific inquiry marked a larger struggle at work over the cultural meaning and status of physics, the nature and values of American culture more generally, and even over modernity itself.
KeywordsEpistemic virtues Moral virtues Big science Cold War science Pure science Nuclear physics High energy physics Particle physics History of physics Merle A. Tuve Robert R. Wilson
The author and the editors gratefully acknowledge the University of California Press for permission to reprint material that originally appeared in Jessica Wang, “Physics, Emotion, and the Scientific Self: Merle Tuve’s Cold War,” Historical studies in the natural sciences 42 (November 2012): 341–88.
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