Undergraduates explore legacy of Nuclear Age in unique College class

Debbie Nelson class
Prof. Debbie Nelson leads The Nuclear Age class in the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences.
Photo by
Robert Kozloff
Louise Lerner
News Officer for Physical Sciences and the Institute for Molecular EngineeringUniversity Communications

In the fall of 1942, scientists from around the U.S. were rushing to build the world’s first reactor at the University of Chicago. Seventy-five years later, a special College course at the University is examining the complex legacy of that project—from politics to infrastructure, medicine and the American psyche.

“The Nuclear Age” explores the rise of nuclear technology through different disciplinary perspectives—from physics to history, anthropology and English. Each week, different UChicago scholars explore the many ways that the historic Dec. 2, 1942 experiment, which the University is commemorating this fall, changed our lives.

“Our thought in developing the structure of the class was to treat it like a think tank, in which you’re discussing a topic with experts from very different backgrounds,” said Prof. Debbie Nelson, who runs the class.

Though the class is based on a long-ago event, the discussions very much feel contemporary, she said, “because we’re very much still living with the reverberations of those decisions today.”

At Nelson’s lecture Oct. 24, the class walked in to the strains of Tom Lehrer singing “We will all go together when we go.” At the heart of the lecture that day, she said, was the question: How does one think about the unthinkable?

For example, part of the assignment material was Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black nuclear comedy Dr. Strangelove. Nelson explained that Kubrick had not originally intended to make a comedy about nuclear war, but as he studied the literature, he kept laughing at the concepts in nuclear strategy, such as mutually assured destruction as a result of rational actions on either side. What is rational, she asked, when one is discussing the destruction of the entire human race?

In addition to Dr. Strangelove, Nelson’s lecture covered Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” and The New Yorker’s seminal early account of the Hiroshima bombings. The week before, guest lecturer Jessica Hurley discussed how nuclear fears and realities shaped not only postwar psychological or political landscapes, but also the physical: the great 1950s American flowering of interstate highways was partly funded to offer better escape routes for major cities under nuclear attack. The following week, radiology professor Chin-Tu Chen laid out the medical advances offered by radioisotopes.

“This class has challenged me to think outside the box.”Third-year student Trenton Crawford

The lecturers are speaking to a diverse group, too: the class includes 75 students from nearly 20 different majors. “The students really respond to this,” Nelson said. “They’re very eager to ask questions of all of our guests and each other. I think it’s stimulating to be in an environment where you’re an ambassador for your field, so to speak.”

Trenton Crawford, a third-year majoring in history and human rights, said he originally signed up for the class to learn more about the political implications of nuclear technology, but was surprised by the breadth of the implications of the nuclear age.

“It has shaped the society we live in, our perceptions of space and time, our infrastructure and our health,” he said. “This class has challenged me to think outside the box, and to challenge societal misconceptions about Cold War-era policies.”

Nelson, who chairs the Department of English, said one of her goals for the class is to show students how the humanities can help people think through these kinds of topics.

“We’re giving students tools from many disciplines to come to terms with very complex questions with far-ranging implications,” she said. “They’re forced to think very broadly about this very nuanced and far-reaching topic, beyond the range of their own fields.”