How I learned to stop worrying about the bomb
Blog 20th January 2018
Author: Damian O’Doherty, Professor of Management and Organisation, Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester
I have been awestruck with nuclear matters for as long as I can remember. In part because much of these matters operate in speeds and spaces that remain obscure and undetectable to the unaided human eye or other senses. These spaces and times are not those upon which we seem to rely when driving the car to work in the morning! With the aid of vast particle accelerators and a panoply of detection equipment, it seems possible that gravity does not behave as we think it should, for time to go backwards, and for things to be in two spaces at the same time! Once the atom was split we had to realise that space and time are not as reliable as we might think: the ground beneath our feet is a sea of shifting sands.
I certainly got a sense of these shifting sands as a child of 10 or so I watched UK government ‘protect and survive’ public information films about what to do in case of a nuclear attack. I wondered where our family ‘fall out room’ was, or how we would all fit into the small cellar of our house, and was envious of my friend down the road who had a specially designed nuclear fall out shelter buried in the back of his garden. I worried. What would be safe to eat? How could we leave our shelter to use the bathroom, with fall out swirling around the house? This was a period of huge nuclear proliferation in Russia and the USA, of rhetoric and scare, with vast arsenals of mutually assured destruction amassed on either side of the Iron Curtain. Shortly after the Raymond Briggs adaptation of When the Wind Blows aired.
These experiences left me profoundly disturbed about the possibilities of science and technology and what humans are capable of doing to each other. Everything that one could find to say about the good of science could also very rapidly be declared bad. The ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ I had not read at the time, but that science seemed to operate in a realm beyond good and evil seemed axiomatic. I later realised that what was good/bad largely depended on who was using the products of science or how science was practiced. Civil nuclear energy, the promise of free energy for all, and the visions of carbon free energy, all seem undeniably good. Utopian, in fact. On the other hand, does history reassure us that the right thing will be done with the knowledge that leads to these scientific breakthroughs or the future knowledge which is made possible on the back of these applications and developments?
Whilst I learned to stop worrying about the bomb and took a job in a business school, I began to realise that not all scientists were like Dr Strangelove or Dr Benway type characters from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Yet, strangely, in my own area of business and management studies our thinking largely remains untouched by the methods and findings of contemporary science. That old divide of ‘two cultures’ noted by C P Snow back in 1959 still seems to prevail. Indeed, colleagues in the business school still exist in a world of Newtonian or pre-nuclear science. Our models of business organization for example are still premised on primitive understandings of the natural world and a perspective of human physiology that dates back to Bichat (1771-1802) and Cuvier (1769-1832). A superficial perspective of the common garden tree, with its trunk and branches, still largely acts as the blueprint of nature towards which it is assumed the organization and form of business and management should be modelled.
Yet, we now know that at the quantum level, a tree is a very strange thing indeed. What keeps it organized are circulating matters in processes of immense complexity and subtlety from the ‘wood wide web’ of its mycorrhizal network to the mindful attentiveness of those who seeks way of thinking like a forest. What keeps nuclear matters organized at the quantum level might require similar quantum leaps in our imagination about how its business and social organization should be developed.
In The Beam nuclear chemists and engineers rub shoulders with anthropologists and students of business and entrepreneurship, which provides an ideal space – in fact, I should say fissile space – in which to release or stimulate new ‘nuclear thinking’, the fall out from which I hope will leave a legacy of creativity and life enhancing nuclear futures.
About Damian O’Doherty
Damian is Professor of Management and Organisation at Alliance Manchester Business School, director of the Manchester Ethnography Network, and co-founder of The Beam.