Urânio em Latour (1999)

Meanwhile, in his laboratory at the Collège de France, Joliot and his two main research colleagues, Hans Halban and Lew Kowarski, were looking for an arrangement just as subtle as the one that had brought together the interests of the Ministry of War, the CNRS, and the Union Minière. But this time it was a matter of coordinating the apparently irreconcilable behaviors of atomic particles. The principle of [82] fission had just been discovered. When bombarded by neutrons, each atom of uranium broke in two, liberating energy. This artificial radioactivity had a consequence that was immediately grasped by several physicists: if under bombardment each atom of uranium gave off two or three other neutrons which in turn bombarded other atoms of uranium, an extremely powerful chain reaction would be set in motion. Joliot’s team immediately set to work to prove that such a reaction could be produced, and that it would open the way to new scientific discoveries and to a new technique for producing energy in unlimited quantities. The first team able to prove that each generation of neutrons did indeed give birth to an even greater number would gain considerable prestige in the highly competitive scientific community, in which the French occupied, at that time, a position of the first rank. (Latour 1999:81-2)

Halban’s calculations on the slowing of neutrons, Joliot’s hypothesis of the feasibility of the chain reaction, and Dautry’s conviction about the necessity of developing new armaments became even more closely entwined when it came to obtaining the heavy water from Norway. While the “phony war” was taking place between the Siegfried and the Maginot lines, spies, bankers, diplomats, and German, English, French, and Norwegian physicists fought over twenty-six containers the Norwegians had given the French to prevent the Germans from getting hold of them. After an eventful few weeks the containers reached Joliot’s possession. Halban and Kowarski, both foreigners and [84] therefore suspect, had been put out to pasture by the French secret service for the duration of the operation. Once it was completed, they were authorized to return to the laboratory at the Collège de France, where under the protection of Dautry and the military, they set to work to combine the uranium from the Union Minière and the heavy water from the Norwegians with the calculations that Halban worked out every day with the confusing data from their primitive Geiger counter.(Latour 1999:83-4)

By following Halban’s arguments on cross-sections (Weart 1979), which conclude that deuterium has decisive advantages, the analyst of science is led, without prejudice and without postulating a great divide between science and politics, through an imperceptible transition into Dautry’s office, and from there into the plane of Jacques Allier, a [86] banker and flying officer who was the secret agent sent by France to outwit the fighters of the Luftwaffe. Starting on the science side of the tunnel, the historian ultimately arrives on the other side, with war and politics. But en route she might meet a colleague coming from the other direction who started with the industrial strategy of the Union Minière and, through another imperceptible transition, ended up very interested in the method of extraction of uranium 235, and subsequently in Halban’s calculations. Starting from the politics side, this historian, willingly or not, becomes involved in mathematics. Instead of two histories which do not intersect at any point, we now have people who tell two symmetrical stories which include the same elements and the same actors, but in the opposite order. The first scholar expected to follow Halban’s calculations without having to deal with the Luftwaffe, and the second imagined that he could look at the Union Minière without having to do any atomic physics. (Latour 1999:85-6)

Indeed, when Joliot met Dautry he did not particularly try to change Dautry’s goal, but to position his own project in such a way that Dautry would see the nuclear chain reaction as the fastest and most certain way of achieving national independence. “If you use my laboratory,” Joliot may have said, “it will be possible to gain a significant lead over other countries, and perhaps even to produce an explosive that goes beyond anything we know.” This transaction is not of a commercial nature. For Joliot it is not a question of selling nuclear fission, since it doesn’t even exist yet. On the contrary, the only way he can make it exist is to receive from the Minister of Armaments the personnel, the premises, and the connections that will enable him, in the middle of a war, to obtain the tons of graphite, the uranium, and the liters of heavy water that are needed. Both men believe that, since it is impossible for either to achieve his goal directly, political and scientific purity are in vain, and that it will thus be best to negotiate an arrangement that modifies the relation between their two original goals. (Latour 1999:88)

Joliot crossed and recrossed Paris, moving from mathematics to law and to politics, sending telegrams to Szilard so the flow of publications needed to promote the project would continue, telephoning his legal adviser so the Union Minière would keep sending uranium, and recalculating for the nth time the absorption curve obtained with his rudimentary Geiger counter. Such was his scientific work: holding together all the threads and getting favors from everybody, neutrons, Norwegians, deuterium, colleagues, anti-Nazis, Americans, paraffin … No one said being a scientist was a simple job! To be intelligent, as the word’s etymology indicates, is to be able to hold all these connections at once. To understand science is, with Joliot’s help (and Weart’s), to understand this complex web of connections without imagining in advance that there exist a given state of society and a given state of science. (Latour 1999:90)

LATOUR, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope: essays on the reality of science studies. London: Harvard University Press.