Scholars Hecht, Edwards join CISAC

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The Robinson dam in Randfontein, South Africa, is contaminated and highly radioactive with uranium and iron pyrite from years of acid mine drainage. New CISAC scholars Gabrielle Hecht and Paul N. Edwards study the intersections between science, technology and society. Hecht wrote an award winning book on African uranium production and its political, cultural and social impacts.
Photo credit: 
Getty Images/Mitchell Krog

Renowned scholars Gabrielle Hecht and Paul N. Edwards joined Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation this summer.

Hecht was named the Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security, and Edwards is the William J. Perry Fellow in International Security. Until recently, Hecht and Edwards taught at the University of Michigan. They boost CISAC’s faculty prowess on nuclear, climate, and computer issues, and in the more general domain of science, technology and society.

Hecht: nuclear perspectives

Hecht also will serve as a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and as a professor in Stanford’s Department of History. She taught at the University of Michigan for the past 18 years, where she was director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and associate director of the African Studies Center, among other highlights.

Before joining the University of Michigan, she taught at Stanford from 1991 to 1998. Hecht has been a visiting scholar at universities in Africa, Europe and Australia.

Hecht has written two award-winning books on nuclear issues: Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (2012), which offers new perspectives on the global nuclear order, and The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity (1998 & 2009), which explores how complex relationships among technology and politics shaped early French nuclear policy.

Among other issues, Hecht studies the wastes produced by nuclear development. “Scholars and policymakers have long focused on the what-if scenarios of nuclear war,” she said. “But it’s equally vital to understand the environmental and human security damage that has actually occurred during seven-plus decades of nuclear weapons and power.”

Hecht’s teaching addresses such concerns on a global level. Her research focuses on Africa, long left out of nuclear histories.

In any given year of the Cold War, mines in Africa provided between 20 and 50 percent of the capitalist world’s uranium, including much of the material for nuclear weapons in the U.S., France and Britain. These sites continue to produce toxic and radioactive contamination in South Africa, Namibia, Gabon, Niger, and elsewhere, said Hecht. They pose significant security concerns at the local, regional, and global levels.

Studying these sites also offers a window onto the Anthropocene, a concept now used by natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists to describe how human activity has affected the Earth’s geological and biophysical properties, Hecht said.

“In order for the concept to have real planetary significance, we must see it from a variety of perspectives – including those originating in African societies and environments, which are on the front lines of global climate change and other environmental catastrophes,” she said.

The CISAC opportunity gives Hecht the chance to extend her scholarly research into the world of policy in the U.S. She’s already made these inroads into the French policy community by, for example, serving on several advisory boards, including for the Andra, France’s national radioactive waste management agency.

Hecht earned a doctorate in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania (1992), and a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT (1986).

Edwards: knowledge and information infrastructures

Edwards, a professor in University of Michigan’s School of Information and history department, studies the history, politics, and cultural aspects of computers, information infrastructures, and global climate science.

“I’m interested in how we know what we know about climate change,” Edwards said in an interview.

After this spring’s U.S. retreat from the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, Edwards has seen heightened interest in how knowledge about climate change is created, conveyed, disputed, and used. He is keenly intrigued by the “historical trajectory of knowledge infrastructures,” and how they unfold in the Anthropocene era.

He also plans to work on a nuclear security project with CISAC’s William J. Perry and Scott Sagan on the legality of nuclear war. Modern climate models show that the climatic effects (“nuclear winter”) of even a relatively small nuclear war could be severe enough to affect noncombatant nations worldwide, he noted.

“So, we are asking, is it even legal to start a nuclear war?” he said.

In the year ahead, Edwards will be co-teaching a course on “averting near-term human extinction” and undertaking another on “techno-metabolism.” The latter concerns how human technological systems, much like biological organisms, consume energy and materials and excrete waste — but unlike ecosystems, obtain most energy from unrenewable fossil sources and fail to recycle wastes.

At Michigan, he served as the director of the university’s Science, Technology & Society Program. His award-winning books include A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (2010) and The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1996).

Edwards also previously taught at Stanford, from 1992 to 1998. He earned a doctorate in the history of consciousness at UC Santa Cruz (1988) and a bachelor’s degree in language and mind at Wesleyan University (1980).

Hecht and Edwards met in 1992 while co-teaching a course in Stanford’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. They have taught together many times since then, most notably inaugurating a course on nuclear and climate catastrophes at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). They have also co-authored several essays, including an article on the technopolitics of apartheid and its opponents, which appeared in the leading Journal of Southern African Studies.

MEDIA CONTACT:

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488, cbparker@stanford.edu