P.O. Box 1663 and Memex

Last week I wanted to have coffee and conversation with Vannevar Bush.  And, not just Vannevar.  I wanted to hang with the scientists for whom P.O. Box 1663 was a community of sorts in a particular historical moment: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Isidor Rabi, Joan Hinton, Leona Woods.  I wanted to walk the hallways, look over their shoulders at the work they were doing, see what they were seeing, listen to the intensity and feel the mixture of excitement and fear in their voices and in the glances they surely gave each other as they puzzled over equations on a chalkboard.

What was it like to feel the weight of the first nuclear arms race–would the Nazis find a way to purify uranium-235 first?  What was it like to live where any and all mail must be addressed to P.O. Box 1663 and was opened, read, screened, whether coming or going?  What was it like to be gathered in Los Alamos, living in Site Y, loving the science, heady with the collaborative creative energies fostered by the advent of patriotic science?  Did they call J. Robert O. “Bob”? “J.R.”?  Were any of his colleagues nervous that he was a “political” scientist, that his gf, his wife, his brother, Frank, and Frank’s wife were communists?  How to reckon all that creative collaborative energy with the burden of what it meant to make the world safe for democracy…wait…didn’t the war to end all wars fix that?

It is for me always about the complexity.  Nothing is simple, and binaries are rarely useful.  And the complexity of connection is just that–delightfully, remarkably, fascinatingly complex.  From the perhaps mundane of how we refer to each other, of what we name things, and how that can signify meaning, to the very difficult to fully understand significance of the best uses of any technology, of any tool, in any specific context–those are interesting questions to me.  Not equally important at all moments, to be sure, but somehow all a part of attempts at rich understanding.

“As We May Think” made me think about indexing memories and technologies, and it made me think about 1945.  July, 1945, brought us the successful testing of “The Gadget,” with an explosive power of upwards of 20 kilotons of TNT, and it also brought us the idea of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, “a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.  It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.” That’s a richly complex connection.  Most significant, it is the evolution of Vannevar’s Memex that allows me to muse, search, write, and share (or to “Narrate, Curate, Share,” as Gardner Campbell would say) in just the way I am doing at this very moment.  From wondering about the question of whether or not human cognition is gendered to what difference it did or did not make in various moments to be Joan or Leona in the hallways of Los Alamos as scientists wrestled with both the science and the applications of the science, to talking with my partner about these complexities and having her tell me the story of her uncle Arthur and about visiting him in the ’50s in Los Alamos and the mail to and from P.O. Box 1663.  I knew about uncle Arthur, who fascinated an 8-yr-old girl because he was oddly interesting and his socks never matched, but I didn’t know about his fascination with Stellar pulsations.

Bush’s desire to help us review our past, shady and otherwise, and “analyze more completely” our present problems has led to the development of tools that enlarge and supplement.  And, the evolution helps me index, after a fashion, ideas and stories.  I am encouraged to remember to focus on the richness and the complexity as I try to make meaning.  I can ping from wondering about Joan Hinton’s story, her fascination with the science while working at Los Alamos, and her profound and lasting dismay when she realized that 66,500 Japanese killed instantly was very different from an Alamagordo demonstration.  I can place that story next to the complexity of J. Robert O.’s shift from the ‘father’ of the A-bomb to the anti H-bomb activist because is “a genocidal weapon” whose “only conceivable purpose would be the destruction of civilian populations in the tens or hundreds of millions.”  Doing so helps me avoid a tendency to make a simplistic assumption about gendered science.

I imagine that I will have the desire for coffee and conversation with several of the authors I’ll read over the next several weeks.  I know that I will want coffee and more conversation with the colleagues in nmfs11, the F2F and virtual colleagues.  I am looking forward to the sharing of narratives and stories.

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