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CSS Colloquium: Lif Jacobsen, Danish National Archive

Seismograph Diplomacy: monitoring nuclear explosions and conducting science diplomacy, 1958-1965

2020.09.22 | Randi Mosegaard

Date Thu 08 Oct
Time 14:15 15:45
Location 1531-119 (Aud D2)


Science diplomacy is the act of using science or scientists to advance foreign policy objectives. An alternative to direct diplomacy, it is based on the universality of scientific methods, to foster cooperation and communication in politically tense situations. In literature on the Cold War, science & politics are often understood in terms of hegemonic conflicts in a bi-polar political landscape. While the perspective of science diplomacy does not alter hegemonic perspectives, it does call for a more nuanced reading of scientists’ international activities. It allows us to see more clearly how scientists, on behalf of their nation-states, could negotiate foreign relationships. Also, since such indirect diplomacy did not rely on political or military power, it gave small nation-states and international organizations a way to try to advance their own objectives independent of the dominant powers.

This was evident when government scientists from both sides of the iron curtain met in Geneva in 1958 and 1959 to create the technical basis for monitoring a future nuclear test ban treaty. Despite their scientific veneer, these meetings were politically motivated and the scientists tried to forward USA or Soviet objectives via their technical discussions. Seismographic data was a cornerstone of the proposed monitoring regime, but when discussions became political, so did the instruments that produced the scientific data. Thus, seismographs became contested diplomatic objects used to support or challenge foreign policy objectives.

After the collapse of the scientific meetings, the US distributed seismographs as diplomatic gifts to create a worldwide US-controlled nuclear detection network in 1960. To exploit data from the network without supporting US policy objectives, the USSR in 1961 proposed to exchange US for Soviet seismographs, as two objects of equal value. That allowed each power to access the other’s technology without creating bonds of mutual obligations. However, this type of inverted, object-based diplomacy also gave scientists from international scientific organisations or small, non-nuclear nations like Denmark a tool to engage in nuclear diplomacy.

The colloquium willl be streamed: https://aarhusuniversity.zoom.us/j/63558728159

Coffee, tea, cakes and fruit will be served before the colloquium @ 2 pm

Lecture / talk