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Science in the Age of Invincible Surmise: Nuclear Optimism and the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project

Martin, Joseph D.



The Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project at the University of Michigan was an unusual specimen of the post–World War II nuclear research initiative. Its origins were modest; it sprang from a student-led effort to construct a living war memorial—a mission it maintained even as it grew into a peaceful-atom program. Rather than taking advantage of the copious government support for scientific research available after World War II, it drew funds from Michigan alumni and from industry, based on the conviction that these routes offered greater possibility of academic freedom. And its architects conceived of nuclear research unusually broadly, including not just the physical sciences and engineering, but also the biological, social, and human sciences, law, education, medicine, and other areas. These ways in which the Phoenix Project was exceptional nevertheless tell us much about how it was exemplary. The optimism that animated the project contrasts with widespread and well-documented currents of nuclear fear, but indicates a stable vein of nuclear optimism in the early post–World War II era. The suspicion of government secrecy regimes harbored by its founders led them to pursue unorthodox patronage relationships for a nuclear research initiative, which nevertheless reveals the flexibility of the contemporary funding context. And the project’s unusually broad notion of nuclear research indicates the local flexibility of nuclearity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This paper is part of a special issue entitled “Revealing the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project.”


Martin, J. D. (2021). Science in the Age of Invincible Surmise: Nuclear Optimism and the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 51(2), 179-208.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 21, 2020
Online Publication Date Apr 1, 2021
Publication Date Apr 1, 2021
Deposit Date Jul 23, 2020
Journal Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Print ISSN 1939-1811
Electronic ISSN 1939-182X
Publisher University of California Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 51
Issue 2
Pages 179-208

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