Université de Strasbourg

Matthias Dörries


Henri-Poincaré Archives - Philosophy and Research for Science and Technology (AHP-PReST), University of Strasbourg and CNRS

Matthias Dörries, USIAS Fellow 2018

Professor Matthias Dörries has worked at the University of Strasbourg as professor for history and epistemology of science since 1999. He is the president of European Inter-University Association on Society, Science & Technology (ESST), vice-chair of the journal Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (University of California Press) since 2008, and was the director of the Interdisciplinary Research Institute for Science and Technology (IRIST) from 2013 to 2017. After studies in the natural and human sciences at the universities of Freiburg, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris, followed by a PhD in the history of science at the Free University of Berlin in 1989, he was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley (1989-1991), and a fellow at the Centre for Research in History of Science and Technology (CRHST) in Paris (1991-1993). In 1993 he obtained a five-year habilitation grant at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the Research Institute for the History of Science and Technology of the Deutsches Museum. After his habilitation in 1998 in history of science, he worked as a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin (department of Professor Lorraine Daston) from 1999 to 2001. His research over the last decade has focused on the history of the (geo)physical sciences from the 18th to the 20th centuries, particularly the history of the atmospheric sciences and climate change.

Project - Geoengineering, thought experiments, and the Cold War

September 2018 – August 2020

The 1950s and 1960s saw a flood of imaginative large-scale environmental engineering projects. This project examines the scientific and political culture that made these projects viable, despite their highly speculative nature. While the American military financed a wide number of partly secret interdisciplinary scenarios to study the possible strategic use of geoengineering as a weapon, there was also an abundant parallel literature on terraforming and planetary engineering in the scientific and literary realms. The project aims to look not only at the social political settings of these scenarios, but also to enquire what made these speculations or thought experiments legitimate to the scientific community. The project relies on archival research, specifically the archives of mathematician John von Neumann, astronomer Carl Sagan (Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the US Library of Congress), and geophysicist Gordon J.F. MacDonald.

There is a rich and abundant literature on Cold War science, mostly published in the last two decades. Crucial publications on geoengineering, such as James Rodger Fleming’s book on climate modification and Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s book on how military strategic planning created “catastrophic environmentalism” to defeat the enemy, have provided very useful accounts of the close links between the military and science during the Cold War. This study intends to go beyond these studies in three ways. First, it aims to examine the specific social and political settings in which these speculations abounded. Second, it aims to identify the dominant scientific culture behind these engineering projects by looking at what made these scenarios, or rather thought experiments, possible during the 1950s and 1960s. Third, it introduces a comparative perspective, by looking at how French and German scientists and politicians reacted to these proposals.

The project contributes to the history of geoengineering and thus to the current debates about climate change and possible intervention into the Earth’s climate. Geoengineering, or climate engineering, is currently on the political and scientific agenda after having been taboo to the scientific community until 2006, when the atmospheric scientist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen advocated for it. This project revisits the Cold War decades of the 1950s and 1960s to look at the political, scientific and cultural contexts that made speculations about large-scale environmental engineering possible and acceptable. By identifying the forces that shaped a culture of speculation about large-scale engineering, the project provides a historical reflexion on geoengineering and sheds additional light on current discussions.

Investissements d'Avenir