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A controlled environment: phytotrons, Cold War life science, and the making of the experimental plant

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My talk tells of the quest to gain scientific and technological mastery over the environment in the life sciences. Because living things are a product of their genes and their environments, alongside the famed discovery of genes there was the simultaneous discovery of the biological environment. To experiment on the biological environment plant scientists built wonders of twentieth century life science and environmental engineering: now forgotten laboratories called ‘phytotrons’. To create phytotrons, biologists became technologists because to learn about plants and animals meant learning about the technological systems that replicated and monitored their development. In the Cold War they revealed the shape of the environment, the limits of growth and development, and the limits of control over complex systems. There is no better time to remember the science of the biological environment amid the challenge of climate change. When Los Angeles choked on smog in the 1940s, city officials turned to the new phytotron at Caltech for answers. Experiments proved the harmful effects of smog on plants and people which lead to the initial efforts to curb air pollution. Now, a half century later, the phytotron’s successors called biotrons and ecotrons are discovering connections between life and a changing environment. I can only hint at the larger history of ‘trons’ that replicated the worldview of the Cold War era in both phytotrons, biotrons, climatrons, and ecotrons as well as in cyclotrons, cosmotrons, and bevatrons. Indeed, from the algatron to the zootron, the history of science since 1945 is a world of trons.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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