22 August 2010

Why Boffins and Cold Warriors?

What are Boffins and Cold Warriors and why would you pick that as a name for your blog?

'Boffins' is British slang for scientists and engineers. When it was coined in the 30's or 40's it was a term that denoted a degree of respect for those working on radar (RDF in British nomenclature). After the Second World War, especially after the Battle of Britain, Boffins earned a place as heroes for saving Britain and winning the war. Now 'Boffins' has shifted to a term that denotes people who are too smart (at science or technology) for their own good.

Cold Warriors were the American politicians who resisted the spread of Communism. Generally the resistance was more rhetorical, and a means of debasing a domestic political opponent, than direct action against Russia (aka the USSR). American presidents could not afford to appear soft on Communism, even as Communism collapsed under its own mismanaged weight.

Why I would pick these terms as a blog name is a bit more complicated.

My love of history started at a young age as a love of mythical heroes like Robin Hood, Luke Skywalker and King Arthur, or real life heroes like the veterans of the Second World War (one of the few wars that mattered). Years of suffering through the doldrums of 16th through 19th Century Canadian history did not dampen my enthusiasm for history when I got to high school. 20th Century Canada was rich and interesting, and the United States even more so.

My appetite for 20th Century American political history pushed me through an undergraduate history major (the other half of my time was spent introspectively discovering the meaning of arguments via philosophy). The research papers I wrote for both my third and fourth year American history classes were on Star Wars (Reagan, not Lucas). I became fascinated by the interplay of scientists and engineers on the one side and politicians on the other. Boffins and Cold Warriors.

I needed a diversion after undergrad history and philosophy, and employment was clearly out of the question, so I packed up and started fresh in physics. There is something about matrices and Fourier transforms that history and philosophy just can't satisfy. You have to be a boffin, the lame late 20th Century kind, to really and truly appreciate the thrill of solving a problem (and the complete frustration of forgetting an imaginary number).

However, history was still there, calling me back. I started graduate work. Early on I realized that it wasn't enough to simply be passionate about a topic, you had to be passionate about a topic that no one, or very few others, were interested in. It's much easier to be original in an undiscovered pond, than to say something meaningful in the shark tank. Missile defence in the United States is a shark tank. The Canadian perspective on missile defence, the first obvious diversion of my interests, is a quick study in a goldfish pond. It's good enough for an MA but not for a PhD.

The next obvious move is to expand the scope. If missile defence is overkilled in the literature, what does defence research look like? Fortuitously it is understudied, and forutnately the archivists, the participants and the current agency are keen to see a history completed. 15 years ago a history of defence research in Canada could have relied on more oral history to supplement closed archival material. As the archival material opens, the quality and quantity of the oral history diminishes.

So here I am studying Boffins and Cold Warriors. It's an unenviable fact of both growing up and studying more history that you come to realize that your heroes have flaws. Both Boffins and Cold Warriors are heroic, at times, depending on your perspective, and they come with all the flaws of real people. My job is to capture the descriptive balance.

Not only am I fascinated by Boffins and Cold Warriors in general, but specifically the Canadian examples. Canada is the country caught between tradition and geography, Britain and the United States. "Boffins and Cold Warriors" captures the essence of Canada's defence and international relations in the Cold War, the push of a British past and the pull of the American future.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I chose 'Boffins and Cold Warriors.' I love history, politics, science, technology, people, and I am utterly perplexed how all of these forces could combine to repeatedly push civilization to the brink of destruction and unite to bring it back.

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