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MSc History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
The Nuclear Age: Global Nuclear Threats from Hiroshima to Today

Unit code HSTM60662
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? No


From the detonation of the first nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, nuclear weapons, nuclear energy and the culture surrounding them have shaped our lives and the world in which we live. Nuclearism transformed international military, political and economic relationships. It also transformed popular culture and social life: art, literature and film as well as politics and military doctrine have all reflected and embodied the traumas of nuclear culture


This unit aims: 
- To provide an introduction to the history and politics of nuclear weapons and to the culture of the nuclear age, starting from the atomic bombing in Japan and ending with the present days concerns about the uses of atomic energy and weaponry.
- To explore the interactions of science, technology, politics, gender and cultural production in the nuclear world.
- To examine and assess the impact of the nuclear age on human affairs.
- To consider the various theories available in explaining nuclear weapons in the context of HSTM studies and the study of international relations and global affairs.

Teaching and learning methods

The unit will be taught in six two-hour seminar sessions. Each session will focus on, typically, two required texts (usually articles or article-length book extracts) which address the weekly theme from different perspectives. Most texts will be secondary sources from the scholarly HSTM/STS.IR literature, but coverage will also include primary literature, popular writing, films (e.g. Dr. Strangelove, Threads). All texts will be made available online in advance, and accompanied in the unit handbook by guide questions to focus the students’ investigation and act as prompts for seminar discussion. 
Seminar attendance is not assessed, but full participation is required for all students. 
The class lecturer will as far as possible take a background moderating role to allow direct discussion between the students, intervening to deal with digressions or misunderstandings or to suggest further ideas. If the discussion is not flowing freely, the lecturer will take a more active role, prompting responses based on the pre-circulated guide questions. 
Students will develop several assessments based on seminar discussions and individual study. One-to-one discussion meetings will be available for planning. Lecturers will offer feedback on drafts, at a level consistent with being able to offer an equal degree of support to all students in the group. 
In addition to the seminars, which run over six weeks, students are strongly encouraged to attend the lectures delivered for the undergraduate sister unit, which runs over 12 weeks, through the whole semester.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Understand the origins of nuclear weapons and have an appreciation of the debates surrounding their use from 1945; 
  • Appreciate the diverse reasons for the proliferation and control of nuclear weapons and the relationships between science, politics and state formations in the Cold War and after;

Intellectual skills

  • Be able to analyse the cultural phenomena associated with nuclear weapons, including film, literature, television and the media; 
  • Be able to discern the effect of nuclear weapons on military strategy both in general terms and in specific instances, e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis; 
  • Evaluate the various options available for energy provision and how nuclear energy sits within these alternatives;
  • Inscribe nuclear weapons and atomic energy within a portfolio of competing theories and approaches in HSTM and IR.

Practical skills

  • Present and defend original and independent arguments in the context of group discussion;
  • Recall, interpret and critically examine strengths and shortcomings in individual source texts;
  • Explore a variety of online archival repositories discussing the development of nuclear weapons and atomic energy and use them in preparing assessments and reports;

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Discern individual policies regarding nuclear weapons and atomic energy at national level (e.g. on the Trident renewal);
  • Evaluate individual policies regarding nuclear weapons and atomic energy at international level (e.g. on smuggling of nuclear weapons, “rogue state” programmes, etc.);
  • Engage in discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of current and prospective policies.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Feedback methods

Essays will be submitted, and feedback delivered, electronically, typically via Turnitin GradeMark. Following the return of feedback, assessors will also be available for one-to-one discussion meetings with students.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 138

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Simone Turchetti Unit coordinator

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