The Natural Laboratory of the Southwest

Any description of the American Southwest's contributions to science naturally includes the historic research at Los Alamos National Laboratory -- a feat of physics that tends to overshadow other significant science taking place throughout the region. Until now, no single volume has illustrated the historical context of the region's breakthroughs in astronomy, archaeology, agriculture and more. 

Former Southwesterner George Webb, historian of science and professor of history at Tennessee Tech University, traces the scientific movements of the Southwest from their origins to present day in the newly released "Science in the American Southwest: A Topical History" (The University of Arizona Press, 2002).

From clearer skies for astronomers to unique flora and fauna, the wide open spaces of Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas have offered scientists a natural laboratory for their studies for centuries. 

"The natural laboratory concept underlays most of the early developments in science in the Southwest," said Webb. "Its atmospheric quality has been important for astronomy; not only is the atmosphere cloudless, but the air itself is steady, with few air currents."

That climate gave rise to the nation's most prominent observatories: Kitt Peak, Lowell, Steward, and the radio astronomy of the Very Large Array.

"The environment allowed astronomers to push their technology as far as it would go," said Webb. "That's why the desert Southwest remains one of the world's centers of optical astronomy."

The roots of today's science can be found centuries back, with the work of early inhabitants and explorers. Today's agricultural innovations, for example, were foreshadowed by the crop selection and irrigation systems of the desert tribes.

"In the Southwest, you have a harsh, unforgiving environment," said Webb. "If you're going to live there, you have to come to terms with that very basic fact. Whether you're talking about the Hopi on the mesas or the large-scale irrigation projects of the 20th century or the fact that you have to tailor crops to the climate -- all of this is a response to a unique environment."

The region gave naturalists plants and animals that were totally unknown. Archaeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists found ruins of ancient civilizations amazingly intact, allowing for the study of cultural origins, and a rich fossil record, contributing to a better understanding of the emergence of mammals.

Despite these contributions, the American Southwest is perhaps best known for the national laboratories of Los Alamos and Sandia, as well as White Sands Missile Range. The Southwest, after all, gave birth to one of the largest and most controversial contributions to science: our understanding of atomic energy. Ramping up the nuclear weaponry supporting World War II caused an explosion of scientific endeavor.
Even so, the Southwest remains one of the most sparsely populated regions in the United States. For that reason alone, Webb points out, the concentration of science in the Southwest is even more remarkable -- and he attributes it to the forethought of the region's founding fathers.

"One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Southwest is the incredible amount of institutional support that both science and education generally have," said Webb. "Consider this: Both Arizona and New Mexico set up their university systems before statehood. They were territories. They didn't have a vote in Congress, and they couldn't vote for president. Yet they could elect their own territorial legislatures, which set up not just individual schools, but whole systems.

"Their efforts were geared toward the economy, to be sure. Mining and agriculture were hugely important, so mining schools and agricultural experiment stations were established. But these were only part of a larger university system. That commitment to higher education was extraordinary."

It's that institutional base that has allowed Southwestern science to thrive, even during economic slumps. The critical mass of "big science" in the region continues to attract federal funding. It was a natural progression, for instance, from the remarkable early contributions of astronomy to becoming a valuable player in research and development for NASA. The region has given us three major space exploration endeavors: the early lunar probes of Project Ranger, the imaging system of the Voyager spacecrafts and, most recently, the sophisticated hardware of Mars Pathfinder. 

Throughout "Science and the American Southwest," Webb shows how science and culture are intertwined in the region's development. Ferenc Szasz, author of the "The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion," calls it "a solidly researched book -- indeed, the very first one to discuss the role of science in the American Southwest. These excellent observations, linking science and region over time, deserve to be better known."

Webb, who joined the Tennessee Tech history faculty in 1978, earned a his doctorate from the University of Arizona. He is the author of "Tree Rings and Telescopes: The Scientific Career of A.E. Douglass" (University of Arizona Press, 1983) and "The Evolution Controversy in America" (University Press of Kentucky, 1994), which was nominated for awards from the History of Science Society and the Society for Social Studies of Science. A frequent contributor to numerous professional journals and reference works, he's written more than 100 articles, essays, papers and reviews.