Everybody likes shiny things, including historians of science. When researching the history of physicists and engineers in the “long 1970s”—which the historian Cyrus C. M. Mody defines as the era spanning from around 1966 (the peak of military science funding) to roughly 1983 (the reprise of Cold War tensions early in Ronald Reagan’s first term)—the historian’s eye is naturally drawn to the protesters, commune builders, thermonuclear utopians, and curmudgeons. They leap off the archival pages and demand that their stories be told. The catch, as Mody rightly notes, is that the overwhelming majority of physical and engineering scientists of that era were neither Edward Teller fanboys nor especially “groovy.” As he puts it, they were “politically ambivalent or reticent.” They were squares.

An ad for the Intel 4004 microprocessor that first appeared in the 15 November 1971 issue of Electronic News.

An ad for the Intel 4004 microprocessor that first appeared in the 15 November 1971 issue of Electronic News.

Close modal

The squares have waited a long time to be featured as the stars, rather than the straight men, and they are fortunate that a person of Mody’s talents has taken them up. (The gendered language in this review is deliberate, as essentially everyone discussed in this book, especially the major characters, is male, an overwhelming demographic asymmetry well reflected in the data on the profession Mody cites.) The Squares: US Physical and Engineering Scientists in the Long 1970s adopts two approaches to its subject. The first sees Mody in an oracular mode, as he analyzes sociological trends and looks for patterns in the social evolution of the square scientist as a type. Those revelations cast the 1970s as not simply a transitional caesura but as an era with its own character and importance.

The second approach is the historian’s fondness for case studies. Mody dives deep into the weeds and sometimes even the gaps between the weeds. His characters come to life in those pages: globalizers at the Silicon Valley stalwart Signetics (“the squarest [case] in this book”), proponents of automated agriculture, and the increasingly obsolescent NASA engineer—whose raison d’être, reaching the Moon, was a fabulous success but catastrophically annihilated the rationale for governmental budgetary largesse. But, as with all composites of case studies, one wonders: Are those examples cherry-picked?

Mody’s refreshingly frank answer is yes and no. Case studies are hard work and demand access to archives, and Mody concentrated on those that were most proximate to his academic career: Santa Barbara for a nanotechnology and society working group at the University of California that he collaborated with, Houston because he taught at Rice University, a smattering of Dutch sources because of his current position at the University of Maastricht, and so on. His choices of scientists and engineers to highlight “are meant to be illuminating rather than representative”; they are illustrative individuals, not Platonic squares.

Even if his subjects are not statistically representative, the middle, nonoracular chapters of the book make for fascinating reading. My favorite is on Jack Kilby, widely credited as one of the inventors of the integrated circuit, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000. That work was done at Texas Instruments. Mody starts there and follows Kilby’s path into a kind of corporate-subsidized independent scholar.

He zeroes in on one proposal by Kilby to develop solar power for the suburban home, which was not a response to the groovy vibe for green technology but an affordable solution to the energy crisis. Kilby’s system ended up in limbo, in part because, as Mody persuasively argues, he refused to build alliances with environmentalists and other longhairs: “In Kilby’s future America, no credit for the country’s energy transformation would go to leftie environmentalists.” When the economic rationale for his kind of middle-class solar energy dissipated in the go-go 1980s, so did Kilby’s Texas Instruments Solar Energy System.

When examining the other cases, one cannot help but question how “square” they really are. (Not Kilby: He’s spot on.) Indeed, the first square Mody follows closely is David Phillips, an industrial consultant and part-time physics instructor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who dedicated his research to … parapsychology. I am the last person to argue that research on extrasensory perception should be exiled from the history of science, but it hardly seems the best example to introduce us to the notion of squareness. Mody maintains that Phillips was “square relative to some of [his] peers and flamboyantly countercultural relative to other colleagues.” Even so, there remains a risk of bending a very useful category out of its analytical precision.

In the end, the oracular voice provides the punch of the book for nonspecialists, and that punch is worth the price of admission. One of Mody’s main aims in the conclusion is to give an account of how social responsibility in science—or what today is often termed responsible research and innovation—has come in and out of vogue over time. Mody’s contextualization of that cyclical trajectory from the long 1970s to today offers much food for thought. Even the squares of that era got on board with developing science for a sustainable future—at least for a time. Will today’s scientists do the same, and for how long?

Michael D. Gordin is the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University. He is currently working on a history of Soviet and post-Soviet science from 1986 to the present.