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Gap between science, humanities focus of ASU Polytechnic seminar

Guest speaker discusses the ongoing toll of the Manhattan Project on Nuevomexicano communities


Woman standing at the front of a classroom speaking to students.

Myrriah Gómez, an associate professor in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico, was invited to speak at the Science and Mathematics Colloquium series presented by the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus on Sept. 20. Photo by Sona Srinarayana/ASU

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September 26, 2023

The $900 million box office hit “Oppenheimer” offers a glimpse into the development of the world’s first atomic bomb, but the film leaves a lot about the story of the Manhattan Project — and its ongoing legacy — untold.

The role Nuevomexicano communities played in the Manhattan Project is a topic Myrriah Gómez, an associate professor in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico, dedicates her research to. Gómez shared her work at the Science and Mathematics Colloquium series presented by the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus on Wednesday, Sept. 20.

The series, part of a weekly seminar course, often features invited speakers from across ASU or from other institutions, who share their research or other pursuits that intersect with biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics.

During her seminar, Gómez, a native of New Mexico and author of "Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos," examined colonialityThe policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. , especially nuclear colonialityLong-standing patterns of power that emerge as a result of colonialism, defined by culture, labor, intersubjective relations and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. .

In her book and through her public outreach, she is bringing to light the long-term impacts of the nuclear industrial complex, emphasizing what she sees as the five tenets of nuclear colonialismThe state-sponsored occupation of Indigenous homelands that results in the displacement and/or elimination of Indigenous people and other ethnic minority groups in poor economic situations, in favor of preserving a nuclear economy. : intergenerational trauma; disease and death; contamination; secrecy and obscurity; and environmental racism. Gómez argued that a combination of these injustices continue to plague Nuevomexicano communities.

“We bring discussions like these to our students because as STEM practitioners and researchers, it’s important for them to remember that they operate within cultural environments and societies, not in a vacuum of science or math,” said Igor Shovkovy, a professor of physics and faculty head in CISA’s School of Applied Sciences and Arts. “As educators, our goal is to offer our students a well-rounded education, and this includes a view into the effects of science and technology on humanity.”

Elaborating on the project’s impact on humanity, Gómez said that during the establishment of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, prior to 1942, the site unlawfully displaced many Nuevomexicano families from their ranches. She also uncovered through her research that the site did not meet any of the stipulations required of a bomb-building facility, except one — the reasonable availability of labor.

“The project drew a blue-collar workforce from Nuevomexicano communities in the area — the people that we don’t see or hear about in the movie,” Gómez said. “This workforce became the disposable workforce and collateral damage, and endured disease and death from high levels of plutonium and uranium exposures. The project had a catastrophic effect on communities, cultures and the environment that continue even to this day.”

Eighty years later, Gómez noted, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, is developing a minimum of 50 new weapons per year, and that number is expected to grow, while Nuevomexicano communities are still reeling from the effects of major cancer clusters stemming from the Manhattan Project. She says the U.S. rationalizes this effort to keep up with the global “nuclear arms race.”

“Chemicals were mishandled during the Manhattan Project,” Shovkovy said. “This has happened countless times in history and continues to happen today with coal mining, fracking and various other activities that pollute our environment. We need to do better.”

Professor Elizabeth J. Donaldson, director of CISA’s School of Applied Sciences and Arts, said, “This is the untold story of the nuclear arms race, and it was a fascinating discussion led by Myrriah Gómez as part of our Hispanic Heritage Month programming. It's seminars like these that really embrace what it means to be polytechnic learners and that enable CISA to bridge science and humanities.”

Gómez’s book is available for purchase for those interested in learning more.

CISA’s Science and Mathematics Colloquium series events are free, open to the public and offered in person at ASU's Polytechnic campus and via Zoom. The public events are posted on the CISA homepage, CISA social media platforms and ASU Events as they are announced.

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