Gabrielle Hecht is Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where she is also Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She has served as associate director of the University of Michigan’s African Studies Center, and remains an active participant in the ASC’s joint project with the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (South Africa) on Joining Theory and Empiricism in the remaking of the African Humanities.
Hecht has written two award-winning books about nuclear things. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (2012) offers new perspectives on the global nuclear order. An edited version just appeared in French as Uranium Africain, une histoire globale (Le Seuil 2016). The book is the winner of the 2016 4S Rachel Carson Book Prize. It was judged out of a total of 67 eligible titles to stand out amongst contenders for its outstanding empirical and theoretical scholarship combined with profound political messages for nuclear and non-nuclear states across the globe. In the book Gabrielle Hecht tells the story of the doing of this research from 1998 to the book’s publication in 2012. She carried out interviews in uranium mine sites from Gabon, Madagascar, South Africa to Namibia. During this time she consulted official state-sanctioned archives across Europe and Africa. She also travelled globally to find the non-official records, seeking out ex- engineers, geologists and other experts to request permission to see their own personal documents and archives. All of this added up to more than 50,000 pages of archival material and 138 interviews. The book reflects these rich sources of insight. It contains many wonderful, revealing photographs, and it tells, in brilliant detail, stories about the web of connections that bind African states and workers to the global trade in uranium.
The book also contains strong political messages about the status Hecht terms nuclearity. This is the status of ‘being nuclear’, which Hecht clearly argues is not to do with the sheer presence or mining of uranium. Being nuclear, she argues, ‘requires instruments and data, technological systems and infrastructures, national agencies and international organizations, experts and conferences, journals and media explosure’ (2012: 320). When, for any particular state or site, nuclearity is accompanied by these elements, this status of ‘being nuclear’ can provide expertise, resources, protection, regulation, and compensation. But, as she puts it, ‘When (and where) network elements are absent, weak or poorly connected, nuclearity falters, fades or disappears altogether, failing to provide a resource for people claiming remediation or treatment’ (ibid.). Nuclearity, is therefore vital, Hecht argues, not only for nuclear security but for environmental and political security.
Hecht’s first book, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity (1998 & 2009), explores how the French embedded nuclear policy in reactor technology. She is currently beginning a book on technology and power in Africa, as well as a series of essays on radioactive and other forms of waste, tentatively titled Toxic Tales from the African Anthropocene.
Gabrielle Hecht holds a PhD in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania (1992), and a bachelor’s degree in Physics from MIT (1986). Before arriving at UM in 1999, Hecht taught at Stanford University. She’s been a visiting scholar in universities in Australia, France, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden. Hecht’s work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council for Learned Societies, and the South African and Dutch national research foundations, among others. She serves on several scientific advisory boards, including for the Andra, France’s national radioactive waste management agency.