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The new prophet : Harold C. Urey, scientist, atheist, and defender of religion


During the 1950s, American chemist and Nobel laureate Harold C. Urey began advocating the necessity of a new "prophet" to bring together the inspiring scientific view of the universe with the moral teachings of the traditional western religions. This was necessary, he claimed, because neither science nor society could survive without these moral teachings. Likewise, Urey believed that these religions could not survive if they were not brought up-to-date with scientific progress. This dissertation is a social and cultural biography that examines this turn to religion in light of Urey's religious upbringing in the Church of the Brethren at the turn of the century, his scientific training and rise to fame during the 1910s and 20s, his turn to earth and planetary science after World War II, his attempts at political activism during the Cold War, and his participation in NASA's lunar exploration program during the 1950s and 60s. Urey's turn to religion was not based on a faith in god. He was a self-avowed atheist. This turn was instead a product of two Cold War crises - the postwar trauma of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War trauma of McCarthyism and the loyalty-security system. The first of these crises pushed Urey's postwar research program away from the isotope separation work that had made him famous and into the earth and planetary sciences. The second crisis pushed Urey's public rhetoric away from an optimistic scientific utopianism and hope of a world united under one government. He instead turned toward advocating a new, meaningful engagement between science and spirit. This engagement was difficult to foster, even with the largest and potentially most inspiring scientific projects, as Urey discovered in his work with NASA. Urey's intervention in the "Big Science" of NASA was no more successful than his intervention in Cold War politics. The bureaucratization of science during the Cold War made it difficult for Urey to champion his view of the moon as a cosmogonic Rosetta Stone. Although scientists found themselves better funded than before WWII, their own agency within the new bureaucratic structure of science was limited

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