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May 2017
360 pages  
38 b&w Illustrations
6 x 9
9780822944744
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Engineering the Environment
Phytotrons and the Quest for Climate Control in the Cold War
Munns, David
This is the first history of phytotrons, huge climate-controlled laboratories that enabled plant scientists to experiment on the environmental causes of growth and development of living organisms. Made possible by computers and other modern technologies of the early Cold War, phytotrons promised an end to global hunger and political instability, spreading around the world to thirty countries after World War II.
David P. D. Munns is associate professor of history at John Jay College, City University of New York. He is the author of A Single Sky: How an International Community Forged the Science of Radio Astronomy.
Engineering the Environment offers a lively history of a mostly forgotten but ultimately fascinating scientific instrument. This compelling story of phytotrons and the dreams and disappointments of the technologist-biologists who built them brings new insights and much-needed diversity to the historiography of twentieth-century biology.”—Helen Anne Curry, University of Cambridge

“David Munns has written a carefully grounded and clearly worded account of a subject that is at once important, complex, and woefully neglected. This book will be stimulating to readers interested not only in the ways the phytotron recast the relationship between genes and environment, but also to a much larger group interested broadly in climate change and agricultural technology.”—Joseph A. November, University of South Carolina

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History of Science
History of Technology
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Promising an end to global hunger and political instability, huge climate-controlled laboratories known as phytotrons spread around the world to thirty countries after the Second World War. The United States built nearly a dozen, including the first at Caltech in 1949. Made possible by computers and other novel greenhouse technologies of the early Cold War, phytotrons enabled plant scientists to experiment on the environmental causes of growth and development of living organisms. Subsequently, they turned biologists into technologists who, in their pursuit of knowledge about plants, also set out to master the machines that controlled their environment.

Engineering the Environment tells the forgotten story of a research program that revealed the shape of the environment, the limits of growth and development, and the limits of human control over complex technological systems. As support and funding for basic science dwindled in the mid-1960s, phytotrons declined and ultimately disappeared—until, nearly thirty years later, the British built the Ecotron to study the impact of climate change on biological communities. By revisiting this history of phytotrons, David Munns reminds us of the vital role they can play in helping researchers unravel the complexities of natural ecosystems in the Anthropocene.

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