Joan Hinton passed away just this June 8, 2010. It was a truly heart-breaking news for me, who first encountered her written work in a reader on the women’s movement. It was the first on-the-ground account of socialism that I encountered, and it captivated my mind that has only experienced life in a neocolonial state.
I further discovered who she was in her biography “Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits”, a riveting account of her life of revolutionary struggle in China alongside husband Sid Engst. It showed to me how a people’s scientist should be – one who is not defined by the facilities and equipment that one uses, but by the people his knowledge has served. One whose driving purpose is not to discover and develop advancements for fame and fortune, but to apply and practice science for social change and social justice.
Below is an article on Hinton that came out in the Prometheus Bound column of patriotic scientist group AGHAM. Let us remember, if not discover, who Joan Hinton was, her contributions that helped build a genuine people’s democratic society, and why we should keep her memory alive in our practices as scientists and technologists.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
By Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.
Joan Hinton: People’s scientist
Living in a dairy farm near the Chinese capital is Joan Hinton, an American nuclear scientist who worked for the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. One of the few women involved in the project, she also worked on water boiler reactors as a graduate student of Enrico Fermi in Chicago.
She witnessed the first test of a nuclear weapon in 1945 at White Sands near Alamogordo, New Mexico. In describing the Trinity test, the first test of a bomb similar to what was dropped at Nagasaki, Hinton said that “it was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light” with a cloud that was “dark and red at the bottom and daylight at the top.” She later then resigned from the project after the US government used atomic weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Afterwards, she went around in Washington and other embassies to warn against the dangers of nuclear weapons.
In an interview with Catherine Makino of IPS Tokyo, Hinton likened her experience to building a bike. “At that time,” she said, “I realised there was no such thing as pure physics. It was like building a bike. Anybody can ride it, but you have to know where you are going.” After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan Hinton definitely knew where she was going.
The colors she saw at Trinity presaged the colors she would embrace when she went to China in 1948 during the Chinese Revolution. A TIME magazine article in 1954, detailing the hearings of the US Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on her brother, William “Bill”Hinton, described Joan as “an attractive blonde prep-school girl, interested in horses and sports” when she went to China in 1948 and worked in an iron factory making carts.
Witnessing the transformation of China in 1949 as Beijing was liberated by the Communists under Mao Zedong, the physicist contributed her talents towards improving agricultural machinery and dairy production in a commune. Asked why she decided to go to China, Hinton said that she wanted to “find out how the Chinese communists defeated Japan and the Chinese Nationalists—who were supported by the US—when all they had was millet and rifles.”
Together with her brother Bill and husband Erwin “Sid” Engst, they were caught up in the social transformation of what was then a backward agrarian country into a socialized industrial powerhouse. In the same year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the couple married in a mountainous Chinese village and joined the cause to which they’ve been devoted ever since.
With the determination and skill as she worked as a physicist, Joan Hinton worked on agricultural machinery to help people have a better life. With problems as difficult as working on the bomb, she solved problems on a state-owned farm on the outskirts north of Beijing. She designs better milking parlors, using computers to monitor cows and does research on cattle reproduction as well.
Using her science for the people’s benefit, she uses local resources to develop simple tools as well as more complicated machinery, learning as one should along the way. She also extols the virtue of mobilizing people to achieve a goal, with the power of “the hands of the people” everyone can achieve full potential under such socialized circumstances where no one exploits any other.
She was witness to the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao and the subsequent rise to power of Deng Xiao Ping. Joan Hinton got her wish to see how peasants, starting with millet and rifles, transformed their country through socialism. She also saw how this development was hijacked by a few leaders and reversed the course of China’s development. In later years, as China embraced capitalism, they “have watched their socialist dream fall apart” as “the difference between the poor and the rich . . . is growing.”
Now called Han Chun by the Chinese, her story is of an individual who left her promising background for a more promising future of building a society that benefits the many. She witnessed the transformation of China from a semi-feudal nation, through its program of land reform and subsequent industrial expansion, to become a nation at par with other industrialized countries.
Sid Engst died in 2003 and Joan Hinton, erstwhile nuclear physicist, now 87, still lives in China in a dairy farm, continuing her commitment to building socialism and the continuing struggle for liberation.
IBON Foundation is due to release a new biography of Joan Hinton and Sid Engst that reveals the actual situation during the socialist period in China. The book Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits tells their story and how a nuclear physicist and a farmer became internationalists and revolutionaries.
Dr. Tapang is the chairperson of AGHAM.