12. July 2019 | Magazine:

The Bridge Professor Christian Kehrt researches and teaches at the interfaces of science, technology and society

Christian Kehrt has been Professor of Modern History with a focus on the history of science and technology at the TU Braunschweig for four years. The aim of his professorship is to convey a historical understanding of modern, technically shaped culture. This also includes strengthening the awareness that science, technology and society are inseparably interwoven. In an interview, he talks about his current research, how he finds his topics and about the interdisciplinary potential of the TU Braunschweig.

Christian Kehrt is Professor of Modern History with a focus on the history of science and technology at the TU Braunschweig. Picture credits: Ivo Mayer

What topics do you deal with in the history of science and technology?

The history of aviation and space travel is certainly one of my main subjects, which I pursue on a regional, national and international level. My dissertation, for example, dealt with human-machine interactions of pilots in the age of world wars. I am currently investigating this issue in relation to the role of automated flight controls and the introduction of the computer in the cockpit in the 1970s and 1980s. But also the role of aviation research in the Third Reich here in Braunschweig-Völkenrode or the history of the former NS rocket research centre Peenemünde are important topics.

A second focus in research and teaching is the interface between science, technology and the environment. Thematically I work here on the history of polar and marine research in cooperation with the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven and the Alfred Wegener Institute. The question of what political and social role resources and raw materials such as fish and krill, but also oil and gas, have played since the 1970s until today, is the subject of my current research in this field.

Is there a point at which you would like to deal scientifically with exactly this one topic?

A certain critical distance to my research objects is important to me, so that the finding of the topic itself is not explained by my biography, but by newly emerging, mostly transdisciplinary research fields. The question of the subjective experience of technology and war by military pilots arose, for example, in the course of a newly forming cultural history of technology and war. The perception of fragile environments in the highly technological age of the Cold War was also based on new questions of the young field of environmental history. Thus I developed a certain soft spot for interdisciplinary niche topics, which, however, give insight into basic questions of history and society, such as the mechanisation of war or an increasingly mechanised environment.

In order to provide scientifically sound answers, it is necessary to take a closer look at concrete actors or artefacts. At this point I remain a historian in essence, who concludes his statements from reliable archives and sources. However, this is not always easy in the field of scientific, technological and environmental history, since things are not always written down and rarely kept for long periods of time.

You have a kind of interface professorship. What does it aim at and how does your institute present this interest at the TU Braunschweig?

Technical universities have enormous potential for large-scale interdisciplinary cooperation. I see the professorship for the history of science and technology as an important bridge professorship. It develops interdisciplinary opportunities for both the natural and technical sciences as well as the cultural sciences and humanities and transfers them into research and teaching.

There are particularly close contacts to aerospace, but also to architectural and urban history. In addition, there is a strong connection to nanotechnology and to colleagues from other disciplines in the cultural sciences and humanities who are also involved in technology construction. These include in particular the history of pharmacy and science (Bettina Wahrig), technology philosophy (Nicole Karafyllis), gender studies and science and technology studies (Corinna Bath). Here, the TU Braunschweig, together with the professorships for English and German Studies, has enormous interdisciplinary potential when it comes to the interface between science, technology and society.

You are committed to the relatively young master’s degree program KTW. There, “mediators between cultures” are trained. How do you intend to achieve this?

I don’t think the “Culture of the Technical-Scientific World” (KTW) degree program, which was founded in 2006, is that young. And one must say that its decidedly interdisciplinary orientation was and is very groundbreaking. This is also reflected in the fact that comparable Master’s degree programs are currently being established at the TU Munich and the TU Berlin. As part of the interdisciplinary degree program, I offer lectures and seminars every semester for students of the humanities and technical sciences, especially on robotics, digitisation and computer history. Here, current topics are discussed and then examined in more detail in master’s theses.

Together with Bettina Wahrig and colleagues from the KTW, I have also acquired a teaching transfer project to develop new, inter- and transdisciplinary introduction modules for the KTW that are intended to make Science and Technology Studies open to various subject cultures.

Among other things, you are currently working on “Meta-Peenemünde – The Image of Military Research Institutes in Cultural Memory”. The project connects past and present. What is the challenge of the project?

Together with the Historisch-Technisches Museum Peenemünde, I am currently leading a third-party-funded project supported by the Volkswagen Foundation as part of the program “Research in Museums”. Here, questions of the memory of former weapons of destruction are dealt with for the first time and narratives of progress and of destruction from the Cold War to the present are investigated. Thanks also to Daniel Brandau and Constanze Seifert, the results will be presented to the public at international conferences, publications, lectures, excursions and on television and in the press. Thus numerous impulses are set on different levels.

The challenge here is, first of all, that the memory of National Socialism has changed significantly and that younger generations in particular no longer have any direct connection to this topic. This constellation of historical memory poses a great challenge for museum work and the mediation of history. A further technology-specific problem arises from the field of rocket technology, which in Peenemünde’s case means both progress and destruction and thus certainly represents a fundamental problem of the 20th century. Especially technology museums are faced with the challenge of not presenting their technical objects and memorabilia in a technology-centered way, but of integrating them into their historical context.

Thank you very much for the interview.