Tag Archives: history of science and technology

Afterthought on “The Cure for Catastrophe” by Robert Muir-Wood.

(See my earlier blog entry on November 20.)

This book afforded me the unusual pleasure of finding a friend within the pages! Well, not exactly – I found a surname: Redfield. Who did I know by that name? Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Redfield Marsh, mentor, good friend and fellow Penn State graduate! In 1975, she made a phone call that changed my life. She was teaching at a small public college in New Jersey. Would I consider interviewing for a job? Mutual connections at Penn State had given her my name. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I knew that Libby had grown up spending her summers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Might she be related to William Redfield, mentioned in Muir-Wood’s book as a self trained “amateur” scientist of tremendous acumen, one of the first observers to recognize that hurricanes have a circular structure and move along somewhat predictable paths? Yes! William Redfield (a storekeeper from Middletown, CT) went on to become the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 and now the world’s largest general scientific society.

Between the time of William Redfield and Elizabeth Redfield Marsh, the Redfield family produced a number of distinguished scientists. Her father, Arthur Redfield, was a meteorologist. Libby’s chosen academic field was geography, and she wrote about rural planning. The family tradition continues. One of her sons teaches geography and environmental studies at a private college in Pennsylvania. Another is a physician.

Here are some reasons why this personal anecdote seems important NOW:

  • Science as a basis for public policy is being denigrated by climate deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby and other groups. This disturbs me greatly. If not science, then what will be the basis for our decisions? I don’t dispute the role of values and intuition, but IF there is scientific data available on an issue, it should be carefully considered. We ignore it at our peril.
  • I love science as an expression of the human spirit. It lifts me up.
  • I value “citizen science”. Enthusiastic “amateurs” make important contributions in fields like entomology, ornithology and digitization. (Take my word on that last one.) I subscribe to the notion that children are all born scientists. The Redfield family was unusually successful at keeping scientific passions alive.

So here’s to the memory of Libby Marsh (1923? – 2009) and her scientific ancestors, amateur and academic! May their efforts be remembered and appreciated.

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“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Where shall I start? Wilbur and Orville Wright made their famous “first flight” on December 17, 1903. That designation is somewhat arbitrary. It was preceded by many unpowered flights, by the Wrights and others. Gliders had preoccupied many inventors. But on the day in question, Wilbur traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds, in a “flying machine” powered by a gasoline engine.

I have visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where this event took place. It’s on the Outer Banks, where the wind always blows. The National Park Service maintains the Wright Brothers National Memorial. You can walk the 852 feet traversed by Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903 and study displays explaining how the feat was accomplished.

At the National Memorial, the emphasis is on SCIENCE. Inspiration certainly played a part, but the Wrights were meticulously scientific. Discovering that accepted tables describing “lift” were incorrect, they built a wind tunnel and collected their own data. They studied everything they could get from earlier inventors, and they made endless observations of birds in flight. An important insight was that, not only must they build a suitable “machine”, but they themselves must LEARN TO FLY.

It’s a wonder they didn’t get killed. As soon as they created a plane that could carry two people, they agreed never to fly together, so that if there was a serious crash, one would remain to carry on their work.

Initially, the world took little notice of the Wright’s achievement. The first journalistic interest was from the editor of a newsletter about beekeeping.

As interesting as the two famous Wright brothers were (they had two not-famous older brothers), McCullough includes other family members who were interesting on their own.

Bishop Milton Wright was a Baptist minister and often traveled away from his family. He campaigned against Freemasonry, on the grounds that the secrecy involved was unacceptable for a responsible Christian. He observed the Sabbath as a day of rest, a practice continued by his sons even when they were in (more secular) Europe. Most importantly, he loved books and learning and trusted his children to educate themselves, sometimes allowing them to skip school when they were engrossed in reading.

The only Wright sibling to graduate from college was Katharine, the youngest and only daughter, who attended Oberlin and had a career as a high school teacher. Katharine was an early liberated woman! The whole family was well informed and sophisticated beyond what might have been expected in “middle America” at that time.

The cultural consequences of powered flight have been staggering. McCullough doesn’t attempt to explore them. What comes to mind for me is the military use of the airplane. See my review (October 9, 2013) of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why the end of civilization? Because aerial bombardment led to warfare in which there was NO distinction between combatants and civilians.

The Wright brothers were supremely civilized – educated, industrious, responsible and thoughtful. Only Orville survived to experience World War II. The amount of change he saw in his 77 years is hard to comprehend!

David McCullough is a wonderful writer. (See my review of Path Between the Seas – October 18, 2014). I think the next of his books that I want to read will be The Johnstown Flood. I spent Thanksgiving in Johnstown, PA, in 1972.

“Centennial of the Introduction of the Japanese beetle into North America near Philadelphia”, a lecture by Ken Frank

Now really, is this a thrilling title? Sounds like a real yawn, right?? Nope! Not when Ken Frank is telling the story. A mash-up of politics, science and human frailty! Lots of drama!

In this case, “near Philadelphia” means Riverton, NJ, on the Delaware River just north of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge. Right in my back yard.

Consider the timing, just before World War I. It was well known that introduced insect pests could wreak havoc on farming and the economy in general, but comprehensive regulatory controls were not in place.

The date of this unfortunate introduction is known with some precision. In 1916, agricultural inspectors found unfamiliar beetles at the Henry Dreer Nursery in Riverton. Perhaps they had wandered up from the American south? Further investigation was postponed.

Within a few years, due to the geometric population growth of the beetles, the situation was out of control. The only, long shot solution was applying a “scorched earth” policy to Dreer’s nursery – excavation, poisoning, fire…

Dreer fought back, accusing supporters of even relatively mild measures like quarantine of TREASON, because of interference with the economies of our World War allies. Dreer was publicly “outed” as the source of the appalling infestation. Ken Black compares Dreer’s response to that of climate deniers. Dreer’s political strength was formidable. When quarantine and embargo were finally imposed, they applied only to CORN. Nurseries were completely exempted from regulation.

The Japanese beetle continued its spread. Today it afflicts about half the continental United States, and the annual cost of control is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. California, not yet afflicted, takes stringent measures against Japanese beetles.

That’s not even half the story! This turned out to be a situation in which the “cure” was worse than the disease. The pesticide of choice used against the Japanese beetle was LEAD ARSENATE, a very slight improvement over the previously popular copper arsenate. The quantities recommended boggle the mind – 1500 pounds per acre.

There were several big intellectual disconnects here.

  • Nobody seemed to ask where the lead arsenate would end up.
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to mammals (including humans).
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to non target insects including potential natural enemies of the Japanese beetle.

Ken Frank took his investigation of this episode to Riverton, where he talked to residents, including a Master Gardener. Three citizens of Riverton came to hear his lecture. They provided insight into the area’s agricultural past, and shared their concern that they may still be living with the consequences of the very heavy application of LEAD ARSENATE in areas now occupied by suburban housing. They believe the incidence of cancer in the Riverton area may be abnormally high. (I know, as a former public health employee, how hard it is to define and evaluate a “cancer cluster”.)

Ken Frank credits the Japanese beetle outbreak and subsequent control efforts with inspiring Rachel Carson to investigate the impact of DDT on the environment. Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in 1907. She is credited with stimulating the American environmental movement which led to passage of major legislation in the early 1970s. Right when I graduated from college and jumped ship, leaving the field of chemistry to become a pollution control specialist!

Ken Frank’s lecture was great and I hope he writes an article soon, so it can be shared. There’s a great deal to be learned from this tale. We are still learning how to manage ourselves and our environment, and the complexities and demands on our scientific judgment continue to increase.

Ken Frank’s lecture took place at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, at a meeting of the American Entomological Society. Science is fun! Check out the Academy or the AES to get in on the action.

“Tuxedo Park” by Jennett Conant

This is a great book for those who want to understand the role of technology in World War II. Tuxedo Park focuses on the development of radar. It begins well before WWII, and offers a picture of science pursued in a culture totally different from the academic/industrial climate scientists experience today. Science between the Wars was pursued by both academics and talented, wealthy “amateurs”. One of these was Alfred Loomis. He built and staffed a world class laboratory for his own “entertainment”. Some of his entirely fundamental research later found practical application in vital defense technology.

I was especially interested in details about the time period when England expected to be invaded, and scientific equipment was hastily transported to the US to avoid having it fall into enemy hands. Steps were taken to insure that if the transporting ship was bombed, the vital equipment would sink, rather than float!

Much has been written about the nuclear fission and fusion and the Manhattan Project, but I found this discussion of the development of radar very compelling.

This is the third book by J Conant which I have read. I think Tuxedo Parkwas the best. Conant’s book about Julia Child drifted off topic to other people, and the one about Roald Dahl didn’t impress me very much. Here are the titles of these books: The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, and A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.

“The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” by Nicholas Dawidoff

On May 1, I wrote about my visit to The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. One featured player was catcher Moe Berg, and I read this biography to learn more about him.

Berg was a strange and interesting individual. He was uncomfortable with being Jewish, not surprising in the 1920s and 1930s. He had many valuable skills, but he never chose a profession, never “worked”, except during World War II.

Berg’s wartime service (with the agency that preceded the CIA) was part of the American effort to find out whether Germany was close to developing an atomic weapon. Berg was a high powered autodidactic and could gain a working knowledge of a field like nuclear physics on the fly. 

Intelligence reports about Germany’s “nuclear weapon” were consistent: it was never close to production or use. However, American spymasters kept returning to the issue.

Berg was sent to a conference in a neutral country where he heard a speech by physicist Werner Heisenberg. His orders were to assassinate Heisenberg on the spot if it seemed that his research would lead to production of a nuclear weapon. Berg was expected to kill himself rather than be captured after the murder. Berg made no attempt on Heisenberg’s life, and history proved his judgment to have been correct. There was no imminent German bomb. 

(This cuts close to the bone! I studied chemistry. Heisenberg is/was an iconic figure, originator of quantum mechanics and the Uncertainly Principle. Most of his groundbreaking work was accomplished before WW II, but what ideas might have been lost to us if he had not lived until 1976?)

Berg had a tough time readjusting to post war life. He often implied that he worked for the CIA. He had no occupation and no fixed residence. His personal charm was considerable, and he lived off his friends in many cities. The later part of this book disintegrated into a list of anecdotes – Berg seen here or there, Berg visiting with one person or another. I stopped reading. He ended life impoverished.

The best thing about this book is its coverage of intelligence activities in Europe during World War II. I would recommend it to historians of that period, and to those with a special interest in the interface between science and military policy.