Saturday, February 25, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's moose ...

In addition to his role as one of the founding fathers of the U.S., Thomas Jefferson is known for his interests in architecture, history, science, engineering, and many other wide and varied items. His pursuit of those interests knew few bounds, as evidenced by his almost humorous quest to prove a European scientist wrong.

In 1785, Jefferson was the ranking American diplomat in France. And there, he decided to take on the misguided beliefs of Georges de Buffon, the leading French naturalist of the day. Buffon believed that the animals and plants of North America were inferior, in size and vigor, to those of Europe.

To prove Buffon wrong, Jefferson commissioned a hunter to shoot an American moose and ship it to him France, which was not a small feat. The American diplomat was disappointed in the size of the carcass that arrived, so he ordered another hunting expedition, writes historian Joseph J. Ellis in his 1996 biography American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.

Although “somewhat frustrated that the [second] moose was only seven feet tall and that its hair kept falling out,” Jefferson had the carcass put on display in the entry of the hotel in which he lived, notes Ellis.

“Buffon, who was himself a minuscule man less than five feet tall, was invited to observe the smelly and somewhat imperfect trophy but concluded it was insufficient evidence to force a revision of his anti-American theory,” Ellis adds.

Interestingly, Jefferson believed not only that American plants and animals were no less impressive than European varieties, but that America produced more impressive plants and animals than Europe. In a sense, Jefferson became sort of an American Buffon, believing that mammoths – those large, hairy, prehistoric animals resembling modern elephants – still roamed the unexplored American West.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

What do you care what other people think? ...

Richard Feynman’s stature among American scientists is unsurpassed. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. As a member of the 1986 Rogers Commission, which investigated the tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger earlier that year, he provided key insights leading to a determination that the failure of small rubber gaskets – O-rings – caused the disaster.  And in 1999, 11 years after his death, he was named one of the 10 greatest physicists of all time in a poll, conducted by a British science magazine, of 130 top physicists throughout the world.

Even as a very young scientist in the 1940s, his brilliance took him to the Manhattan Project, which was the secret effort at Los Alamos in New Mexico to develop an American atomic bomb before Germany or Japan as World War II waged on. But no matter how much his intellectual genius was esteemed and treasured by his colleagues, his first wife – Arlene – kept his feet on the ground.

Arlene’s personality seems to have been a good match for Feynman’s, with a similar strength, confidence, and bit of irreverence. Stricken with tuberculosis, she was confined to an Albuquerque hospital. Feynman drove the 100 miles from Los Alamos to visit her every weekend. He tells of those visits in his 1988 semi-autographical book What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Arlene’s spirit comes through royally:

“There’s a little charcoal broiler in her room – she’s bought it in the mail from Sears. It’s about 18 inches across, with little legs. ‘I thought we could have steaks,’ Arlene says.

‘How the hell can we use it in the room, here, with all the smoke and everything?’[ Feynman asked]

‘Oh, no,’ she says. ‘All you have to do is take it out on the lawn. Then you can cook us steaks every Sunday.’

The hospital was right on Route 66, the main road across the United States!  ‘I can’t do that,’ I said. ‘I mean, with all the cars and trucks going by, all the people on the sidewalk walking back and forth, I can’t just go out there and start cooking steaks on the lawn!’

‘What do you care what other people think?’ (Arlene tortured me with that!) ‘Okay,’ she says, opening a drawer, ‘we’ll compromise: you don’t have to wear the chef’s hat and the gloves.’

So every Saturday or Sunday, I’d go out there on Route 66 and cook steaks.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Czar's yearn to learn ...

If we like political leaders who’ve had similar jobs to our own, working day to day to pay for necessities while hoping to save a little for entertainment and our later years, we might find Peter the Great, Czar of Russia from to 1682 to 1725, to be a welcome, refreshing, and even inspirational leader. To be sure, he was born into royalty, assuming the crown at 10, upon the death of his father.  But like no other supreme, autocratic ruler before or since, Peter yearned to learn, and would stop at little to do so.

In the late 17th century, Europe was highly enlightened and modern compared to Russia. Peter recognized the gap and hoped to close it as quickly as possible – and going to Europe to learn its ways seemed the best way to do that. Traveling incognito, probably to avoid time-consuming ceremonies that would have been required as a head of state, Peter traveled with about 250 Russian officials and their minions to Germany, Holland, England, and Austria as part of Russia’s so-called Great Embassy in 1697.

Peter entered the shipyards of Holland as a common laborer to get hands-on experience in shipbuilding, vital for the seafaring future he wanted for Russia. Although his cover was soon blown, arrangements were made for him to work in a private shipyard surrounded by high walls, wrote Robert K. Massie in his 1981 biography Peter the Great: His Life and World.

“Every day,” wrote Massie, “Peter arrived at the shipyard at dawn, carrying his axe and tools on his shoulders as the other workmen did. He allowed no distinction between himself and them, and strictly refused to be addressed or identified by any title. When two English noblemen came to catch a glimpse of [him] … the foreman, in order to point out which one was Peter, called to him, ‘Carpenter Peter, why don’t you help your comrades?’ Without a word, Peter walked over and put his shoulder beneath a timber which several men were struggling to raise and helped lift it into place.”

But despite the inspiration we might find in this part of Peter the Great’s life, we shouldn’t develop too much of a soft spot for him. Among other terrifying excesses, he had his young-adult son Alexis – so overwhelmed by his father’s personality that he fled the country – put on trial on mere suspicions that he sought the Czar’s overthrow. Alexis was sentenced to death, but died rather mysteriously, probably a result of the torture he received in an effort to gain a confession, before the sentence could be carried out officially.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

An astronaut's story ... what really happens in space

We of a certain age remember well the excitement and thrill of watching televised broadcasts of the first American missions into Earth orbit.  But contrary to what we knew at the time, the men on those missions were often severely tested when performing tasks in space. An example was 1966’s two-man Gemini IX flight, on which astronaut Gene Cernan became the second American to leave his spacecraft for a “walk” in space.

Cernan wore a stiff, pressurized spacesuit as protection from the vacuum and heat and cold of space. He struggled mightily for several hours against the inflexibility of his suit and his gloves, all the while trying to control his movements in the weightless environment while connected to the spacecraft with a long, uncooperative tether. His heart rate tripled … his helmet fogged tremendously … and ultimately, his attempt to strap on a small rocket pack was aborted. But his biggest challenge lay ahead.

As Cernan wrote in his 1999 book The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America's Race in Space, squeezing back into the small spacecraft was almost impossible, especially after the unexpected exertion of the spacewalk.  “My goal was to get my butt flat in the seat and my spine against the backrest, but that was impossible because of the stiff, inflated suit. Effort turned to struggle, then to outright fight as I gained territory a sweaty millimeter at a time. My heart rate, which had calmed somewhat, shot up again as I squirmed about, and I was sucking air forty times a minute,” he writes.  “It was worse than trying to stuff a cork back into a champagne bottle.”

“Eventually, I was halfway in and halfway out the spacecraft, still using all my strength to shove my bulk down into the cabin. I forced my shoulders below the level of the hatch, scrunched down as hard as I could, bent my neck and at an impossible angle, and pulled the hatch. It hit the top of my helmet and wouldn’t close. Sonofabitch! I was still not in far enough.”

His crewmate, Tom Stafford, was able to reach over from his seat and pull down on the hatch, managing to pull it another couple of inches down and engaging the first tooth of a closing ratchet. “Another scrunch, and I was in awful pain,” writes Cernan. “… I was frozen in place by the suit, unable to unfold my feet, which were still tight beneath me.  … More work, more clicks from the closing ratchet as I ground my teeth. … I’d never known such pain. … I gave the handle a last twist, and the hatch finally locked tight.”

“I might admit that I was crying, but only Tom really knows,” Cernan writes.