The Human Side of Science: Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and Other Personal Stories behind Science's Big Ideas (2016)
There are many other people who had an impact on science and deserve recognition. The following mini-chapters feature those who merit honorable mention.
15.1 WILHELM CONRAD RÖNTGEN
I have discovered something interesting but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct.
—Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen1
Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923). This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. From Wikimedia Commons, user Fæ.
Röntgen was born in 1845, in Lennep, Germany. Shortly thereafter, he moved with his family to Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. In his youth, he enjoyed making mechanical gadgets and hiking outdoors, but he wasn't particularly good at academics.
In 1862, he was expelled from a technical school in Utrecht because he refused to tell which classmate had drawn a caricature of a particularly unpopular teacher. He tried attending classes at the University of Utrecht but was denied credit since he had no high school diploma. Hearing that one could enter the ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Polytechnic) without a high school diploma as long as they could pass the entrance examination (recall Einstein's experience in chapter 9?), Röntgen journeyed to Zurich, but he arrived two days late for the exam. An eye infection had slowed him down, but ETH officials allowed him to take the exam anyway. He passed and was admitted. He studied with Professors August Kundt and Rudolf Clausius, and earned his PhD in 1869.
Röntgen married Anna Bertha Ludwig of Zurich, and then embarked on an academic career at several universities in Germany. In 1895, Röntgen taught at the University of Wurzburg and studied the physics of passing electrical currents through extremely thin gases at low pressure. Others who studied similar phenomena were Eugen Goldstein, Johann Hittorf, William Crookes, Heinrich Hertz and Phillip Lenard. Generically, the tubes used were called Crookes tubes, and the observed rays were called cathode rays. These tubes are similar to those at the heart of early TV sets, and are called cathode-ray tubes or CRTs. Many other physicists were experimenting with the same tubes, but Röntgen noticed something unusual that the others missed. Even though the normal cathode rays (actually electrons) were blocked, fluorescent material would light up as far as two meters away from the tube. This implied that there was another beam besides the cathode rays, but this one was invisible. The beam also fogged photographic film. If objects of variable density were inserted in the beam, images of the objects’ interiors appeared on the film. Röntgen had been closeted in his lab for weeks working on this phenomenon. He emerged to demonstrate it to his wife, Anna. He had her insert her hand in the beam, and this is the picture he got.
X-ray of Anna's hand. From Wikimedia Commons, user Melamed katz.
Anna's comment was: “I have seen my death.”2 In fact, she lived another twenty-four years and died of intestinal cancer.
Since he knew so little about these rays, Röntgen called them X-rays, X representing the traditional mathematical symbol for an unknown. Although X-rays were almost immediately used in medical diagnostic practice, Röntgen refused to patent them, saying they were for the good of humanity. He also resisted those trying to name them “Röntgen rays,” saying he preferred the X-ray name.
An extremely curious connection exists between Röntgen and Einstein. They had the same self-proclaimed enemy, Phillip Lenard. We saw in chapter 9 how Lenard attacked Einstein publicly in 1923, but it turns out that Lenard attacked Röntgen as well. Röntgen had won the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901 for his work with X-rays, and Lenard had won his Nobel in 1905 for his work with cathode rays. Both used similar tubes, and Lenard had actually supplied Röntgen with one of the tubes he used for his pioneering work. Lenard claimed priority in discovering X-rays, as he (and several others) had undoubtedly observed some aspect of them but had neglected them in their major focus on cathode rays.
Röntgen died in 1923. He enjoyed work and long walks in the country almost to the end.
15.2 PERLMUTTER, RIESS, AND SCHMIDT DISCOVER THAT THE EXPANSION OF THE UNIVERSE IS ACCELERATING
Accelerating? The universe is expanding faster and faster? How did we miss this until 1998? Maybe we should blame Einstein. Or, better still, Einstein and Willem de Sitter.
Prior to the development of Einstein's general theory of relativity, physics and astronomy had pretty much charted their own courses. Astronomy was busily trying to find out what was out there, while physics pretty much left it alone. Well, there was that relationship between the work of Newton and Halley (recall chapter 3), but the real kicker came when the ink was barely dry on Einstein's general relativity and de Sitter applied the theory to the entire universe. The result: As Einstein's equations stood, for solutions to be stable, the universe had to be either expanding or contracting. But common wisdom said that the universe wasn't doing either of these things. The universe seemed perfectly stable. The fixed stars were, well, fixed. As you may recall from chapter 10, Einstein added a term to his equations to make them describe a stable universe. It was called the cosmological constant. It didn't please Einstein much, but it seemed necessary at the time.
Used with permission from Sidney Harris.
Hubble certainly can't be blamed. His 1929 observations using the hundred-inch telescope (with Milt Humason; see chapter 11) showed that the universe was expanding. Einstein was delighted, since he was now able to remove that pesky cosmological constant that he regarded as a blunder. But was the universe's expansion speeding up (acceleration), retaining the same velocity, or slowing down (deceleration)? Hubble's distance measurements weren't precise enough to reveal that information. Recall that Hubble's method of finding the distance to faraway galaxies was based on Cepheid variable stars (recall Henrietta Swann Leavitt's period-luminosity relation from chapter 11). Cepheid variables couldn't be found in distant galaxies because they were too dim. So, it would seem necessary to seek brighter objects with known luminosity, and then determine the distances from their relative luminosities. Easier said than done. But in the early 1990s, it seemed that the only thing bright enough at far distances would be a supernova, so a new distance-measuring technique would have to involve supernovae. The details get really complicated from here, so let's just cut to the chase. The kind of supernovae needed was one that involved a star with known mass, which would allow its absolute brightness to be determined. Measuring its relative brightness would then yield its distance. Such an object does exist; it is called a supernova of Type Ia. So, here was the task at hand: Find supernovae of any type and sort them to find those of Type Ia. Again, easier said than done. Nevertheless, two independent teams set out to attempt these difficult, if not impossible, measurements.
Team #1: the Supernova Cosmology Project, headed by Saul Perlmutter (1959–), an astrophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. For Perlmutter's 1986 PhD project, he used an automated telescope search technique, which he extended to the supernova search. In total, the team consisted of thirty-three members.
Team #2: The High-Z Supernova Team of twenty-six members led by Brian Schmidt (1967–), then a postdoctoral student at Harvard University, which operated on the basis of three principles: be fast, be fair, and no big guns (i.e., seniority doesn't rule).
Both teams competed for precious viewing time on eight different telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope. They amassed data independently on many different Type Ia supernovae and determined their distances from Earth. Using the Doppler shift technique pioneered by V. M. Slipher, they determined the redshifts of the galaxies in which the supernovae were located and compared them with the Hubble relationship (see chapter 11). Both teams’ results, announced within weeks of each other in 1998, showed similar results: distant supernovae were substantially dimmer than the Hubble relationship predicted. Since light from these events has taken four to eight billion years to reach us, what we're seeing is that the universe is expanding more rapidly now than it was in the past. In other words, the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating.
IN THE DARK ABOUT DARK ENERGY
What kind of “stuff” could cause this cosmological speedup? We don't really know. In 1999, University of Chicago astrophysicist Michael Turner gave it a dark name: dark energy. This “stuff” has never been seen, so it's dark. And, since it acts in opposition to gravity, which would cause deceleration, it can't have mass in the usual sense. Using Einstein's famous E = mc2, mass and energy are interconvertible, so why not call it energy. Dark energy. Catchy, eh? But this is not the only problem confronting universe theorists.
AN EARLIER DIFFICULTY
Remarkably, a huge discrepancy regarding the masses of galaxies was discovered in the 1930s, shortly after Hubble's law and Einstein's cosmological constant retraction, but this discrepancy was ignored for almost forty years. Even more remarkably, the astronomer who first noticed the problem had graduated from the ETH in Switzerland, as had Einstein, and had spent his professional career at Caltech, Mount Wilson, and Mount Palomar, as had Hubble.
Fritz Zwicky (1898–1974). Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology.
His name was Fritz Zwicky (1898–1974). Born in Bulgaria, Zwicky went to Switzerland to live with his grandparents at age six He remained a Swiss citizen all his life. Too young for World War I, Zwicky studied theoretical physics at the ETH, where he applied quantum mechanics to crystals for his PhD thesis in 1922. In 1925, Zwicky came to the United States on a Rockefeller fellowship, choosing Caltech because Pasadena's foothills bore some small resemblance to his beloved Alps. Although his sponsor, Caltech professor Robert A. Millikan, expected Zwicky to focus on quantum mechanics, Zwicky became attracted to astronomy. He began collaborating with another German-speaking astronomer, Walter Baade (1893–1960). Early in his career, Zwicky studied the cluster of galaxies known as the Coma Berenices cluster, listed by Charles Messier as M100.
Using Slipher's Doppler techniques that were later carried out at Mount Wilson by Milton Humason, Zwicky found the velocities of eight of the galaxies in the Coma cluster and estimated the mass needed to keep these galaxies gravitationally bound to the cluster. Next, he compared that mass to the cluster's mass based on the amount of light it gave off. It turned out that a lot more mass was needed to keep the cluster from flying apart. Zwicky called this invisible mass dunkle materie: dark matter. His calculations implied that there had to be much more dark matter than ordinary matter in the Coma cluster. Remarkably enough, this alarming result was largely ignored by other astrophysicists for almost forty years. Perhaps this was because it was published in German, “Die Rotverschiebung von Extragalaktischen Nebeln,” in a sparsely read journal named Helvetica Physica Acta.3
During a long and fruitful career, Zwicky held a wide assortment of ideas of checkered quality, all pursued with relentless conviction. Some thought him brilliant, others regarded him as belligerent. Almost everyone who met Fritz Zwicky had an opinion about him. Perhaps the way he often greeted visitors to Caltech, “Who the devil are you?” should be applied to dark matter. Whatever the reason, Zwicky's dark matter didn't make a big impact on astronomy—at least not yet.
REALLY FINDING DARK MATTER
The next major contribution was made in 1970 by Vera Rubin (1928–) and W. Kent Ford (1931–). Rubin overcame many obstacles in her path, but she eventually became the first woman astronomer to have access to the two-hundred-inch telescope at Mount Palomar. After working on several controversial topics, she began studying the rotation of M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy), and then more than sixty other spiral galaxies. It turned out that these galaxies were all rotating faster than their visible mass could support, again implying the existence of unseen mass. As more experimental evidence came in, the problem became too big to ignore. It seems that dark matter does exist, and there is almost ten times as much of it as ordinary bright (visible) matter.
Vera Rubin (1928–). Courtesy of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Thanks to a set of experiments conducted from a completely different perspective, we have an estimate of how much of this unknown dark energy and dark matter there is, even though we don't know the origin of either one. Several different experiments were designed to probe the overall geometric properties of space to determine the universe's overall makeup by looking for variations in the background microwave radiation that fills the entire universe. During the first four hundred thousand years after the big bang, the early universe was still so hot that it was opaque to electromagnetic radiation. Then it cooled sufficiently, and the radiation was emitted. During these first four hundred thousand years, the radiation could travel only a limited distance, so any fluctuations in the radiation would be limited in size. However, in traveling since then, the fluctuations would be distorted by the overall curvature of space. Measuring the size of the minute temperature fluctuations within this radiation allowed the determination of the overall curvature of space. Precise measurements have enabled the determination of the distribution of mass/energy in the entire universe.
Here's the result:
Universe composition. From Wikimedia Commons, user CuriousMind01.
So, there it is. Most of the universe is dark energy, the next largest constituent is dark matter, and last is everything we can see: ourselves, planets, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and so on. All the visible part amounts to only 4 percent of the total universe. You may suspect the universe has gone over to the Dark Side, but we can hope that future Nobel prizewinners will sort it all out.
15.3 PARTICLE ACCELERATORS: FROM ERNEST O. LAWRENCE TO THE HIGGS BOSON AT CERN
Since the 1890s when Ernest Rutherford bombarded gold atoms with alpha particles, physics has had this “thing” about collisions: Crash things together and examine the results. Does this sound like the actions of some little kid you might know? The more energetic the collision, the more interesting products that show up in the aftermath. One such “kid,” a great contributor to the development of particle accelerators, was Ernest O. Lawrence.
Graduate students M. Stanley Livingston (1905–1986) and Ernest O. Lawrence (1901–1958). From Wikimedia Commons, user Pieter Kuiper.
In 1928, the University of California at Berkeley lured twenty-seven-year-old Ernest O. Lawrence from Yale University, striving to build a physics department comparable to its already strong chemistry group. The following year, Lawrence, grandson of Norwegian immigrants, happened to browse a German electrical engineering journal. He saw sketches of a device proposed by Norwegian engineer Rolf Widerøe to accelerate charges to high energies by running them through an accelerating electric field, turning the particles 180° in a magnetic field, then switching the electric field direction so the particles accelerated even more. Because of the considerable engineering difficulties involved, Lawrence hesitated initially. However, he hated to lose out on the race to high energies, so, early in 1930, he assigned the task of construction of the apparatus to a graduate student, M. Stanley Livingston. By January 1931, Lawrence and Livingston had created a small working apparatus called a cyclotron. It accelerated hydrogen ions to energies of eighty thousand electron volts. In 1939, Lawrence won a Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the cyclotron. By 1940, twenty-two cyclotrons were either completed or under construction in the United States, and eleven more built overseas.
THE WAR INTERFERES, AGAIN
World War II halted cyclotron development for a time. When it resumed, new wrinkles were added, and the energy increased substantially. The synchrotron was developed. It featured a magnetic field that was adjusted so that as particles accelerated, their paths continued to maintain a constant radius. This allowed a smaller volume where a vacuum needed to be maintained, thus simplifying maintenance of a usable beam. Next, the synchrotron was adjusted so that particles could continue to circulate, with energy added to make up for radiation losses. This was called the storage ring. Finally, two storage rings were built adjacent to each other, and the circulating particles deflected to crash into each other. This was called the Intersecting Storage Ring configuration. It produced a great deal of basic information about fundamental particles. In the United States, the largest accelerator is the Fermi National Accelerator Lab (Fermilab), just outside Chicago. Built in 1968, this facility features a tunnel 3.9 miles in circumference. It has an accelerator called a Tevatron that can reach an energy level of 0.980 trillion electron volts (TeV) for each of its particle beams: clockwise-circulating protons and anticlockwise-circulating antiprotons. A proton-antiproton collision produces an energy of 1.96 TeV at the interaction points.
Starting in 1983, a new accelerator facility was proposed. The planned energy was 20 TeV per proton, making it the largest accelerator in the world. Designed to have an underground tunnel ring of seventeen miles in circumference, the Superconducting Supercollider's (SSC) price tag was estimated in 1987 to be $4.4 billion. President Ronald Reagan approved the project in 1987, encouraging physicists to “throw deep.” The project began with some controversy because of its huge size. By 1993, although only $2 billion had been spent, mostly on digging 14.6 miles of tunnel, ringing Waxahachie, Texas, the project was severely criticized by the Department of Energy's inspector general for poor management and cost overruns. Balking at the new cost estimate of $12.2 billion to complete the project, the US Congress canceled the SSC in October 1993. President Bill Clinton signed the cancelation bill, but said he regretted the “serious loss for science.”4
Even prior to the SSC debacle, there was a complex devoted to fundamental nuclear research in Europe. It was called the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN. Located on the border between France and Switzerland, CERN maintained several accelerators on its site. The largest accelerator had a tunnel, built in 1988, with a circumference of 16.8 miles. This tunnel now houses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in which protons collided with protons at an energy of 7 TeV until March 2015, when the beam energy was updated to 15 (TeV).
On July 4, 2012, CERN announced the discovery of a new particle that might be the Higgs boson. Less than one year later, they confirmed this discovery, scoring a huge coup for European physics. The significance of the Higgs boson is that it confirmed the existence of a particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Although more information is needed, the existence of the Higgs boson supports the idea of the Higgs field, a fundamental part of the universe thought to be responsible for particles having mass. The upgraded beam energy may open new vistas for particle theorists. We'll see more about Higgs, the person, in mini-chapter 15.6, but the term boson, named after another person, is in our sights next.
15.4 BOSE, BOSONS, AND THE HIGGS BOSON
The whole edifice of modern physics is built up on the fundamental hypothesis of the atomic or molecular constitution of matter.
—C. V. Raman, Indian physicist and Nobel Laureate5
According to the Standard Model of particle physics, all particles are either fermions or bosons. Fermions all have half-integer spins and obey Fermi-Dirac statistics, while bosons have whole integer spins and follow Bose-Einstein statistics (to learn more about these statistics, see the To Dig Deeper section in the back matter).
Satyendra Nath Bose (1894–1974). Falguni Sarkar, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives.
Satyendra Nath Bose (1894–1974) was born in 1894 in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. He was the firstborn, followed by six sisters. Schooling started at age five for Bose. He eventually earned his MSc at the University of Calcutta in 1915 with the highest examination scores ever recorded. Bose was fluent in Bengali, English, French, German, and Sanskrit.
Along with his colleague Meghnad Saha, Bose lectured at the University of Calcutta and translated Einstein's special and general relativity papers from German into English. In preparing a lecture for students at the University of Dhaka in 1924, Bose made a variation on the classical analysis. He treated the quanta theorized by Max Planck as indistinguishable from one another. This produced a prediction that matched the experimental evidence, whereas the classical analysis did not. Bose wrote a short article titled “Planck's Law and the Hypothesis of Light Quanta” and sent it to Albert Einstein, along with an accompanying note.
Respected Sir, I have ventured to send you the accompanying article for your perusal and opinion. I am anxious to know what you think of it…. If you think the paper worth publication I shall be grateful if you arrange for its publication in Zeitschrift für Physik (Journal of Physics). Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request. Because we are all your pupils though profiting only by your teachings through your writings. I do not know whether you still remember that somebody from Calcutta asked your permission to translate your papers on Relativity in English. You acceded to the request. The book has since been published. I was the one who translated your paper on Generalised Relativity6
Einstein found Bose's analysis quite insightful, translated it into German himself, and submitted it for publication, along with a paper of his own. The papers were well received. Bose was granted a leave from Dhaka to study in Europe, where he worked for two years with Einstein, Madame Curie, and Louis de Broglie, mostly on X-ray crystallography. Einstein adapted Bose's ideas and expanded them to become Bose-Einstein statistics.
Bose returned to Dhaka as the head of the Physics Department and later dean of the Faculty of Science until 1945. He then returned to Calcutta and taught there until he retired in 1956.
Some people thought Higgs got way more credit than Bose for the Higgs boson. But, after all, the Standard Model lists a total of thirteen bosons, but there is only one Higgs boson.
15.5 ENRICO FERMI, FRANK DRAKE, AND JILL TARTER SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE
Used with permission from Sidney Harris.
Lunchtime with Enrico Fermi (from chapter 12) included a lot more than lunch. Conversations often featured freewheeling questions posed by Fermi to encourage discussion (mostly by him). Thinking about all the time available for galaxy colonization by extraterrestrials, Fermi remarked, “Don't you ever wonder where everybody is?” Subsequently, this question was rephrased to “Where are they?” and is referred to as Fermi's paradox. This simple but powerful question must be dealt with by anyone interested in extraterrestrial matters.
DEALING WITH FERMI'S PARADOX
Just how probable is the existence of whole extraterrestrial (ET) civilizations? National Radio Astronomy Observatory radio astronomer Frank Drake (1930–) prepared for a November 1961 informal meeting the National Academy of Sciences at Green Bank, West Virginia, to discuss extraterrestrial life. To get the discussion rolling, Drake formulated an equation to focus on the probability of ET life on a series of factors, each of which could be estimated separately. The equation, which Drake called the Green Bank equation, became a classic. It has been since renamed the Drake equation.
Frank Drake (1930–). Courtesy of Raphael Perrino, from Wikimedia Commons.
Number of ET civilizations = (stars/year)(fplanets)(flife zone)(flife)(fintelligence)(fcommunicative)(Lifetime)
Next, we'll analyze this equation term by term.
To use the Drake equation to arrive at an estimate of the number of communicative civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy, seven factors must be estimated, where all the fs stand for fractions between 0 and 1. This is very much in the spirit of Fermi questions, so let's analyze it one factor at a time.
1. What is our galaxy's formation rate for stars suitable for generating planets suitable for life?
Large stars have too short a lifetime, and small stars are too cool, so only middling stars need be considered here.
2. What fraction of these appropriately sized stars actually have planets?
Given our current understanding of planet formation, it would seem most of these stars would have planets orbiting them.
3. What fraction of planets would orbit their star within a zone where life could form?
In Earth's case, the presence of liquid water is crucial. Venus is too hot for liquid water, Mars too cold, so our solar system has just one planet in the life zone: Earth. Further, the role of the moon might be quite significant. The ebb and flow of tides could have influenced the beginnings of life here by causing pools of water to alternately flood and evaporate, possibly concentrating the “primordial soup” at critical times.
Another unknown in life's development is the role of the massive outer planets, especially Jupiter, in deflecting possible asteroid or comet impactors out of the inner solar system. This action protected Earth from disturbing influences that might have stunted or even stopped the development of life.
4. On what fraction of appropriately placed planets does life actually arise?
Estimating this factor usually divides optimists from pessimists. Some think that given enough carbon, liquid water, the right temperature, and enough time, life is inevitable. Others cite the myriad complexities of even a single-celled organism and say life is extremely rare, possibly even unique. Scientists differ widely on their estimates of this factor. Some doubt the usefulness of the whole approach because of this wide divergence.
5. What fraction of life-forms actually develop intelligence?
On Earth, many species have shown evidence of intelligent behavior, humans (sometimes) included. Because intelligence seems to be such a good survival talent, it appears likely that many life-forms would develop it, given enough time.
6. What fraction of intelligent life-forms develop technologies that release detectable signals?
While both humans and dolphins are intelligent life-forms on Earth, only human technologies have generated detectable signals, so numbers like 5 percent to 50 percent are typically used for this estimate.
7. For how many years does an intelligent civilization release detectable signals into space?
This estimate provides another vehicle for expressing optimism or pessimism. An optimist might foresee a million-year civilization, whereas a pessimist might look at our own Earth's case and proclaim the end is near. Don't forget this equation was originally set up for radio astronomy purposes. A civilization could outgrow radio emissions by developing more efficient alternatives or let their radios fall into disuse as they moved on to more interesting pastimes. In our case, we have been releasing radio emissions for a little over one hundred years, so the earliest transmissions have penetrated space to a distance of one hundred light-years.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Multiplying all these factors yields an estimate of the total number of communicative civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. The numbers range from billions (optimists) to only one: humans. Drake's original estimate was ten thousand. Modern versions often converge around a number of communicative civilizations approximately equal to the number of years a civilization releases detectable signals.
Although some have suggested the Drake equation is a way of encapsulating our ignorance into a small space, it is instructive to think about each of the factors in a separated format. Further, it allows another estimate to be made: the average distance between communicative civilizations. For moderate values of the seven factors above, the average distance between communicative civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy would be hundreds to thousands of light-years. If it takes light several hundred years to travel from one civilization to another, communication would take longer than screechy old modems getting onto the Internet, if you can imagine that. Inter-civilization travel would be even less likely, at least in terms of the lifetime of a single human being. Nevertheless, for a million-year-old, technologically adept, expansionist civilization intent on colonizing the galaxy, a few thousand years of travel to a new world is not unreasonable.
Considering that the solar system has only been around for the last third of the Milky Way's existence, many other stars have quite a head start. Might they have developed the necessary technology and set out to colonize the galaxy? Knowing the galaxy's size and making reasonable assumptions about the speed of their spaceships, it would seem that such a project could be accomplished within a few million years. This is large in terms of individual human lifetimes, but small in terms of the galaxy's age. In other words, technologically advanced civilizations might very well colonize the galaxy, á la Star Trek, Star Wars, or other science fiction works.
Regarding the estimates necessary to complete the Drake equation, physicist Philip Morrison said that the question we should be asking is, “Should we do something to find out?” To find the answer to the question, we must do something empirical.
Science's first experimental effort in this direction was undertaken by none other than—Frank Drake. For six hours a day, from April to July 1960, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's eighty-five-foot dish antenna was set to 1420 MHz and pointed at two stars of about the same age as our sun. Signals from the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani produced nothing other than a lot of static and one false alarm—a (formerly) secret military project's signals. Project Ozma, named after the queen of Oz, a character in L. Frank Baum's imaginary land “populated by strange and exotic beings,”7 produced no positive results, but the search for ET intelligence was officially underway.
LARGE-SCALE LISTENING PROJECTS
Subsequently, several other projects have been undertaken to listen for extraterrestrial transmissions. One group even sent information in case “they” were listening. The largest project, called the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, is a not-for profit organization started in 1984. One of SETI Institute's first employees was Jill Tarter (1944–).
Jill Tarter (1944–). Courtesy of Steve Jurvetson, from Wikimedia Commons.
Tarter earned a BS in engineering physics from Cornell University and a PhD in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. Professionally, she has worked on a number of projects, most relating to the search for extraterrestrial life. Astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan (more about him shortly) was associated with many of the same projects, and he began writing a screenplay, called Contact, partially based on Tarter's work at SETI. While the film project stalled in development, Sagan rewrote it as a novel in 1985. Eventually, the movie project was resurrected, and the movie Contact portrayed many aspects of SETI quite accurately, with Jodie Foster cast in a role that seems quite similar to Jill Tarter. Of course, Hollywood's search is more successful than reality.
Other search projects include optical scanners using lasers and the SERENDIP project—an acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations—supported by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The project analyzes deep-space radio telescope data that it obtains while other astronomers use the telescope.
An interesting sidelight to SETI is that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can participate in the project. You can download software that will receive data from SETI and process it when your computer is in screensaver mode. The program will display the signals, analyze them, and send the information back to SETI. See the To Dig Deeper section in the back matter for more details.
15.6 STEPHEN HAWKING AND BLACK HOLES
Life would be tragic if it weren't funny.
Stephen Hawking's 1965 PhD thesis was titled “Singularities and Geometry of Space-Time.” How appropriate for someone whose life bears so many earmarks of a singular occurrence.
Hawking was born in 1942 to a family regarded as eccentric. They got around in a reconditioned English taxi, and many meals were quiet as they were all reading books. As a youth, Hawking was recognized as bright but was not especially successful academically.
Stephen Hawking (1942–). From Wikimedia Commons, user Qz10.
In 1959, he began college at University College, Oxford, where he found the work “ridiculously easy.”9 Eventually, he entered into the swing of college life and became interested in classical music and science fiction. He also joined the college Boat Club and served as coxswain of a rowing team that he steered along some risky routes. In his senior year, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease and Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in the United Kingdom. For unknown reasons, brain neurons die, mostly affecting voluntary muscle function, leading to progressive muscle weakness and atrophy. Although some ALS cases are hereditary, no one else in Hawking's family has developed it. Cognitive brain centers, as well as control of elimination and eye movement, are usually spared until the end stage. Ninety percent of ALS patients die within three to four years, but typical onset occurs at age sixty. In Hawking's case, doctors estimated he would have about two to three years to live.
Remarkably, Hawking met his sister's friend Jane Wilde, and they fell in love. At their engagement, Hawking said that he now had “something to live for.”10 Within two years, Hawking finished his PhD and got married. Their first child was born two years later, with a second in three more years. Hawking taught, his physical condition deteriorated, but his fierce independence and stubbornness never wavered, even though he was finally convinced to use a wheelchair, which he drove wildly. His wife said, “Some people would call it determination, some obstinacy. I've called it both at one time or another.”11 In 1973, he wrote his first book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, corresponding to his major research interest.
Hawking and his family spent 1974 at Caltech, during which time Jane persuaded him to accept a graduate student assistant to help with his care. Hawking's Caltech connection was very agreeable. His visits there continued for many years. In the 1970s and 1980s, he continued his study of black holes. The public had a hard time understanding black holes, partly due to their name. Perhaps they should have been called massively dense objects from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Or, in shorter version, Dense Object, No Escape, or in acronym form DONE.
When satellite observations produced evidence of black holes, namely the charged particles being squeezed together as they are about to fall into a black hole and the X-rays they emit before taking the final plunge, Hawking's work became even more interesting to the general public, and his popularity soared. During this time, his wife said her role was, in addition to the children—now three in number—and her care of Stephen, and household duties, “simply to tell him he's not God.”12 In 1988, his first attempt at a popular book, A Brief History of Time, was a worldwide sensation, eventually selling nine million copies.
In 1990, Hawking left his wife and moved in with one of his caregivers, Elaine Mason. Divorce and remarriage followed five years later. Although Hawking's physical condition continued to deteriorate, technological aids, such as a speech synthesizer, allowed him to maintain a vigorous professional life.
Hawking loved to make public bets with colleagues. Often, the bet would be one hundred dollars, but one time it was a year's subscription to Penthouse magazine. One series of bets went awry. Beginning in 1996, Hawking bet several people that the Higgs boson would not be found. After Hawking collected on several of the bets, quite publicly, normally mild-mannered Peter Higgs became annoyed, and said it was “difficult to engage him (Hawking) in discussion, so he has got away with pronouncements in a way that other people would not. His celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have.”13
Eddie Redmayne. Courtesy of Steve Jurvetson, from Wikimedia Commons.
Hawking divorced Mason in 2006. For several years prior, there had been incidents where he had been treated for injuries, but he declined to explain their source.14
Hollywood got into the act in 2014 with the film The Theory of Everything, which garnered a Best Actor Academy Award for Eddie Redmayne, who played the role of Hawking.
The film, based on Jane Hawking's memoir, Travelling to Infinity, was accepted by Hawking as “broadly true.”15 However, his sisters and second ex-wife boycotted the premiere, citing factual inaccuracies.
In July 2015, the Breakthrough Funding Program was instituted. It is a ten-year, hundred-million-dollar initiative to inject funds into the SETI program. Funded by Russian tycoon Yuri Milner, it will feature the most extensive alien communication program to date. Milner was a PhD candidate in particle physics, but he changed fields to earn an MBA from the Wharton School of Business after being “disappointed in myself as a physicist.”16 During the project launch, at London's Royal Society, Hawking said, “In an infinite Universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.”17 Hawking and Milner were joined by Frank Drake (see the previous mini-chapter) and Ann Druyan (next mini-chapter) at the announcement in London. Milner regards SETI as a “low probability high impact project,” and he's the one who supplied the money.18
15.7 COSMOS—CARL SAGAN + ANN DRUYAN + NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON + SETH MACFARLANE
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
My knowledge of science came from being with Carl, not from formal academic training. Carl gave me a thrilling tutorial in science and math that lasted the 20 years we were together.
I said that if an alien came to visit, I'd be embarrassed to tell them that we fight wars to pull fossil fuels out of the ground to run our transportation. They'd be like, “What?”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson21
The continuance of our journey outward into space should always occupy some part of our collective attention, regardless of whatever Snooki did last week.
“Billions and billions…” That's what many people think when they hear the name Carl Sagan. But that phrase actually annoyed Sagan himself. He wrote to Johnny Carson, protesting that he didn't actually say that in his many appearances on the Tonight Show. The response: “Even if you didn't say ‘billions and billions’ you should have—Johnny.”23 Actually, the phrase played right into Sagan's hands. His quest to make science, especially astronomy, popular and understandable required people scaling up their thinking to billions and billions. But his life didn't start out quite that way.
Carl Sagan (1934–1996). From Wikimedia Commons, user Erlendaakre.
Born in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1934, Sagan said, “My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.”24 From the University of Chicago, Sagan achieved a BS and MS in physics and a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics with a 1960 dissertation on “Physical Studies of Planets and Satellites.” During a two-year fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, Sagan predicted that Venus was dominated by a carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, and had a very high surface temperature, contradicting earlier ideas of a cool surface. This prediction was confirmed by later spacecraft measurements.
GO EAST, YOUNG MAN
Sagan then moved to Massachusetts and worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Cambridge. He also taught and did research at Harvard but was denied tenure in 1968. In 1969, he wrote an essay under the pseudonym Mr. X about the use of cannabis for the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered by his good friend and fellow Harvard academic (in psychology) Lester Grinspoon. He became full professor at Cornell in 1971 and directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies there. In 1973 Sagan wrote, with Jerome Agel, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective. This book, and all the other twenty-plus popular books he wrote were actually dictated by Sagan and transcribed into type. Sagan would then edit them repeatedly, by hand, on their way to being printed.
In the sixties and seventies, Sagan consulted on many NASA spacecraft missions and often used his communication skills to explain things to reporters. He became a favorite of Johnny Carson, appearing as almost a resident astronomer on the Tonight Show. The book Cosmos and the PBS series based on the book, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, brought instant fame and recognition to Sagan.
Sagan almost always seemed like the smartest person in the room, but he had this to say about himself: “I think I'm able to explain things because understanding wasn't entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand.”25 He wrote many articles that appeared in the popular press and listened patiently to the unusual opinions of others, even about UFOs. But after a thorough hearing, Sagan always applied the scientific method to all claims, pointing out that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”26 His last book even featured a chapter titled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” Some of the more eccentric letters he received were labeled “F/C,” Sagan's shorthand for fractured ceramics—crackpots.
One of Sagan's cowriters on Cosmos was author and TV producer Ann Druyan.
Ann Druyan. Courtesy of Bob Lee, from Wikimedia Commons.
Druyan was born in 1949 and grew up in Hollis, Queens, New York City. She was a dropout from NYU in the late sixties and met Sagan at a party (hosted by journalist Nora Ephron) in New York City, Sagan with his second wife, Druyan with another man. They worked on several TV projects that fizzled before Sagan asked her to become a creative director on the Voyager space project he was working on. She helped design the Voyager Golden Records, a collection of images, music, and sounds included on the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, which are now, literally, billions and billions of miles away. Druyan became Sagan's third wife in 1981.27 They collaborated on writing The Demon-Haunted World, Comet, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Together, they conceived the story that would eventually become the novel and film Contact, for which Druyan served as producer. During production of the movie, Sagan died of pneumonia resulting from myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) at the age of sixty-two. Filming was suspended briefly, then the movie was finished and released to critical acclaim in 1997.
At Cornell, Sagan often met with potential students to convince them to enroll at Cornell. In 1975, he interviewed a Bronx High School of Science senior who had evidenced a substantial interest in the universe and had even given astronomy lectures at the age of fifteen. This young man's name was Neil deGrasse Tyson. Here's a photo taken a bit later in his life:
Tyson spent a day touring Cornell with Sagan, who had offered to put him up overnight if his bus didn't come. Tyson recalled, “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”28 In spite of Sagan's recruitment efforts, Tyson attended Harvard and got a BS in physics there in 1980. He also rowed, wrestled, and participated in campus dance activities. Tyson continued his studies at the University of Texas at Austin, earning an MS in astronomy. He then went to Columbia, where he was a coauthor of a paper with Brian Schmidt early in the Supernova Ia project (recall chapter 15.2). Tyson got his PhD in astrophysics from Columbia in 1991.
Selfie with Bill Nye (1955–), President Barack Obama (1961–), and Tyson (1958–). From Wikimedia Commons, user Stemoc.
He joined the Hayden Planetarium staff and became director in 1996. According to him, “When I was a kid…there were scientists and educators on the staff at the Hayden Planetarium…who invested their time and energy in my enlightenment…and I've never forgotten that.”29 Tyson has written many books, served on many boards and panels, and appeared on many TV programs such as the Daily Show and Colbert Report, all to explain and popularize astronomy and science. He also served in many capacities on the Planetary Society, an organization founded in 1980 by Sagan.
Tyson and Druyan had talked for a while about re-creating Cosmos for TV, but the project finally began to get somewhere when Tyson introduced Druyan to Seth MacFarlane in 2008.
Seth MacFarlane (1973–). Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia Commons.
MacFarlane (1973–) is a multitalented artist who started as an animator but expanded his career to become an actor, singer, producer, and director. When MacFarlane learned of the efforts to make a new version of Cosmos, he was excited. He told Tyson, “I'm at a point in my career where I have some disposable income…and I'd like to spend it on something worthwhile.”30 MacFarlane set up meetings at Fox Network and helped Druyan and Tyson sell the project. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiered in March 2014. It was a thirteen-episode series like the original Cosmos, and had Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan among its executive producers. Similar to the original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, it featured graphic elements such as the “Ship of the Imagination” and the “Cosmic Calendar,” but all the animations were substantially upgraded. The show has received several awards, including a Peabody for educational content. Some people wondered if Tyson was trying to fill Sagan's shoes. His response was, “If I try to fill his shoes I'll just fail, because I can't be him, but I can fill my own shoes.”31 Tyson wears size twelve and a half shoes, which appear pretty substantial and well filled.
15.8 GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER
There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation—veneer isn't worth anything.
—George Washington Carver32
George Washington Carver (1864–1943). From Wikimedia Commons, user Scewing.
Although he has been called “the Peanut Man,” there's a lot more to George Washington Carver (1864–1943) than peanuts. Carver was born into slavery near Diamond, Missouri, sometime around 1864. His sister, his mother, and he were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas when he was only about a week old. Moses Carver, George's master, hired a tracker to find them, but only George was found. After the war, George and his older brother James were raised by Moses and Susan Carver as their own children, with “Aunt Susan” teaching him to read and write.
George had an abiding love of nature and a deep-seated curiosity. He seemed to have an instinctive knowledge about growing things. After curing many ailing plants, George became known as “the Plant Doctor.” When he was about twelve, with the Carver's blessings, George set out for Neosho, Missouri, where there was a school that accepted black students. There, George boarded with Mariah and Andrew Watkins, who soon grasped the power of George's mind. “You must learn all you can and then go out into the world and give your learning back to our people that's so starving for a little learning.”33 Mariah Watkins also told him to stop calling himself “Carver's George,” because he was no one's property.
Within a year, George Carver moved on from Neosho, having learned all he could. After various odd jobs and occasional academic work, George finished high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, in 1885. To avoid confusion with another George Carver, he became George W. Carver. When asked if the W stood for “Washington,” he said why not. In addition to knowing about plants, Carver enjoyed painting pictures of them, using homemade brushes and paints.
Carver became the first black student at Iowa State Agricultural College at Ames, Iowa, in 1891. He earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in botany, and achieved national recognition for his research in plant pathology and mycology (study of fungi). Carver then began teaching and became Iowa State's first black faculty member.
Much farther east and south, another school employed almost exclusively black faculty. The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was founded in 1881, and its first faculty member was Booker T. Washington (1856–1915).
Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). From Wikimedia Commons, user Ineuw.
Washington was a recent graduate of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. His goal was to train black teachers to build the black community's economic strength and pride by emphasizing self-help and schooling, especially in agricultural matters. As Tuskegee Institute flourished, Washington became a dominant leader in the black community. He believed they should “concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.”34 The goal was to overcome white prejudice slowly by showing that blacks deserved equality on the basis of their merits.
As part of his efforts to strengthen the faculty, Washington invited George Washington Carver to be head of the Agriculture Department in 1896. In Washington's letter, he said Carver would have “the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste”35 to more fruitful lives. Although he was considering an offer from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in Mississippi, Carver admired Washington and decided to leave his comfort zone in the West to travel to the heart of the South.
When Carver arrived in Alabama, he saw “not much evidence of scientific farming anywhere. Everything looked hungry: the land, the cotton, the cattle and the people.”36 Carver taught that the way to renew the soil and the people would be to plant crops largely ignored in the South: sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, and peanuts. All three were both soil-renewing and edible.
In the almost twenty years that Washington and Carver worked together at Tuskegee Institute, they had many a rocky moment. Carver's responsibilities were so diverse that he was spread thin and his paperwork lagged far behind his performance. On the other hand, Washington never seemed to provide enough funds for the equipment that Carver requested. This may sound typical to anyone familiar with academic politics, yet Carver threatened to resign several times because of disputes. Washington always managed to smooth things over, often just in time. Even bigger problems for Washington were posed by the more activist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), who challenged Washington's go-slow policy with a far more militant leadership style for the black community.
Yet, both Washington and Carver maintained their mutual respect. In 1911, Washington called Carver “one of the most thoroughly scientific men of the Negro race with whom I am acquainted.”37 When Washington died after a short illness in 1915, Carver donated half his year's salary to the Booker T. Washington Memorial Fund.
With Washington gone, Carver worked on, researching new uses of peanuts, soybeans, sweet potatoes, pecans, and other crops. His appearance before the Peanut Growers Association in 1920 and testimony before the US Congress supporting a tariff on imported peanuts led to national prominence and consultation with US presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Carver was awarded an honorary doctorate from Simpson College in 1928. In 1941, Time magazine dubbed Carver a “Black Leonardo.” That's a pretty good honor for a Peanut Man.
15.9 HEDY LAMARR AND GEORGE ANTHEIL—UNEXPECTED FREQUENCY HOPPING
All creative people want to do the unexpected.
Inventive people show up in all manner of shapes, sizes, and appearances. The odd couple in this mini-chapter would appear to be about as far removed from weapons electronic security designers as one could imagine, but their US Patent 2292387 dealt with weapons security. According to its description, “This invention relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the lie of carrier waves of different frequencies and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes.”39 The year was 1942, and the War Office classified the patent immediately as top secret. It was granted to Hedy Kiesler Markey of Los Angeles and George Antheil of Manhattan Beach, California. Who are these two people, and how did they link up?
Hedy Lamarr (1913–2000). From Wikimedia Commons, user Rossrs~commonswiki.
The woman listed on the patent as Hedy Kiesler Markey (Gene Markey was her second husband out of six total) was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1913, in Vienna, Austria. Hedwig was an only child. Her father was an affluent banker, and she studied ballet and classical piano before entering Max Reinhardt's famous Berlin acting school. Hedy (the nickname for Hedwig) appeared in a few films as a teenager, most notably the Czech film Ecstasy. Her role involved a brief nude scene and simulated sex. While tame by twenty-first-century standards, this was very daring in 1933, so the film was banned in Germany and the United States.
Shortly after the film was released, Hedy married Fritz Mandl, who was director general of weapons manufacturer Hirtenberger Patronenfabrik. The marriage was not a happy one, and Hedy often found herself in the company of munitions experts who discussed the latest German military research. She soon realized the connection this group had to the Nazi war machine, and it frightened her. Hedy's husband, ever jealous, tried to buy up and destroy copies of Ecstasy but failed. After putting up with the demands of this unhappy marriage for almost four years, Hedy made an elaborate plan to escape Mandl's clutches and left carrying only a few jewels and a small suitcase.
She linked up with Louis B. Mayer, signed a movie contract, and sailed to the United States aboard the Normandie. By the time she landed, she had a new name, Hedy Lamarr, and a new career stretching before her. Max Reinhardt had called her “the most beautiful woman in the world,”40 and the MGM publicity department embellished that title. In her first American film, Algiers, with Charles Boyer, this new actress's beauty took everyone's breath away. She made a succession of films with Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, and Victor Mature, but some critics think MGM didn't utilize her talents fully, suspecting that Mayer never quite understood how to handle her independence.
Lamarr didn't fit the Hollywood mold. Shooting several films per year left her with a substantial amount of “down time.” Celebrity parties didn't really interest her; she actually preferred smaller gatherings with friends. Also, she had a drafting table set up at home and enjoyed working on inventions, such as a cube that would produce an instant soft drink when mixed with water.
At a small party given by actress Janet Gaynor, Lamarr met composer George Antheil. She had read one of Antheil's Esquire articles about glands and wanted to discuss how glands might increase her breast size. That conversation didn't go very far, but the two imaginative and inventive minds found many more fruitful subjects.
George Antheil (1900–1959) was an American composer of avant-garde music and writer of magazine articles, newspaper columns, and even a mystery novel. One of his best-known works was Ballet Mécanique, originally scored for sixteen synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren, and three airplane propellers. By the late 1930s, Antheil was writing film scores for Hollywood and was delighted to meet Hedy Lamarr.
George Antheil (1900–1959). From Wikimedia Commons, user Stef joosen.
Lamarr and Antheil spent countless hours drafting and redrafting their torpedo design and other inventions, including a proximity fuse for antiaircraft shells. According to their patent application, to accomplish frequency changes for their torpedo, “we contemplate employing records of the type used for many years in player pianos, and which consist of long rolls of paper having perforations variously positioned in a plurality of longitudinal rows along the records. In a conventional Player Piano record there may be 88 rows of perforations. And in our system such a record would permit the use of 88 different carrier frequencies, from one to another of which both the transmitting and receiving station would be changed at intervals.”41
Although the design wasn't used by the War Office, the idea caught hold later and is now considered the foundational patent for spread spectrum technologies used in cell phones, Bluetooth, and GPS devices.
In 1997, Hedy Lamarr was presented the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. At the award ceremony, EFF staff counsel Mike Godwin said, “Lamarr and Antheil had hoped that the military applications of their invention would play a role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Ironically, this tool they developed to defend democracy half a century ago promises to extend democracy in the twenty-first century.”42 If there had been an award for “Most Beautiful Frequency Hopping,” she might have won that, too.
15.10 THE AMAZING RANDI
The New Age? It's just the old age stuck in a microwave oven for fifteen seconds.
Last, but certainly not least on the list of honorable mentions, is a man who is technically not a scientist. Actually, he dropped out of high school at age seventeen. And yet he has performed an extremely valuable function for science. Perhaps an analogy will help to explain his actions.
A sculptor was once asked how he managed to create such a wonderful likeness of a heroic figure. He said it was very simple: Just chip away anything that doesn't look heroic.
A major challenge faced by science is chipping away ideas that might seem to be scientific but that actually undermine the whole structure of science by passing off illusions as if they are reality. Educators are familiar with the crust of nonscientific ideas that must be chipped off before real science can enter people's minds. Carl Sagan treated this problem in a general way in his book chapter “Baloney Detection Kit” (see chapter 15.7) but the subject of this mini-chapter concerns himself primarily with paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims. He refers to these items collectively as “woo-woo.”44 Our final honoree is The Amazing Randi.
THE AMAZING RANDI
Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1928. As a youth, a bicycle accident put him into a full-body cast for thirteen months, but he learned to walk again, much to the surprise of his doctors. Seeing a performance by magician Harry Blackstone Jr. and reading books about magic inspired him to drop out of school at seventeen to become a conjurer in a traveling road show. Eventually calling himself “The Amazing Randi,” he performed in nightclubs, posed as a psychic, and briefly wrote a column on astrology for the tabloid Midnight under the name of Zo-ran. His technique was quite simple: he took items from other newspaper astrology columns, shuffled them randomly, and pasted them into his column.
Used with permission from Sidney Harris.
The Amazing Randi (1928–). Courtesy of S. Pakhrin, from Wikimedia Commons.
In the fifties, Randi worked in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Philippines, and Japan. Many of his fellow performers and some evangelists claimed to have supernatural powers, but Randi could tell what they were actually doing. One was the “go-ahead” or “billet reading” technique. Audience members write a statement on paper that is then sealed into an envelope. One of the audience members is a plant, who writes something that the performer has memorized beforehand. The plant then marks the envelope. When the performer has collected all the envelopes, he puts the marked one on the bottom of the stack. The performer selects an envelope from the top of the stack, goes through his magic motions, and announces the preplanned statement. The plant loudly proclaims its accuracy, the performer opens the envelope, and says he got it right. Of course, the envelope opened actually reveals someone else's statement, written by a real audience member, which the performer memorizes. He then selects another envelope and states the contents he memorized from the prior envelope. Randi performed these tricks and other mind-reading illusions but became discouraged by the public acceptance of them as being paranormal. Randi then shifted his focus and began to perform more escape tricks, similar to Harry Houdini. Once he spent fifty-five minutes in a block of ice. Another time, he escaped from a straitjacket while suspended over Niagara Falls.
ENTER URI GELLER
Randi entered the public eye when he issued a public challenge to Uri Geller, a former Israeli paratrooper. Geller had claimed paranormal powers, but Randi said he used standard magic tricks to bend spoons and perform other feats of telekinesis. It wasn't that Randi objected to magic tricks—that's what he did for a living. What bothered him was that Geller fooled gullible people into believing in supernatural powers. In 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was formed, with the founding board members psychologist Ray Hyman, Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner, secular humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz, and authors Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan (see chapter 15.7) as well as Randi. Part of the funding came from the sale of a new magazine named the Skeptical Inquirer. In his role as paranormal investigator, Randi debunked a wide variety of frauds, but he was careful to be called an investigator rather than a debunker. “Because if I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true, and I'm going to prove it's not true,’ that means I've made up my mind in advance. So every project that comes to my attention, I say, ‘I just don't know what I'm going to find out.’ That may end up—and usually it does end up—as a complete debunking. But I don't set out to debunk it.”45
Randi's pursuit of Geller continued with appearances in person, on TV (the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), and even a book, The Truth about Uri Geller. Eventually, Geller responded by suing Randi and CSICOP for fifteen million dollars. Although the suit was thrown out, potential legal costs led CSICOP's leadership to demand that Randi stop investigating Geller. Randi resigned from CSICOP, and the group changed its name to Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). After Geller's suit was thrown out of court, Randi joined the board of CSI.
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) was started in 1996 to “help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. The JREF offers a still-unclaimed million-dollar reward for anyone who can produce evidence of paranormal abilities under controlled conditions.”46 The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge has been hosted at an annual gathering of academics, comedians, magicians, and writers billed as The Amazing Meeting. So far, no claimants have been awarded the prize, but several have tried. (Full disclosure: One of us, CMW, has hosted Randi at his university and attended and presented at several Amazing Meetings.)
The Amazing Randi has had a long and fascinating career, often appearing on TV, including a 60 Minutes exposé using a fake “spirit channeler” featuring a friend of Randi's who eventually became Randi's life partner. To find out more about Randi, visit the To Dig Deeper section in the back matter.
Although he wasn't trained as a scientist, Randi's powers of observation probably exceed many scientists’, and his open-mindedness in evaluating what he investigates can serve as a model of objectivity for all science.