Thursday, March 29, 2018

Great Scientists during the 1800s

Beck-Handle Microscope
Last week's blog paying homage to Stephen Hawking raised my curiosity about what scientific discoveries occurred during the lifetime of Isaac Beckley Werner, from 1844-1895.  Even during the early years of such a young country, there were scientists at work, perhaps the best remembered being Benjamin Franklin.  However, as a young and evolving country, our clever minds seemed to focus more on inventions.  Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, but during the years after Isaac's birth there were several inventions we take for granted today:  Walter Hunt invented the safety pin in 1849 (the patent to which he sold for $400!); David M. Smith invented the spring clothes pin in 1853; Daniel C. Stillson invented the pipe wrench in 1869; George Westinghouse invented the Railway air brake in 1872; Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in 1877; and Henry W. Seely invented the electric iron in 1881.

Charles Darwin
Although we appreciate these inventors, and many more that I did not name, America did not produce as many scientists.  To continue my homage to great scientists begun last week, I want to share the stories of five Europeans.  (I am saving one American scientist for next week's blog, as his amazing story deserves to be better known.)

I will begin with Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by natural selection remains well known even today.   Born in 1809 and died in 1882, his ideas about the origin of the species would have been known to Isaac Werner.  Because I have mentioned him in other blogs and because his name remains familiar today, I will not elaborate on his scientific discoveries.

Gregor Johann Mendel
Having begun with Darwin, who was born first among those I will mention, I will continue with Gregor Johann Mendel, born in July of 1822, died in January 1884, a scientist and an Augustinian friar and abbot.  From his experiments with pea plants between  1856 and 1863 he established certain rules of heredity caused by invisible "factors" which we now know as genes.  Prior to his work, it was thought that characteristics passed from parents in a blended form of inheritance, in which traits were averaged.  He began his research using mice, but his bishop disapproved of a friar studying animal sex, so Mendel began using plants as his experimental subjects.  His fellow scientists did not immediately appreciate the significance of Mendel's research, but today he is known as the "father of modern genetics."

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur was born December 27, 1822 and died September 28, 1895 and is best known for developing the technique to stop bacterial contamination in milk and wine with a process we know as pasteurization.  However, he is also important for his work concerning vaccination, so important in preventing diseases and treating rabies and  anthrax victims. Unfortunately, rumors arose concerning his own accounts of discoveries, and when his laboratory notebooks were finally donated to the French National Library in 1971, and made more available for research in 1985 nearly a century after his death, personal traits of this man, who was surely a genius, were not always so admirable.

Wilhelm Rontgen
When a teacher intercepted an unflatering caricature drawn by Wilhelm Rontgen during his high school years, Rontgen was expelled, and the result was that he lacked the credentials to enter Utrecht University.  Born March 27, 1845 and died February 10, 1923, Rontgen was fortunately able to continue his studies at Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich as a mechanical engineering student, and later at the University of Zurich and the University of Strassburg.  Another twist to his life occurred during the time of W.W. I.  He planned to join family in America and had accepted a position at Columbia University in NYC when W.W. I broke out.  He never made it to America.  He had won the 1st Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901 for his production and detection of electromagnetic radiation in a wave length know as X-rays (or Rontgen rays) and would have been a valuable scientific resource for America.

Marie Curie
The name of the last European scientist to be mentioned is probably familiar to you.  Marie Sklodowska Curie was born November 7, 1867 and died July 4, 1934, the child of a well-to-do family whose land and fortune were lost because of patriotic and political activities.  Her life was further changed when she fell in love with a young relative whose family opposed his marriage to a girl with no wealth.  Eventually her romantic life was revived by marriage to a fellow scientist with whom she won her first Nobel Prize in 1903 for physics and in 1911, well after his death, she won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  As for the young man whose family denied his choice of Marie as his wife, his feelings for her seemed not to have changed.  He was often seen in his final days sitting contemplatively before Marie's statute at the Radium Institute she had founded.  Her scientific achievements were the development of the theory of radioactivity, techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of the two elements, polonium and radium.  It was her work and not wealth that mattered to her, and her humanitarian efforts were as admirable as her scientific achievements.  During W.W. I she understood that surgical theaters with X-ray equipment and generators to power the facilities at the front would give wounded soldiers the best chance for survival.  She tried to donate her gold Nobel medals to the war effort but the French National Bank rejected them; however, she did buy war bonds with her Nobel prize money.  Her war efforts for the soldiers meant little scientific research was done during this time, and exposure to the ionising radiation in her research and from unshielded equipment used in the field hospitals during the war are believed to be the cause of her death. 

I find it fascinating to consider history from a broad perspective.  While the struggles of Isaac B. Werner and his neighbors on the prairie are the center of my research, I am also interested in understanding those homesteaders within the larger context of other places and events.  The late 1800s were also the Golden Age for wealthy Americans, and as we see from this brief summary of scientists in Europe, it was a time of great scientific discovery.  What might Isaac Werner's creative mind have discovered if his education and tools had been those of the European scientists discussed in this blog?

Remember, images may be enlarged by clicking on them.

Next week's blog will focus on an American scientist working during Isaac Werner's lifetime.  His name is probably known to you, but the story of his life may surprise you!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Homage to a Great Scientist

Stephen Hawking, 1980s
On March 14, 2018, the world lost Stephen Hawking, who died at the age of 76 after having been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease at the age of 21.  With what had seemed a death sentence, he refused to concede to disabilities that seemed insurmountable, to become a legendary physicist.  Not only did his twisted body confine him to a wheelchair but also necessitated a speech synthesizer to enable him to speak.  Yet, nothing seemed capable of destroying his ability to explore the universe.  His ideas will continue to influence the study of space for decades to come.

His studies led him to issue warnings to those of us living in his time about consequences for the future if we continue as we are doing.  He projected the possibility that at the current population growth of our planet, humans may limit their own time on earth through the heat generated by over-population.  In effect, he seemed to forecast a similar environmental crisis for humans as dinosaurs confronted in the Ice Age, but of a reverse temperature threat.  He also warned that Artificial Intelligence, even with its potential to do positive things, also risks facilitating the creation of powerful weapons of terror.  "Success in creating effective Al could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization, or the worst," Hawking warned.

Hawking is certainly to be admired for his willingness to create a productive life when many of us would have given up as the disability worsened.  When asked by an interviewer how he might change the universe, if that were possible, he replied:  "If I had designed it differently, it wouldn't have produced me.  ...I'm prepared to make do with the universe we have, and try to find out what it is like."  His dry sense of humor, as well as his daily courage, are to be admired.

Hawking receives Presidential Medal of Freedom
One of his college professors said of him, "It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it."  That confidence sometimes got him into trouble academically, but it also gave him the confidence to pursue his own ideas and not be bound by ideas of others.

He used his sense of humor to dispute those who suggest time travel into the past is possible by hosting a party.  However, the invitation gave a date already past, reducing his guest list to those time-travelers who had the ability to travel backward in order to attend.  No guests arrived.

Loss of speech was an early result of his disease, but he used a computer program called the Equalizer, developed by Walter Woltosz.  First operated with his hand, when that was no longer possible he used the muscles of his cheek.  Eventually he used a different program called SwiftKey, which utilized input from his papers and other writings to allow discussing ideas without letter by letter entries.

Mobility was also a gradually increasing problem, as was breathing, yet he managed to continue a productive life until his death on March 17, 2018, having been a guest on Neil deGrasse Tyson's show StarTalk that same month.  Such courage should inspire all of us as we deal with far smaller issues in our lives.

He raised questions for all of us, admitting that he did not know the answers but wanted "to get people to think about it, and to be aware of the dangers we now face."  Among his concerns were the dangers to Earth from such things as nuclear war, global warming, and genetically engineered viruses, and even the possibility of aliens.  Resting the likely odds of there being aliens on the vastness of the universe, he suggested that if there were aliens who visited our planet, we should reflect on what happened to Native Americans when Columbus landed in America, "...which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans."  In other words, if aliens did reach Earth, their technology might exceed ours, and contact with them might be unwise.

Hawking in Zero-G flight, (photo credit Jim Campbell)
However, that did not make Hawking reluctant for us to travel in space ourselves, and he personally wanted to do so.  Richard Branson offered him a free flight on Virgin Galactic, and Hawking actually flew on a jet operated by Zero-G Corp. and experienced weightlessness to see if he could withstand the g-forces of space flight. He could.  Unfortunately, the completion of Virgin Galactic did not progress as quickly as projected, and Hawking did not get to fly in space. However, I can only imagine the joy and wonder of his Zero-G flight, experiencing the freedom of weightlessness in contrast to his physical restrictions of Earth's gravity.

In the last decades of his life, Hawking began to speak out on behalf of protecting our own planet for our children.  In his own country, he spoke out against England's withdrawal from the European Union, believing science benefits from a sharing of ideas among countries, with international collaboration by scientists conducting modern research beyond national boundaries.

He also spoke out strongly about global warming, saying:  "Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it's one we can prevent if we act now."  His emphasis was on nations acting together, warning that if we withdraw from joint efforts, we "...will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world for us and our children."  He used a planet in our own solar system as an example of what Earth might become, " Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid."

So, we have lost Stephen Hawking, but the ideas and warnings he gave us remain, and his example of a productive life in the face of such challenges is not the least among all of the important things he left behind!

Remember, images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Reading tributes to Stephen Hawking led me to consider the great scientific minds that made their contributions during the lifetime of Isaac Werner.  Without computers, copy machines, and the refined instruments of scientists of the century after Isaac's death, or of the present day.  Next week's blog will pay homage to some of the scientists making great discoveries while Isaac Werner lived.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

What May You Be Missing?

Learning about history is available in places you may overlook.  Sometimes our own hometowns have history to share as we go about our daily tasks, but we are often too busy to notice.  For example, consider the town of Kingman, Kansas.  Most people hurry through Kingman on Highway 54, going someplace else, hardly glancing at the things to be seen from their car windows.  Yet, in Kingman there are outdoor murals, easy to see without leaving your car.  From Highway 54, if you look to the south you can see a beautiful 1888 building with its towers and ornate stone and brick work.  Once it was the firehouse, jail, and city hall, but today it is the Kingman County Historical Museum.

The contents inside are worth a visit, but even without entering the building you can appreciate the history depicted on the north side of the building.  Artist and Kansan Stan Herd was commissioned to create two murals:  a 40' x 20' depiction of Clyde Cessna making his maiden flight in his first airplane, and a 15' x 10' mural depicting William "Cannonball" Greene driving a stagecoach between Kingman and Pratt.  (There is also a 30' long mural inside on the second floor of the museum by D. Stoneberger.)

Clyde Cessna was born on a farm in Kingman County, but he is not famous for that.  Rather, he left the farm and began building airplanes, and he founded the Cessna Aircraft Company whose planes continue to make his name famous.

The name "Cannonball" Green also has notoriety--in fact, in triplicate!  Kingman's visitors' literature identifies the driver in the mural as William "Cannonball" Green, but Greensburg, Kansas to the west claims its town took its name from D. R. "Cannonball" Green, and movies have depicted James "Cannonball" Green.  Chasing down the explanation for the three different "Cannonball Greens" is beyond this blog, but whether it was William, D.R., or James driving the coach, there was a stage line that traveled the route called the "Cannonball" in its day.  The operation of the stage line was cut short by the arrival of the railroads.

What is particularly interesting about the two murals on the north side of the History Museum is the artist that painted them.  While he began as an outdoor mural artist, today Stan Herd is probably best known for his earth-work and crop art.  Sun and weather shorten the lives of outdoor murals, but Herd's current outdoor art has an even shorter life span.  Created from plants and earth, manipulated by the artist through mowing, burning, and plowing, the art is quickly reclaimed by nature.  However, photographs preserve the art in books.

One of Herd's works, which depicted a pastoral Kansas landscape on a large barren lot near an underground railway tunnel in New York City, transformed what had been a trashy site into a work of rural art.  Of particular interest today is the coinsidence that the barren lot on which Herd worked belonged to Donald Trump!  The work was called "Countryside" and filmmaker Chris Ordal created an independent film called "Earthwork," creating a filmed work of art from Herd's creative artistic process.   

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Loneliness or Solitude?

"Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone."  --Paul Tillich

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick
Last week's blog compared the social life of homesteader Isaac B. Werner with those living today, who engage significantly, sometimes primarily, through social media.  Isaac was a bachelor, living at a distance from towns in a community in which most of his neighbors were married couples.  I have blogged in the past about farmers on the prairie working together, about the local school house serving as the community social center, and about the often misunderstood fact that population density was far greater on the prairie than it is today, with 3 or 4 homesteads in each square mile.  However, Isaac and others in his community were often alone, especially at night and because of weather.  

This blog reflects on the distinction between loneliness and solitude, and the impact of the two circumstances.  The quote at the top of this blog is by the German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who lived from 1886-1965.  His words offer a thoughtful way to reflect on the difference between two words, both of which involve aloneness.

Photo Credit:  Lyn & Larry Fenwick

In My Antonia, by Willa Cather, an immigrant neighbor commits suicide, even though he had a loving family to support.  The narrator says, "I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered whether his released  spirit would not eventually find its way back to his own country."  The narrator recalls what the man's daughter had told him of "...his life before he came to this country; how he used to play the fiddle at weddings and dances.  I thought about the friends he had mourned to leave,  ...Such vivid pictures came to me that they might have been Mr. Shimerda's memories, not yet faded out from the air in which they had haunted him."

In Rebecca Loncraine's biography of L. Frank Baum, she quotes from the diary of Baum's sister-in-law, whose isolated claim was in Dakota Territory.  Needing to be left alone with her child frequently when her husband traveled on business, she wrote:  "This is awful country...and I want to live East.  ...Alone all day and night again...dreadful, dreadfully forlorn.  Can't stand being alone so much."

Both of these accounts express the crippling effects of loneliness; yet, many people living today, even those living in urban environments and with access to social media with which to stay connected to others, suffer from symptoms caused by social separation--disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones.  Researchers report that social isolation is a growing epidemic, with physical, mental and emotional consequences.  An article by Dhruv Khullar in December of 2016 cites extensive studies showing that an increasing number of Americans say they are lonely, the numbers doubling from the 1980s, increasing from 20% to 40%.  Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline and cause premature deaths.

Photo Credit:  Lyn Fenwick
For younger people, loneliness is often caused by what scientists call "Maladaptive social cognition" or difficulty interacting with others.  For older adults, loneliness is often the result of family members moving away, close friends dying, their own poor health, and their limited mobility.  Khullar  concludes his report by saying, "A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart."  Reflecting back to last week's blog, should we wonder whether all of those hearts and thumbs-up and likes, and the dopamine bursts that come with them, are really making us feel connected with others?

In the late 1800s, Isaac frequently had opportunities to attend social events, yet chose to stay home by the fire to read or write letters.  Not every evening alone means a person is lonely or feels isolated.  Albert Einstein wrote, "Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature."   In fact, many well known men have agreed on this point.  "One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude," wrote Carl Sandburg.  Even in the case of married couples and close friends, Rainer Maria Rilke saw the need for them to respect breaks from too much togetherness.  "I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people:  that each protects the solitude of the other."

Kristina Randle, Ph.D. expressed this irony:  On one hand, the desire to isolate is a symptom of depression but on the other hand it can be a sign of a psychologically healthy individual.  

Self-described introvert Sophia Dembling says, "Solitude is great, until it's not."  Expressing that same need for balance, English artist, art critic, and author Phillip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894) wrote:  "We need society, and we need solitude also, as we need summer and winter, day and night, exercise and rest."

Photo Credit:  Lyn Fenwick
In the prime of his life, Isaac Werner seems to have managed this balance.  He was active in his community, encouraged people to work together, and maintained written correspondence with his family and educated people; yet, he enjoyed solitary reading and quiet evenings alone by the fire in reflection of one kind or another.  It was only in his final years that ill health isolated him, compounded by the dwindling correspondence with his siblings.  Dr. Dhruv Khullar's article ends with these words, obviously of particular relevance for the elderly and the home bound:  Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being.  It's up to all of us--doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities--to maintain bonds where they're fading, and create ones where they haven't existed.  

Hannah Arend, one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th Century (1906-1975) believed that "The lonely man finds himself surrounded by others with whom he cannot establish contact or to whose hostility he is exposed.  The solitary man, on the contrary, is alone and therefore can be together with himself."

Blogger Aditi Khurana summarizes the differences between Loneliness and Solitude in the following ways:  Loneliness is painful and negative, leaving us feeling excluded, unwanted, unimportant or unnoticed, even when we are with others.  It causes a sense of punishment or rejection that depletes us.  Solitude, however, is a positive state in which we can enjoy our own company and reflect on ourselves, others, our life, and our future, providing greater self-awareness, creativity, growth, and fresh insights.  It is something we choose and grounds us in who we are, enabling us to reach out and give to others.

Combining some of the issues raised in last week's blog about social media with ideas expressed in this blog, seemed to me appropriate.   

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Then & Now--Influences

Late 1800's Ad from the County Capital
In doing research for my manuscript about Isaac Werner and the Populist Movement, I read both the Populist newspaper to which Isaac subscribed, The County Capital, and the Republican newspaper to which my paternal great grandfather subscribed, The St. John News.  There were certainly significant differences in the way news was reported by those two St. John newspapers.  I suspect, however, that the advertisements I am including in this blog from The County Capital were much the same.

Then and now, we are all influenced by where and how we obtain our information.  Of course, that definitely applies to politics, but this blog is not about politics.  Then and now we are promised cures and beauty products that we want to believe but deep down know better.  We are lured to buy things that are exciting but unnecessary, updates when our old things are still serviceable, beautiful when what we have is just a little faded. I am sharing ads from the County Capital of Isaac's era, but there is no need for me to share modern ads, since you are bombarded with them on television and teased by them in magazines.  The art of propaganda to influence our decisions is nothing new; however, the ability to influence our decisions is encountering new territory.

Late 1800's Ad from the County Capital
Recently I read an article by Justin Brown concerning remarks made by a former Facebook executive, warning the Stanford University students to whom he was speaking that they must decide how much of their intellectual independence they are willing to give up.  Chamath Palihapitiya is a former Facebook vice-president who left in 2011, so he should know about that which he speaks when he says, "you don't realize it, but you are being programmed."

I previously blogged about algorithms  (Adapting to Changing Technologies, 3-30-2017)  and about what we visit and how we purchase online are being used to track our activities, interests, and tastes, as well as how much we are willing to pay for things we want.  Palihapitiya revealed another sophisticated method being used to influence us.  "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.  No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.  ...This is a global problem  ...  It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other."

1800s Ad, County Capital
He explained how what he called 'bad actors' can manipulate large populations, "...because we get rewarded in these short-term signals (hearts, likes, thumbs ups) and we conflate that with value and we conflate that with truth."

When asked for a solution to the damage this is causing, Palihapitiya admitted that he had no broad remedy.  "My solution is, I don't use these tools anymore.  I haven't for years."

Reflecting on his warning, I thought about whether he was being too alarmist.  Perhaps as you read this, you are doing the same thing.  I have blogged about the disappearing significance of letters between friends. (Isaac's Penmanship, 5-2-2012)  I have noticed how young people no longer join community groups as their parents once did.  The St. John Victorian Teas I blogged about (11-8-2011) have been discontinued because the women who planned and hosted the teas have grown older and were unable to recruit younger women to take their places.  Of course, part of that is the result of more women in the workplace, too busy to assume more responsibilities.  But even lodges and clubs that are merely gathering places are failing to attract younger members.  Movie theaters are closing because people prefer to watch movies at home on their own televisions with Netflix or  cable.  Friends have admitted that they often text because they don't want to get involved in a long phone conversation, and I have watched two people in the same room communicate by text rather than conversationally, excluding others in the room from their comments.  Social courtesies and common interactions are definitely changing.

Brown's article also cites Facebook's founding president, Sean Parker, who acknowledges their purpose was to "consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible."  Parker also admitted the intentional effects of  "giv[ing] you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.  And that's going to get you to contribute more content."  ..."It's a social-validation feedback loop...exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." 

Late 1800s Ad from County Capital
Justin Brown, the author of the article from which these quote are taken, is CEO and co-founder of a digital media platform providing commentary on the ideas shaping our lives.

Did the County Capital  shape Isaac Werner's ideas about populism and community issues?  Of course.  Did The St. John News shape my great grandfather's ideas, and the ideas of his son and grandson who continued to be subscribers for their entire lives? Certainly.  However, Isaac and my great grandfather knew one another and shared conversations.  Their interactions were not restricted to like-minded people.  The St. John News editor once joked that some of his subscribers stopped taking the paper in order to subscribe to the County Capital.  "Now they have to borrow someone else's paper to read The News," he teased. But as the way we communicate changes, those interactions change too.

Solo local newspapers generally tried to minimize their bias, not only from professional ethics but also because they needed as many subscribers as possible to stay in business.  Where are those newspapers today?  Small towns that once supported 2 or 3 newspapers now have none.  Small cities shrink their size and publish only once or twice a week to survive.  Even bigger cities' newspapers are slim editions.  Many families no longer subscribe to any newspaper.  

Late 1800s Ad from County Capital 
Our opinions are shaped by national news on television, which doesn't always accurately reflect regional news, reducing their reporting about a state or region to a single point of view.

When was the last time you received a letter from a friend?  Do your friends correspond regularly by e-mail as they did before facebook or other social media.  Are we often too busy to pause for conversations with friends at the post office and the grocery store?  As past means of communication decline, and social organizations lose membership, where do we get our news about friends' new babies and high school sports victories if not on social media.  

And by the way, could you take a moment to ❤❤❤❤me?  We all do it.  And we are pleased when we receive hearts and likes and thumbs up, but hearts are not conversations.  Hearts are not the exchange of ideas and opinions.  Isaac liked it when he received compliments for his ideas, newspaper articles, and speeches at community meetings, but he was also aware of opposing views in his community, expressed during informal conversations and public meetings.  Is what is happening now through social media really that different?  I just thought you might enjoy reading what people with expertise in social media think.  If they are alarmed, should we be??  

Remember, you can click on these antique ad to enlarge them.