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Real Men: American Scientists

by Alex Knapp on 24 July 2009

“Those who cultivate the sciences among a democratic people are always afraid of losing their way in visionary speculation. They mistrust systems; they adhere closely to facts and study facts with their own senses. As they do not easily defer to the mere name of any fellow man, they are never inclined to rest upon any man’s authority; but, on the contrary, they are unremitting in their efforts to find out the weaker points of their neighbors’ doctrine. Scientific precedents have little weight with them; they are never long detained by the subtlety of the schools nor ready to accept big words for sterling coin; they penetrate, as far as they can, into the principal parts of the subject that occupies them, and they like to expound them in the popular language. Scientific pursuits then follow a freer and safer course, but a less lofty one.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America

Benjamin Franklin, Slightly Idealized

Benjamin Franklin, slightly idealized

When people name icons of America, some simple words come to mind: Pioneer; Frontiersman; Patriot; Solider; Cowboy; Rebel. But there’s one traditional icon of American history that has sadly waned in the past couple of decades: Scientist.

The United States of America is, above almost all else, a product of the Enlightenment. True to that nature, many of America’s founding fathers were not only involved in the political life of their communities, but they were avid scholars of the natural sciences, as well.

First among scientists in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers is, of course, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was an avid students of the sciences as well as an inventor of great repute. His experiments with electricity determined that lightning was a form of electricity, and led to the invention of the lightning rod. More interesting, from my perspective, is the fact that it was Franklin who determined the difference between positive and negative charge and their effect on electrical flow. Franklin also invented bifocal glasses and with his work on optics he became an early proponent of the wave theory of light (as developed by Christiaan Huygens).

In addition to physics, Ben Franklin’s almanac and other observations led to the development of some of the primitive principles of meterology. Franklin also worked with ship captains to chart the Gulf Stream. Once his chart was popularly adopted, ships were able to shave two weeks off their travel time between Europe and America. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin actually kicked around the idea of diverting the Gulf Stream with a dike, which would have the effect of plunging England into an Ice Age.

But Benjamin Franklin wasn’t the only scientist-Founding Father. Thomas Jefferson was also an active scientist and inventor. Among Jefferson’s inventions were the “polygraph” (not a lie detector, but rather a machine that made a copy of documents as he wrote them), the swivel chair, and automatic doors. He was an avid naturalist who made many observations of birds and other native American species. He was also an avid archaeologist who employed modern excavation techniques in examining Native American sites.

Less well known among the Founding Fathers is David Rittenhouse, who was the first director of the United States Mint. A member of the Royal Society, Rittenhouse was a noted astronomer and he first charted the course of Venus. He was one of the few Americans admitted to the Royal Society. During the Revolutionary War, he helped design Philadelphia’s defenses and built telescopes and other equipment for the armed forces.

American Scientists in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Science in the nineteenth century in America is one long tale of invention. Robert Fulton’s invention of a practical steam engine helped to usher in the Industrial Revolution. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph and Alexander Graham Bell the telephone, two inventions which helped usher in the era of telecommunications. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, practical incandescence, and many other improved devices. The Wright Brothers developed the airplane.

And then, of course, there was Nikola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884. As far as I can tell, he was a man extremely bored by the present and so decided to make things more interesting by inventing everything that makes the modern world possible. Alternating current. Radio. X-Rays (he also determined that X-Rays did not themselves directly damage tissue, but that the ozone created did it. This is true.). Wireless transmission of electricity. Induction motors. Fluorescent light. Radio controlled vehicles. Logic gates. Primitive robots. The spark plug. VTOL aircraft. And much, much more.

Twentieth Century Science

Science continued apace during the twentieth century in the United States. Albert Einstein and many other great physicists moved here before World War II, and their contributions led to the development of the atomic bomb and nuclear power. Earlier in the century, Robert Goddard invented rocketry. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin discovered the structure of DNA. A host of American scientists discovered the existence of antimatter.

Moreover, in the twentieth century, scientists were well known figures in popular culture. Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer were household names in the 40s and 50s. Carl Sagan, Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould were household names promoted science to millions of Americans in the 70s and 80s while physicist Richard Feynman wrote bestselling memoirs (that I highly recommend).

Science Heroism Today

Sadly, America’s once proud tradition of respect for science is falling by the wayside. More and more each year, American culture shows itself to be unimpressed by intellectual achievement. Smart kids with a head for math don’t become physicists or chemists anymore–they become hedge fund managers and accountants. I can’t think of a single working scientist apart from Stephen Hawking that most Americans would recognize.

When people talk about what it means to be a “real man,” they often have in mind warriors or sports heroes. Isn’t it time we started considering scientists?

About Alex Knapp

Alex has been published in the Kansas City Star, TCS Daily, and Comic Book Resources. He’s been blogging at Heretical Ideas since October, 2001 and at Outside the Beltway since June 2006. He also reviews cigars at Cigar Jack's Cigar News and Reviews.

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