Thursday, July 29, 2010

Physics,Chemistry break 1940 promises

At the time of the New York World's Fair, with its theme of a learned gaze into the crystal ball to reveal the America of the 1960s, Big Physics and Big Chemistry made two firm promises:

Physics promised that with nuclear fission newly achieved, by 1960 your family home would be heated and lit by electricity '"too cheap to meter", made by atomic energy.

It also said that this war would be a clean quick war, hitting only military targets, as  B-17 bombers, with precision Norden bombsights, would be able to drop a bomb into a pickle barrel ,from 15,000 feet.

Chemistry pledged that your family would be disease free by the 1960s, "with hospitals no longer used for infectious diseases", thanks to pure,defined, man-made chemicals like the growing family of sulfa drugs.

But in 1945, atomic energy was used only to destroy homes (and the families inside).

(And with a bomb that powerful there was no need to aim, which was just as well ,as the Norden bombsights turned out to be useless.)

True, diseases were being held at bay, but not conquered, by 1945.

But not by the toxic and increasingly ineffective sulfa drugs.

Rather the success was due to penicillin - an impure,undefined mixture made by Nature and grown on an impure, undefined mixture of nutritional mediums also made by Nature.

And it was the humble science of biology that helped make it all work - while chemists only got in the way.

World War Two was NOT a triumph of nerdy,weedy scientists in spectacles winning the war when the stud muffin /BMOC /football captains of America proved unable to best the visiting German and Japanese teams out on the field.

This was the official take on World War Two Science, as produced by the leading science bureaucrats in their official and semi-official histories.

Because this 'revenge of the nerds' is so self-flattering to academics, even normally skeptical historians have lapped up the 'official version' like it was mother's milk.

In truth, Science suffered as many defeats to its ego during WWII as any over-confident general ever did.

In 1940, Man may have batted first, but by 1945 it was Nature that bats last: and Nature bats last and Nature bats long ....

It would perhaps be a bit much to ask today's historians to turn their sights on their colleagues and themselves and ask have they probed the truth of the penicillin saga or , to paraphrase Donald J McGraw,("On Leaving the Mine ", 1991) have they been content to merely uncritically retell tales already told too often ?

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