Frick Chemistry Laboratory, photographed in 2013.

Princeton University, Communications Office, Nick Barberio

She blinded me with science
And hit me with technology.
—Thomas Dolby and Jo Kerr, 1982

I reside in a battleground state, one that is roughly evenly divided between red, blue, and psychedelic. Thus, we are at the center of constant electoral lawsuits, unnecessary civic change, and truly hideous procedural “ideas” that relate to democracy and social order the way a baited worm relates to WMAP satellites Analysis of the Big Bang. Naturally enough, I seek out apolitics wherever it can (or even can’t) hide.

So let’s just say I was sensitive to the recent New Yorker article by music critic Alex Ross, who happens to be an aficionado of Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist who for 80 long and varied years served as the backbone of the German expatriate community during World War II and professor at Princeton from 1939 to 1942, where he lived a few doors down from Einstein. Ross details Mann’s struggle in his early conservative years, trying to carve out a niche in the art world that can be free of politics; then his later attitudes which show his abandonment of such aspirations, and Mann’s resulting presumption that art was inherently political, even if not all politics was inherently artistic. As much as I’ve enjoyed Mann over the years, maybe that’s why I haven’t read it in a while.

We therefore come today to look elsewhere beyond art to escape, towards the first stereotyped field offering a politically sheltered environment: the hard sciences. One plus one is always two. During the pandemic, which we are failing miserably to fade into oblivion, it has been said countless times that sticking to the science is arguably our most promising approach to successfully minimizing catastrophe. Then the fights start on what the current search results mean: Shave off all your hair and hide in the root cellar? Do you inject three, or is it four, of the same drug or different synthetic drugs, unless you are under 46? Party like it’s 1999? Party like it’s 1969 (it’s more like that…)? This unseemly degradation of “science” leads me, in the spirit of the early Thomas Mann, to yearn for a world where science is/was apolitical and proceeds to its orderly construction of knowledge with precision and clarity. And what better than the laboratories and classrooms of Princeton’s past, with our long history of inspired science teaching, periodically interspersed with inspired learning?

Let’s start with Princeton’s main scientific proselyte in the 20th century, Professor Hubert Alyea 1924 *28. A chemical genius who gave us the fundamental lecture on “Lucky accidents, great discoveries and a prepared mind” and inspired a Disney character in The Distracted Professor, his lifelong mission was to bring the widest possible audience into the great tent of science and show them how to help themselves with the wonders and limitless potential of the scientific method. Not content with simply doing this in the classroom or in textbooks, he created entire programs for teaching chemistry with modest but demanding teaching materials that cost only a few cents per student, and could therefore be widely used even in the poorest countries. Earth’s poorest, where he enthusiastically went to promote the program. In this sense, he qualifies as a literal ambassador of science.

But when he was teaching, Alyea didn’t have the luxury of stopping there. He was not involved in the Manhattan Project as many of his Princeton scholars and students were. Indeed at the time, dating from Einstein’s seminal note from 1939 from the Institute for Advanced Study to President Franklin Roosevelt, I suppose there is an argument that the development of the atomic bomb was not a political issue, either because he did not become partisan (this which was impossible, given its secrecy), or because it was truly existential, which was Einstein’s view, and thus transcended politics in every practical sense. The clarity of this argument began to erode immediately after the reports of the Hiroshima and then Nagasaki results, and the world recognized the opening of a Pandora’s box of cataclysmic potential. As nuclear energy and weaponry became the focus of the Cold War and the material of ideologies, Alyea jumped with the clarity of knowledge and created a lecture, almost as fascinating as “Lucky Accidents” and far more urgent. . Titled almost wistfully “Atomic Energy: Weapons for Peace”, the performance piece starkly describes the physical/chemical basis of the A-bomb and its carnage, explicitly noting Hiroshima and the weaponry’s indiscriminate effects on the city and population. In the end, he logically created a mental experiment, in which a truly international governing body alone controls this formidable power and its equally great potential for peacetime prosperity for all. What is not said is the fate of the world if it did not happen, which of course did not happen. Alyea gave her exuberant talk “Lucky Accidents” 600 times over an acclaimed career, including world’s fairs and dozens of meetings; his sense of urgency drove him to deliver the ‘Atomic Energy’ speech more than 2,800 times beginning in 1947. Watching him is really up to you here and consider this.

But, come on, the apple that fell on Newton’s head wasn’t political, was it? So somewhere in between was a really objective and altruistic science to find out, right? Eureka! Well, let’s face it and get down with one of Princeton’s most renowned professors of all time, and the grandfather of all physical science education, Joseph Henry. Invited from Albany to Princeton in 1832 by Vice President John Maclean Jr. 1816 (son of the nation’s first college chemistry professor), Henry created a natural science curriculum from a standing start, taught almost everything, including architecture, geology, and astronomy (in which he was mostly self-taught), but was primarily a world-class authority on electromagnetism and its emerging applications to commerce, communication, and manufacturing . Students adored him and his wired messaging system from Philosophical Hall to his new custom-designed home (now Joseph-Henri House, duh) to let his wife know when he’d be home for lunch. His lectures got even better after 1840, when administrators hired Sam Parker, a black assistant, to work in his labs, sometimes functioning – quite literally – as a conductor. Not only Henry do not political, but he was not even pecuniary: while in his thousands of laboratory experiments he discovered electronic principles that would drive the telegraph, the telephone, and even wireless systems many decades into the future, he did not never filed a single patent application. His appreciation of his opportunity to rise from a poor childhood to the scientific leader of a hemisphere seemed to hold him back.

You’re expecting the “but” here, aren’t you? In this case, it took the material form of the 1835 estate of James Smithson, whose bequest to the United States government “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” led to a somewhat nebulous project concept requiring a organizer and an eminence. Thus, the call passed from President James Polk (George Dallas 1810 was vice-president, by the way) to Joseph Henry, scientific example, to take the reins of the future Smithsonian Institution. It wasn’t some sort of curator’s post: it was to be the de facto Minister for science policy for the whole country. Perhaps, you ask, did he not consider this political? Well, maybe, but he viewed his acceptance and closing of his Princeton Washington laboratory in 1846 out of guilt as the death of his respected scientific career and a potential downgrade to his permanent fame until “passing reputation”. And if you don’t consider this as particularly political, consider his eventual impact at the time of his death, still in office in 1878 after 32 years. the all The U.S. government closed its funeral on May 16, with President Rutherford Hayes, Vice President William Wheeler, the entire cabinet and Supreme Court, numerous members of Congress and army commanders and of the navy. For the 1883 dedication of Henry’s statue outside the Smithsonian Castle, John Philip Sousa (then another government employee, leading his US Marine Band) wrote the Transit of Mars from Venus, honoring Henry with a melodic rendition of the previous year’s astronomical event. All in all, as a self-taught bureaucrat, he may even have been Continued successful than he was as a self-taught scientist, so fundamental that they named the basic unit of electrical inductance – the henry – for him.

So as the dust settles on a flourishing trumpet, it seems as if we meticulously learn our lessons from Princeton’s centuries of exalted history in scientific research, with 30 scientific Nobel Prizes and 19 national scientific medals and all the rest of the distinctions, the main The conclusion regarding apolitical and objective science is this: given full knowledge for a wise choice between a fusion reactor for infinite energy or a fusion bomb for infinite destruction, human beings will choose infallibly…both. Don’t forget to hand in your answers when leaving today’s conference.


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