Scientists At War

THE BIRTH OF THE RAND CORPORATION During World War II, America discovered that scientists were needed to win it—and to win any future war. That’s why RAND came into being, the first think tank and the model for all the rest.

ALONG THE jagged coastline of Southern California, past the hills and forests of Malibu, five miles down from the Santa Monica Mountains, just short of Muscle Beach and the town of Venice, there sits some of the most quaintly decrepit oceanside property in America. The Santa Monica beach hardly looks different from the way it did a few years after World War II: the same huge arch along the entryway, the same calliope with the lighthouse-shaped apartment on top, the same small seafood diner. Read more »

William James Finds His Vocation

One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity

THE YEAR IS 1890 and the place Cambridge, Massachusetts. On one of the streets leading northeast along the Harvard Yard a man in early middle age—he is, in fact, fortyeight years old, of slight build and medium height but vigorous motion—is walking with a pair of students, boy and girl, who have followed him out of his class in experimental psychology. His face is bearded and his eyes bright blue, and his features reflect the rapidity of his thought. He is William James, the scientist and philosopher.Read more »

Mr. Harriman Requests The Pleasure Of Your Company

Was it science, sport, or the prospect of a round-the-world railroad that sent the tycoon off on his costly Alaskan excursion?

The railroad tycoon Edward Harriman was a man of large vision and mysterious ways. When, on a day in March of 1899, he strode into the Washington office of Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, and proposed sponsoring a grand scientific exploring expedition to Alaska, Merriam thought he was just another lunatic. He put his strange visitor off until the next day while he checked him out. To his surprise Merriam found the man to be exactly what he said he was—president of the Union Pacific Railroad.Read more »

A Demonstration At Shippingport

Coming on Line

From the beginning it was clear—in this case the beginning was December 2, 1942, the day the first man-made nuclear reactor was nudged to criticality in a squash court beneath the west stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field and incidentally the first day of wartime gasoline rationing—that the fissioning atom radiated heat energy and that such energy might, in the fullness of time, be applied to make electricity for power. Fifteen years would pass before nuclear electricity was generated in any quantity in the United States.Read more »

The Mosher Report

The sexual habits of American women, examined half a century before Kinsey

The nineteenth century was, according to the stereotype, ashamed and fearful of all things sexual. It was an era when, as one visitor to America swore, teachers put “modest little trousers with frills at the bottom” over the “limbs” of their pianos. The Victorian woman’s lack of passion was proverbial, her frigidity extolled by the popular hygiene books and marriage manuals of the day. Read more »

The Conundrum Of Corn

It’s our most important, profitable, and adaptable crop—the true American staple. But where did it come from?

In 1748 an inquisitive Swede named Peter Kalm, a protégé of the great botanist Linnaeus, came to America to find plants that could be useful in his country. He went around asking questions of everybody about everything. He asked Benjamin Franklin about hardy trees and was told that English walnuts did not survive Philadelphia’s winters. He asked John Bartram, the most knowing botanist in the colonies, about timber and was told that American oaks were not as tough as European.Read more »

“God Pity A One-Dream Man”

The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard

In 1901, just after Christmas, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a sickly nineteen-year-old high school student named Robert Hutchings Goddard sat down to compose an essay on an enterprise of surpassing technological challenge. He was no stranger to enterprise. He had already tried to fly an aluminum-foil balloon filled with hydrogen gas and attempted to build a perpetual-motion machine. Samuel P.Read more »

Is Something Gaining On Us?

Maybe they ought to call this the Uneasy Decade. As we move on toward the twenty-first century (and it really is not so far away, when you stop to think about it), we seem to spend a good part of our time looking back over our shoulders. Satchel Paige, the black baseball star, advised people never to look behind them “because something may be gaining on you,” but we are doing it persistently and perhaps we are beginning to understand what Mr. Paige was talking about.Read more »

“Gentlemen, This Is No Humbug”

The single greatest medical discovery of the last century began as a parlor game, and brought tragedy to nearly everyone who had a hand in it

In the early 1840’s a visiting surgeon approaching the main building of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, an imposing granite structure designed by Charles Bulfinch, could consider that he was about to enter one of the foremost temples of his art. From a parklike garden he ascended a flight of stone steps that led him through a portico of eight towering Ionic columns, then continued his climb inside the building up a gracefully winding cantilever staircase.Read more »

The Story Of The Pill

How a Crash Program Developed an Efficient Oral Contraceptive in Less Than a Decade

A good beginning for this story is a meeting in early 1951 of three remarkable people—the greatest feminist of our age, a great philanthropist who was as notably eccentric as she was fantastically wealthy, and a biological scientist whose subsequent world fame was achieved in large part because of this meeting. Would that it could be described in circumstantial detail and invested with the drama it should have in view of what followed from it. Read more »