100 Years Ago: Science of the Unfit

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American

Scientific American

JUNE 1961

Optical Maser
“All conventional light sources are essentially noise generators that are unsuited for anything more than the crudest signaling purposes. It is only within the last year, with the advent of the optical maser, that it has been possible to attain precise control of the generation of light waves. Although optical masers are still very new, they have already provided enormously intense and sharply directed beams of light. These beams are much more monochromatic than those from other light sources; at their best optical masers rival the very finest electronic oscillators as a source of a single frequency. The development of optical masers is moving so rapidly that they should soon be ready for a wide variety of applications. —Arthur L. Schawlow”
This device is today called a laser. Schawlow was a co-winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Virus Genes
“Less than a decade ago there was no reason to doubt that virus genetics and cell genetics were two different subjects and could be kept cleanly apart. Now we see that the distinction between viral and nonviral genetics is extremely difficult to draw, to the point where even the meaning of such a distinction may be questionable. As a matter of fact there appear to be all kinds of intermediates between the ‘normal’ genetic structure of a bacterium and that of typical bacterial viruses. Recent findings in our laboratory have shown that phenomena that once seemed unrelated may share a deep identity. —François Jacob, André Lwoff and Jacques Monod”
Jacob shared the 1965 Nobel Prize for medicine.

JUNE 1911

Science of the Unfit
“Ever since the late Sir Francis Galton gave us his science of Eugenics, which in its most literal sense means ‘good breeding,’ the scientific students of mankind, the directors of insane asylums and hospitals, and criminologists the world over, have been compiling statistics to show not only the danger of permitting the marriage of criminals, lunatics, and the physically unfit, but the effect upon mankind. Fortunately Eugenic associations here and abroad have done much to clear away the popular prejudices inevitably encountered in such educational work and to prepare the ground for legislative action.”
Full article is available at

A Nation of Railroads
“The first of the transcontinental railroads across the western deserts and mountains were built rather more for military and governmental reasons than through any hope of their immediately earning a sufficient amount to make the enormous investment in their construction profitable. Since private owners of capital were not inclined to be philanthropic, the government had to hold out inducements to them to invest their money by giving them land grants and making them loans of five of the seven major roads. These days, competition between these seven roads, both for freight and passenger business, is very keen.”

Global Blanket
“Svante Arrhenius has advanced an ingenious theory to account for the glacial periods which have marked several stages of geological history. According to the experiments of Langley, the carbon dioxide and the water vapor, which the atmosphere contains, are more opaque to the heat rays of great wave lengths which are emitted by the earth, than to the waves of various lengths which emanate from the sun. Arrhenius infers that any increase in the proportion of carbon dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere will increase the protection of the earth against cooling and will consequently raise the temperature of its surface. The theory assumes that the earth’s atmosphere was poor in carbon dioxide and water vapor during the earth’s cool glacial periods, and rich in these gases during hot periods.”

This article was originally published with the title "50, 100 & 150 Years Ago."

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