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See Inside September 2008

50 Years Ago: Greatest Scientific Discovery is Science Itself

Stories from past issues of Scientific American

SEPTEMBER 1958
THE CREATIVE PROCESS— “The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself. The discovery must be compared in importance with the invention of cave-painting and of writing. Like these earlier human creations, science is an attempt to control our surroundings by entering into them and understanding them from inside. And like them, science has surely made a critical step in human development which cannot be reversed. We cannot conceive a future society without science. —Jacob Bronowski”

INNOVATION IN PHYSICS— “My view, the skeptical one, holds that we may be as far away from an understanding of elementary particles as Newton’s successors were from quantum mechanics. Like them, we have two tremendous tasks ahead of us. One is to study and explore the mathematics of the existing theories. The existing quantum field-theories may or may not be correct, but they certainly conceal mathematical depths which will take the genius of an Euler or a Hamilton to plumb. Our second task is to press on with the exploration of the wide range of physical phenomena of which the existing theories take no account. This means pressing on with experiments in the fashionable area of particle physics. Outstanding among the areas of physics which have been left out of recent theories of elementary particles are gravitation and cosmology. —Freeman Dyson”

FITNESS— “Faced with a new mutation in an organism, or a fundamental change in its living conditions, the biologist is frequently in no position whatever to predict its future prospects. He has to wait and see. For instance, the hairy mammoth seems to have been an admirable animal, intelligent and well-accoutered. Now that it is extinct, we try to understand why it failed. I doubt that any biologist thinks he could have predicted that failure. Fitness and survival are by nature estimates of past performance. —George Wald”

[NOTE: Wald won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1967.]

SEPTEMBER 1908
PASSENGER FATALITY— “Seldom has there occurred a more pitifully tragic disaster than the sudden fall of the Wright aeroplane, involving the death of that promising young officer Lieut. Thomas Selfridge, and inflicting shocking injuries on the talented inventor, Orville Wright. But although the accident is deplorable, it should not be allowed to discredit the art of aeroplane navigation. If it emphasizes the risks, there is nothing in the mishap to shake our faith in the principles upon which the Wright brothers built their machine, and achieved such brilliant success.”

HUGE DREDGER— “In connection with the widening and deepening of the Suez Canal at Port Said, the authorities have recently increased their dredging fleet by a new vessel, which ranks as the largest bucket dredger afloat. The ‘Péluse’ [see illustration] was built by Messrs. Lobnitz & Co. at their Renfrew yards on the Clyde River, Scotland, and is of similar design to the ‘Ptolemée,’ which they supplied to the canal company some two years ago. The ‘Péluse’ has a deck length of 305 feet, and a dredging engine of 600 horse-power. All gearing aboard the vessel has machine-cut teeth.”

SEPTEMBER 1858
RUFFIANS— “Some time ago we remonstrated strongly against the course of Dr. Thompson and the Board of Health of this city [New York], for the careless manner in which infected ships were treated by them, and this journal was the first to call the public attention to their official stupidity. The consequence of their careless conduct is that yellow fever has broken out in three distinct parts of Staten Island. Since writing the above, the whole of the Quarantine buildings have been burned to the ground by a mob, and the sick left uncared for. The doctors deserve the credit of having stuck to their posts like brave men during the conflagration. We hope that the perpetrators of the wrong may be apprehended and punished, for it is no way to redress one evil to allow a ruffianly gang to take the law into their own hands.”

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