Monday, March 27, 2006

Old-time science boys

My brother Will, the Lutheran theologian, sent a letter to me and to my other brothers with a photocopy of the review essay by Joseph Bottum in the latest First Things. (Bottum's piece is not available online yet, when it is I will add a link here.) Bottum writes about The Mad Scientists' Club series by Bertrand R. Brinley, which admittedly does not sound like the most promising basis for a serious essay. He nevertheless manages to be quite insightful and evocative, and to say something important about the life of the mind and heart and imagination that many of us led while we were growing up. Here is the letter Will sent along with the essay. It's a better commentary on the matter than any words of mine.
My dear brothers all,

I just now read the enclosed article by Joseph Bottum (his real name!) in the latest First Things, and it moved me with such happy and deep memories that I had to sit down and write you a note to send along with it.

We were all old-time science boys, weren't we? The stuff we built, or wanted to build, or could have built but for the lack of a few crucial components -- why should magnesium be so hard to come by? and is it really necessary to have laws about selling radioactive isotopes to minors? -- or a few dollars. Honestly, I think we'd had even $10 to spend, we would have killed ourselves and burned the house down.

Bottum's review essay captures the secret we shared, the secret of what we might have called science but was really something a little different, more like engineering, or inventing. I don't think I remember the Mad Scientists' Club books, but didn't Dub have a copy of Brinley's Rocket Manual for Amateurs? I'm sure I remember that. Do you still have it?

I believe there were a lot of us back then. Maybe it was the romance and the hardball, cold-war competition of the Space Race that bred us, and that has surely changed. I guess we humans will go to Mars, maybe in my lifetime. I hope so (but I wonder now if there aren't more interesting places in the solar system to go first... have you seen the pictures from Enceladus?). But it's not the same, is it? Do you suppose our kids will ever spend a long, dark night in the Montana backcountry oohing and aahing as they watch satellites flare and fade as they twist in the orbital sunlight?

In my experience, you can recognize a fellow "science boy" pretty quick when you meet him. Some are engineers, building real stuff now, for a living. My brother-in-law Dan is one us. Of course, he grew up with some breathtaking advantages over us: his father had a welding machine (and taught Dan how to use it), and they had firearms (and ammunition) around the house. It's a miracle he made it to adulthood, but no wonder at all that he's an engineer.

But not all of us followed that first love of gee-whiz gadgets, technical jargon, and model rockets. I am an example of a convert to the other of C. P. Snow's two cultures, a bona fide liberal arts guy, and no looking back. No matter: we know each other as kindred spirits, all of us who have shared the wonder and sheer delight of free invention. We have tinkered with the technology of our firecracker cannons to improve both accuracy and range. We have shaved match-heads and stuffed tiny tubes of foil and puzzled out guidance mechanisms for the little beasties. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire."

The Justice was talking about the Civil War (he was shot through the neck at Antietam); but it still rings true for us, lesser sons of greater sires though we be. We were touched with the fire of rockets and of creation; we are (so far) survivors in this long war against the barely-possible and the not-yet-workable. I am proud to have served with you all, my brothers, and will be happy to spend another night under some dark sky filled with wonders.



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