Category Archives: History

Now We Are All Sons of —

On July 16, 1945, 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, the world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated at 5:29 am.

The test was code-named Trinity by J. Robert Oppenheimer. There is no definitive explanation for why Oppenheimer chose the name, but it is widely believed to be a reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God.

Oppenheimer had previously been introduced to Donne’s work by his mistress, Jean Tatlock, before she committed suicide the year before Trinity.

Donne’s poem reads:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
I, like an usurp’d town to another due, 
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; 
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, 
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. 
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, 
But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, 
Take me to you, imprison me, for I, 
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, 
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Upon witnessing the detonation, Oppenheimer recalled being inspired by a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It is unclear whether Oppenheimer actually uttered those words in the early morning hours of July 16, so perhaps the most memorial line from that day goes to another scientist on the project, director Kenneth Bainbridge:

Now we are all sons of bitches.

In a letter to Oppenheimer, Bainbridge later tried to clarify his words:

The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.

In the May 1975 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bainbridge shares Oppenheimer’s reply:

Years later [Oppenheimer] recalled my words and wrote me, “We do not have to explain them to anyone.” I think I will always respect his statement, although there have been some imaginative people who somehow can’t or won’t put the statement in context and get the whole interpretation. Oppenheimer told my younger daughter in 1966 that it was the best thing anyone said after the test.

In the same article, Bainbridge describes the detonation in careful detail:

The bomb detonated at T = 0 = 5:29:45 a.m. I felt the heat on the back of my neck, disturbingly warm. Much more light was emitted by the bomb than predicted, the only important prediction which was off by a good factor. When the reflected flare died down, I looked at Oscuro Peak which was nearer Zero. When the reflected light diminished there I looked directly at the ball of fire through the googles. Finally I could remove the goggles and watch the ball of fire rise rapidly. It was surrounded by a huge cloud of transparent purplish air produced in part by the radiations from the bomb and its fission products. No one who saw it could forget it, a foul and awesome display.

A few weeks later, the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki; shaking the world with their devastation.

The U.S. won the war, but the horrors unleashed by humanity that day can never be put back in the box. We made something great and terrible; a remarkable tribute to the accomplishments of science and tragic testament to the destructive power of mankind.

Now we are all sons of bitches indeed.

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The Sleep of Reason

I recently ran across Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos: “the sleep of reason produces monsters.”

The piece is housed by the Met, where it is described as follows:

This is the best known image from Goya’s series of 80 aquatint etchings published in 1799 known as ‘Los Caprichos’ that are generally understood as the artist’s criticism of the society in which he lived. Goya worked on the series from around 1796-98 and many drawings for the prints survive. The inscription on the preparatory drawing for this print, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, indicates that it was originally intended as the title page to the series. In the published edition, this print became plate 43, the number we can see in the top right corner. Nevertheless, it has come to symbolise the overall meaning of the series, what happens when reason is absent. Various animals including bats and owls fly above the sleeping artist, and at the lower right a lynx watches vigilantly alerting us to the rise of monstrous forces that we are able to control when sleep descends.

It feels deeply appropriate for modern times, an apt critique of our current world.

The sleep of reason produces monsters.

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Everyone is Talented

László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist who joined the Bauhaus as a professor in 1923, was known for his philosophy that “everyone is talented.”

By this, he meant that, “every human being is open to sense impressions, tone, color, touch,spatial experience, etc. The structure of a life is predetermined in these sensibilities. But only art – creation through the senses – can develop the these dormant, native faculties towards creative action.”

Moholy-Nagy further argued that “any health man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect, just as when he speaks he is a ‘speaker’.”

As Éva Forgács describes in her book, Hungarian Art, this philosophy was similar to the post-expressionist view of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In his Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius argued, that “art cannot be taught.” That’s not to say that art is an intrinsic skill relegated to a select few, but rather that “the world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”

As Forgács argues, both artists’ philosophies replaced the classic concept of “the artist who expresses individual concerns” with “the vision of a new type of creative man who was more of an engineer and designer of the world.”

If art cannot be taught, it not because some people are unable to learn, but rather art should be more accurately seen as a way of living and existing in the world.

This vision is strikingly similar to that of deliberative democrats; of John Dewey’s claim that “democracy is a way of living.” A philosopher and educator, Dewey was an American contemporary of the Bauhaus, which perhaps points more generally to the egalitarian optimism of the interwar period.

After the ruinous war to end all wars, our world needed to be rebuilt – a task that could not be left to the same aristocratic interests which had led us down the path to global conflict. We needed to rebuild the world. And we – each and every one of us – had the ability to do it.

Forgács concludes that “Moholy-Nagy ultimately believed that the world of artistic creation would not remain restricted, and as a natural course of development, every imaginative individual in the future would own it.”

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Isotta Nogarola

Isotta Nogarola was a great one of the great female humanists of the Renaissance.

Born to a wealthy family in Verona, Nogarola was trained in the humanist arts – as was the custom for aristocratic men and women of the day.

Women, however, were expected to do little with their training but be personally enriched to that they may later similarly enrich their own children.

Nogarola, however, sought to further enrich the humanist field by entering into scholarly correspondence with some of the leading humanists in Italy.

Her letters drew scorn from the greater public. There is a long history in the Western world of women being excluded from the public sphere; of being silenced and branded as unclean if they dare speak up.

Nogarola was no exception – rumors spread that she was a prostitute, and that she had engaged in incest.

The reasoning for these rumors?

An eloquent women is never chaste.

 

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Economics of Matching

A canonical problem in graph theory is that of matching – pairing people (or nodes) based on mutual preference. The classic example of this – framed, unfortunately, in a cis-heteronormative way – is known as the marriage problem. Assuming knowledge of the whole population, men have a ranked-order list of appropriate female partners and women similarly make a ranked-order list of appropriate male partners. The question then, is can we, as an all-knowing mathematician, make a matching in which no non-matched (opposite sex) pair would prefer to be with each other than with the partners they are matched with?

The mathematical solution to “stable marriage matching” is elegant, and worth at some point a post of its own. But for the moment, I was recently struck by the economic implications of this problem. That is, I had always considered it from the vantage point of the all-knowing observer, with the implicit understanding that such scope of vision is what makes the solution possible.

Roth’s 2008 article, What have we learned from market design?, brings a new perspective to the market failures that can result from the lack of such global coordination. Because it’s such an interesting story, I include below a long excerpt describing the history of today’s residency-matching program for medical school graduates:

The first job American doctors take after graduating from medical school is called a residency. These jobs are a big part of hospitals’ labor force, a critical part of physicians’ graduate education, and a substantial influence on their future careers. From 1900 to 1945, one way that hospitals competed for new residents was to try to hire residents earlier than other hospitals. This moved the date of appointment earlier, first slowly and then quickly, until by 1945 residents were sometimes being hired almost two years before they would graduate from medical school and begin work.

When I studied this in Roth (1984) it was the first market in which I had seen this kind of “unraveling” of appointment dates, but today we know that unraveling is a common and costly form of market failure. What we see when we study markets in the process of unraveling is that offers not only become increasingly early, but also become dispersed in time and of increasingly short duration. So not only are decisions being made early (before uncertainty is resolved about workers’ preferences or abilities), but also quickly, with applicants having to respond to offers before they can learn what other offers might be forthcoming. Efforts to prevent unraveling are venerable, for example Roth and Xing (1994) quote Salzman (1931) on laws in various English market from the 13th century concerning “forestalling” a market by transacting before goods could be offered in the market.

In 1945, American medical schools agreed not to release information about students before a specified date. This helped control the date of the market, but a new problem emerged: hospitals found that if some of the first offers they made were rejected after a period of deliberation, the candidates to whom they wished to make their next offers had often already accepted other positions. This led hospitals to make exploding offers to which candidates had to reply immediately, before they could learn what other offers might be available, and led to a chaotic market that shortened in duration from year to year, and resulted not only in missed agreements but also in broken ones. This kind of congestion also has since been seen in other markets, and in the extreme form it took in the American medical market by the late 1940’s, it also constitutes a form of market failure (cf. Roth and Xing 1997, and Avery, Jolls, Roth, and Posner 2007 for detailed accounts of congestion in labor markets in psychology and law). Faced with a market that was working very badly, the various American medical associations (of hospitals, students, and schools) agreed to employ a centralized clearinghouse to coordinate the market. After students had applied to residency programs and been interviewed, instead of having hospitals make individual offers to which students had to respond immediately, students and residency programs would instead be invited to submit rank order lists to indicate their preferences. That is, hospitals (residency programs) would rank the students they had interviewed, students would rank the hospitals (residency programs) they had interviewed, and a centralized clearinghouse — a matching mechanism — would be employed to produce a matching from the preference lists. Today this centralized clearinghouse is called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).

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On Violence and Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of violence in social movements. Such violence could take many forms, from punching nazis to property damage.

Conventional wisdom among the mainstream left is that such violence isn’t a good tactic: not only is morally problematic, it is typically unsuccessful.

In his biography of Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh describes Gandhi’s utility argument against violence, which went hand in hand with his moral argument against violence:

Gandhi further argued that violence rarely achieved lasting results. An act of violence was deemed to be successful when it achieved its immediate objectives. However, if it were to be judged by its long-term consequences, our conclusion would have to be very different. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal, and developed the habit of using violence every time ran into opposition. Society thus became used to it and never felt compelled to explore an alternative. Violence also tended to generate an inflammatory spiral. Every successful use blunted the community’s moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence, so that over time an increasingly larger amount became necessary to achieve the same results.

There are some compelling points in that argument, but it fails to address the larger question: is violence never a justifiable means for social change, either morally or pragmatically?

After all, Gandhi’s level of commitment to non-violence may not be the example we want to follow. In an extreme example of pacifism, Gandhi wrote of Jews in World War II Germany:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

In contrast to Gandhi’s view, there are many reasons to think violence in response to genocide may be permissible – or should even be encouraged.

My friend Joshua Miller recently reflected on this question, writing:

…in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. 

I particularly appreciate his insight regarding the ‘canonization’ of Gandhi and King – they both deserve praise for their work and impacts, but we tend to enshrine them as peaceful activists who could do no wrong; who should be emulated at all costs. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is pushed by the wayside, his story is less told. Yet he did have an important and lasting impact on the American civil rights movement; could King’s pacifism have succeeded without Malcom X’s radicalism?

I have no easy answers to these question; indeed, such easy answers do not exist. But I think we owe it to ourselves to think through these questions – is violent protest ever morally justified? If it can be morally justified at times, is it ever pragmatically justified? Do our collective memories of history really capture what happened, or do we tell ourselves a simpler, softer story – do we only remember the way we wish it had happened?

Perhaps, as Camus wrote, there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.

 

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Social Movements and Leadership

In his autobiography, appropriately titled The Long Haul, activist and educator Myles Horton writes about the leadership of social movements. While great charismatic leaders serve an important galvanizing role and go down in history as the leader of the movement, the real power of a social moment is that it multiplies leadership – it turns the people themselves into leaders.

He tells the story of a elderly black woman who started a Citizen School. She heard the idea somewhere, figured it out, and taught a few other people how to do it as well. She had no idea Citizen Schools were happening all over. It was simply an idea which she could pick up and make her own. Horton writes:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that I can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. Please see that other people not so different from themselves do things that they thought could never be done. They’re emboldened and challenged by that step into the water, and once the get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

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Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict

At last week’s National Communication Association (NCA) annual conference, Penn State’s Kirt Wilson gave a moving lecture on Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Obama.

Responding to the “civic calling” theme of this year’s conference, Wilson praised the urged to get involved, but cautioned that we must do so wisely – first understanding “the nature of the society we are called to,” and critically interrogating the civic actions we take on its behalf.

We all know that our society is not perfect – indeed, that is why we so acutely feel a civic calling; a need to engage in the hard work of democratic living. But even with the need for such a  “process-model” utopia, as Erin McKenna calls it, the entrenched inequities of our society require more than a moderate amount of collective civic work.

Wilson pointed to the innovative activism of Black Lives Matter, which seeks not only to ameliorate an immediate problem, but to fundamentally disrupt the paradigm which has supported and normalized the perpetual murder of black people.

Wilson quoted Fredrick Douglass: “Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names…and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”

Black slavery still exists today, Wilson argued, but we call it by other names. The school-to-prison pipeline; the new Jim Crow; police-community relations.

When we act, when we respond to the civic calling of our times, we must do so with a critical eye to the institutions which shape our society and the how our actions will affect them.

Black Lives Matter has come under fire for the disruptive nature of their protests; for breaking with the protest approach of their 1960s peers.

But Wilson made a compelling argument for that shift in strategy. The civil rights movement made tremendous advances, but it did not end the insidious remnants of slavery and oppression. Slavery only changed its name.

The only way to truly change this institutionalized oppression is to disrupt the system, to change the paradigm.

Wilson argued that the radicals of the 60s “marched because the only life affirming response to death and to slavery is to resist.” Today’s young activists organize out of a similar need.

“Black life matters,” Wilson said, “because people are dead and they didn’t have to die. And more are going to die tomorrow.”

That is why we resist.

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A Lesson from the West Area Computers

I really want to read Hidden Figures, the new book by Margot Lee Shetterly which chronicles “the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race.” If you aren’t as excited about this book as I am, it highlights the work and experiences of the West Area Computers – a group of black, female mathematicians who worked at NASA Langley from 1943 through 1958.

I haven’t gotten a chance to yet, but I was particularly struck by one incident I heard on the podcast Science Friday and which I found recounted in the Smithsonian Magazine:

But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.

One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”

But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.

I love this story.

Not because it has a hopeful message about how determination always wins – but because it serves as a reminder of the effort and risk people of color face every day just in interacting with their environment.

The West Computers were tremendously good at their jobs and were respected by their white, male, colleagues. I imagine many of these colleagues considered themselves open-minded, even radical for the day, for valuing the talent of their black colleagues.

When I hear the story about how Mann removed the “Colored Computers” sign every day, I don’t just hear a story of the valiant strength of one woman.

I hear a story of white silence.

I hear a story about how other people didn’t complain about the sign. I imagine they barely even noticed the sign. It didn’t effect them and never weighed upon their world.

John Glenn reportedly refused to fly unless West Area Computer Katherine Johnson verified the calculations first – such respect he had for her work.

And yet it never crossed anyone’s mind that a “Colored Computers” sign might not be appropriate.

That’s just the way the world was then.

And that makes me wonder – what don’t I see?

To me, this story is a reminder that people of color experience the world differently than I do – because people like me constructed the world I experience. There must be so many things every day that just slip passed my notice, no matter how open minded or progressive I’d like to be.

It’s easy too look back at the 1940’s and see that a “Colored” sign is racist. What’s hard is to look at the world today and to see that sign’s modern day equivalent.

 

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Family Migration

My mother is big genealogy enthusiast. Her enthusiasm, however, is unmatched by many in our family. I mean, we’re glad someone‘s doing the research, but we don’t seem to get that same spark of awe which for her is so inherent to the process.

So she wrote this thing, exploring what we learn from genealogy; the individual effects of the great sweeps of history.

I share it here with permission.

***

Much of what we can know of our ancestors has to be suppositioned by our knowledge of history and prevalent customs of their times.  The lives of most of these people did not make a big splash.  Many were illiterate and, as a result, did not leave much documentation of their experiences.  Life was frequently short due to lack of medical discoveries that are so much a part of our current lives.  But I would suspect that they lived more in the moment than we do now.  So much was out of their control, they had little choice but to focus on the things that were occurring, leaving the rest in the hands of God. Given the difficulties of sustaining life, as an aggregate, what they accomplished was remarkable.

Each era had its own agenda, but the commonalities remained the same for several hundred years of our country’s history. People married young, reproduced prolifically, and attempted to provide for their children.  Many of the accomplishments were a result of this drive. Starting with the Pilgrims and the indentured servants of the South, our ancestors were seeking an environment that would provide opportunities to build lives for themselves and their progeny.  The hardships they endured were more than many of us could even consider, but the conditions that existed in their current lives spurred them forward. Whether it was religious convictions or abject poverty, they all made the leap.  They got on a boat with little real knowledge of what they would meet and forged our future. The heroes are the many people who will never appear on a family tree because they died in the process of trying to reach this goal.  It was the sheer numbers of people who would make this attempt that made our ancestors successful. It created a movement that would be reproduced in 1700’s and the 1800’s and would populate this country with Europeans.

Family life could have many variables, but the notion of childhood is very recent idea. Children were loved and cherished, but expected to participate in sustaining livelihood from a very early age. Frequently their mothers, and sometimes their fathers, were nothing but children themselves. Many people had multiple marriages due to the loss of a spouse. You could not remain unmarried once you had begun family building. It was impossible to continue the care of your children and the growth of your farm without two adults, and, in many cases, young adults to keep up the work. The family home would be small and bursting with people.  Every space would be a bedroom at night.  This caused the older children at a young age to look to new options. Friends and relatives who had moved further west would encourage these young people to join them.  Single men and women would be told that there were many marriageable people waiting to find mates.  Young couples would frequently be intermarried with sisters or brothers of a specific family with the thought that when they emigrated they would remain together. The reality of this westward movement was the disintegration of the original family unit.

Communication would be difficult. In this era of cell phones and e-mail, it is hard to imagine the absolute impossibility of keeping in touch.  Frequently, several siblings would end up in the same location over time.  The first arrivals would help their siblings establish themselves, and then they set to the task of recreating a new network of relations. The ones left at home were usually so young that they had little feeling for their older siblings.  If the family was large enough, another move would be made by the younger children resulting in a separate conglomeration in a new location. Frequently an aged parent would die in the home of a child in the second migration.

There were, of course, some people who remained in the same location generation after generation.  When you reconstruct the families through genealogy, they are our cousins.  Our ancestors were the ones on the move.

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