Friday, January 29, 2010

"Another Ozark Genius . . ."

(Image from Cosmotography)

Another one in addition to yesterday's LeRoy Tucker, I mean . . .

This other genius is Harlow Shapley, and my cyberfriend Annie Gottlieb shot me an email the other day to inform me that this great astronomer was also an Ozark character who loved storytelling -- a fact noted by the man himself in an interview that Annie had linked me to in the email:
Well, I came from the Ozark country and the Ozark country is full of tall tales, and we knew them. There was a time when I knew more tall stories than probably anybody I've ever met, but I'm sure there have been better ones. But that Ozark country, just east of where we lived, the rough country, was where the hillbillies came from, and in Arkansas. We also had a farm in Arkansas, so we had some contacts. And folklore was one of the things that we knew about.
Shades of Vance Randolph! But the interviewers don't ask him for folktale. They seem more interested in his astronomical work in the context of the story of his own life. Incidently, the entire interview was conducted in two sessions by Charles Weiner and Helen Wright on June 8 and August 25, 1966, respectively, at Shapley's home in Sharon, New Hampshire. It's stored on the website of the Niels Bohr Library and Archives as part of the American Institute of Physics (College Park, Maryland), which I mention just in case anyone might be interested in bibliographical details.

Anyway, like Mr. LeRoy Tucker, Shapley has a powerful memory and a wonderful grasp of detail, and he tells some riveting anecdotes about early 20th-century science in America before it was transformed into Big Science by the likes of Ernest Orlando Lawrence and the fight against fascism, but he lived into the time of Big Science, too.

He even had a 'career' before science, for he dropped out of school with a fifth-grade education, then learned at home for a while from his older sister, and after that worked as a journalist during his middle teenage years, leading a colorful life as a crime reporter in Chanute, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri -- both places on the western edge of the Ozark Mountains, where the Ozarks meet the Plains:
I naturally had "episodes" -- since Chanute was a rough oil mining town; I had the various experiences that a reporter would have, especially if he were agile and got around. I remember two or three little affairs. One was on election night. There were a lot of drunken oil men on the streets. I set about to protect the office, thinking they'd start things there. A policeman came along and we had what we called a duel [take place in front of us]; they shot each other and one of them died. I handled that (age sixteen). It was sort of dramatic for those times, before we had wars where lots of horrible things happened. Another time we were having a political scramble, and my newspaper took one view and another newspaper took another view, and so we got off a good deal of strong language. The worst politician pushed me out of his office and went on talking to others inside. I sat down outside his office and wrote down in shorthand all that was being said. (I had learned shorthand at Chanute.) We just printed verbatim his rough statements four letter words and all. Consequently he wanted to murder me and blow up everybody. It was rather spectacular. For we did the proper thing -- made and printed a picture of my shorthand. Anybody who knew my kind of shorthand could read it. Of course, there was no guarantee that we hadn't forged it all. It was a rather live bit of country journalism for those times. Our man won! We had other little episodes like that. In Joplin it was worse. Joplin was a lead-zinc town and there were many tough characters, usually hanging around the police headquarters. I saw some strange things, some funny things, but we are accustomed to such things now.
They don't make proto-scientists like that anymore! But I wouldn't expect anything less from an Ozark 'hillbilly.' The entire session of the interview is entertaining in this manner, and it's followed by a second session recorded several months later (as noted above). And when you consider that Shapley was 80 or 81 at the times of these lengthy, detailed interviews, his performance is all the more impressive!

Go, therefore, and learn of life and stars and ants . . .

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