Isaac Newton and the Plague of 1665/66: Perhaps the Greatest Year in Science!

Today, we have the Covid-19 virus pandemic which threatens America – indeed the entire globe. Many of us are just now emerging from weeks of “sheltering-in-place” while avoiding the virus and its risks. Virtually overnight, we found ourselves confined to home with copious spare time on our hands, time to do all those “other things” which prove to be so elusive in normal times. Many are the voices which have expressed this as a surprise blessing! Indeed, what have you been able to accomplish using this unexpected windfall of extra time at home?

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire

The all-time poster-child for shelter-in-place achievers happens also to be the greatest scientist who ever lived, Isaac Newton (yes, even greater than Albert Einstein who holds second position – in my humble estimation!).

As a young, unknown student, Newton had just completed his undergraduate work at Cambridge University in the year 1665 when the fearsome bubonic plague, the “black death” as it was called, swept through London and regions of England. Armed only with the most rudimentary medical knowledge, Londoners and folks in the countryside resorted to the only option available to them: sheltering-in-place to avoid exposure. Sounds familiar, does it not?

 In 1665, despite centuries of recorded plagues and millions of deaths, the origin and transmission of such deadly pandemics were to remain unknown for a surprisingly long time. It was not until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin identified the bacterium responsible for such a horrible affliction. In 1898, Jean-Paul Simond revealed that the bacterium was spread through flea bites. Rodents were identified as the principal hosts and transmission vehicle for these fleas. Although largely treatable and well-controlled, today, “the black death” surprisingly still stalks the earth and its human populations!

The year 1666 is known as Newton’s “annus mirabilis,” the “miracle year” in science due to thought processes and experiments that took place in a tiny manor house in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, near Cambridge. It was there, in his mother’s rustic farm-house, the place where he was born, that young Newton secluded himself from the plague for more than a year of intense contemplation, investigation, and writing.

At Woolsthorpe, Newton formulated three fundamental cornerstones of science and mathematics: first, the foundation of modern calculus, known then as Newton’s theory of fluxions; second, experiments with prisms and light which led to his second masterwork book in 1704, the Optics; and finally, his thoughts on the strange nature of gravitational attraction which led to his ultimate masterwork of 1687, Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica which translates from Latin as: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

The Principia is universally regarded as the greatest scientific book ever published, being the product of perhaps the most fertile mind in the recorded history of mankind. In the book, Newton combined his prodigious knowledge of Euclidean geometry with fledgling elements of his new calculus to describe mathematically, for the first time, no less than the motion of the planets through the heavens. Also revealed are Newton’s three laws of motion, the basis of modern physics/mechanics, and his notion of universal gravitational attraction.

Newton’s prodigious output during that year-plus of sheltering-in-place at Woolsthorpe is legendary because his investigative conclusions at that time led directly to his later, refined publications and their great advancement of scientific knowledge and method.

In stark contrast to Newton, this writer will be happy to further organize his den, write a few blog posts (such as this one), and clean-out the garage over the next several months. Oh…and I hope to give myself a much-needed haircut, soon! Like Newton, we can all strive, in our own way, to make the best of a terrible situation.

The Hellcat Flyboys of World War II

Just look at them: The Hellcat Flyboys of the United States Navy who flew the Grumman F6F Hellcat from aircraft carriers. This fabulous photo from World War II wonderfully captures the energy and essence of all young fighter pilots.

What is that essence so convincingly captured in the faces of these Hellcat Flyboys? First and foremost, that special quality reflects confidence, joy, and comradeship – the knowledge that they are part of an elite group that has qualified to fly and fight for the United States Navy in undoubtedly the most challenging arena of wartime aviation – carrier duty. These young men, barely beyond boyhood in many cases, have earned the right to further prove themselves in the aviation challenges that lie ahead. It is the opportunity to further test themselves that accounts for the joy and anticipation in their faces. The Hellcat Flyboys came from all across the United States of America and from diverse backgrounds to fly for the Navy and to serve the country in a venture that offered excitement and experiences far beyond any they could possibly have known back home in Des Moines, Iowa, or Biloxi, Mississippi, or Bakersfield, California. That scenario remains as true today as it did back then. These young aviators already realize that they had to be good – damn good, in order to qualify for Navy wings, but now they crave to test their limits in the brutal arena of combat to determine just how good they really are. Undoubtedly, in the photo above, there are at least three or four who survived the war and actually shot down opposing Japanese pilots in the process. Equally probable is the likelihood that at least three or four of these young men went down in rough seas never to be seen again. Not infrequently, they perished right on the carrier deck in plain sight of their shipmates after returning from a mission in a Hellcat shot full of holes or draining its last pint of fuel on landing approach. Here is a Hellcat from the USS Enterprise which crash-landed on 10 Nov. 1943. The catapult officer is climbing up the burning aircraft to successfully rescue the pilot. Note the ruptured belly fuel tank.

One thing is certain: self-confidence is a prime requisite for any fighter pilot, and even “controlled cockiness” is an asset…to a point. That characteristic confidence is on display with most flyers whose exploits I have studied. For some, the attitude is very low-key – like Clarence “Bud” Anderson in the Army Air Force who piloted a P-51 Mustang over Germany while chalking up sixteen plus victories, or “kills.” Others, like Chuck Yeager, who was also a Mustang ace in the war (five or more confirmed victories), come across as a bit more “gregarious.”

I spent some time at the Naval Air Test Station in Patuxent River, Maryland, in the late nineteen sixties. I had the opportunity to talk with some older Naval Aviators at that time. I came away from the experience with a clear picture of the “fighter- jock” mentality, an image amply supported since by much research and a library of books on aviation.

Despite the confidence and ability required to win Navy wings in the early years of the war, survival required an even greater ability, and, last but not least, considerable luck, as well. Some barely made it through; many did not.

F6F Hellcats On-Deck: Up-Front and Ready for a Mission

One Naval Aviator’s Very Distinguished Career

Not long ago, I came across the picture of a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a Vietnam-era carrier-based fighter jet now displayed in an east-coast museum. I noticed the pilot’s name under the cockpit, LCDR LEW CHATHAM. Bells went off in my mind’s eye: I immediately recalled seeing Lew Chatham at nearby Moffett Field as one of the two “solo” pilots (#5) who flew with the 1963 edition of the Blue Angels. After that thrilling performance, I waited along the rope fence with many others to get the autographs of the entire team of six. Chatham signed as “Lt. Lew Chatham.” That small sheet of paper along with a team photo from the Navy and a picture of the group flying in formation was framed and hung in my room for several years until I finally gifted it to a young brother-in-law. This was the team picture:

Lt. Lew Chatham, 1963 Blue Angels Solo #5 (far right)

Curious after all those years, I visited the internet and discovered that Lt. Chatham retired as a Navy Admiral in 1987 after thirty-one years of service. As a Navy pilot of long standing he had 1,100 arrested carrier landings to his credit – 300 of them at night! My goodness, that record of survival reflects an incredible degree of “stick and rudder” skill, as they say.

Lew Chatham and the Navy Saga of John McCain

Furthermore, and very interesting: as strike-operations officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in 1967, Chatham was one of the last to speak with a young Navy flyer by the name of John McCain who was leaving the pilot ready room for a dangerous mission over Hanoi, Vietnam. Chatham’s last words to McCain were, “You’d better be careful. We’re probably going to lose someone on this one.” The cocky pilot called back, “You don’t have to worry about me, Lew.”

 History records that John McCain and his A-4 Skyhawk were shot out of the sky over Hanoi that very day by a missile. He was seriously hurt upon ejecting from the airplane, was captured by the North Vietnamese, and held captive in a grimy prison for several years. Enough said; the rest of the John McCain story is familiar to most everyone over the age of fifty.

From 1978 until 1980, Chatham commanded the nuclear-powered carrier, USS Kitty Hawk – his most challenging assignment. This was a guy who, like Chuck Yeager in the Air Force, had the “right stuff” – in spades, apparently. Remarkably, “it” seemed visible, even early-on.

I vividly recall the entire Blue Angels performance that day in 1963 at Moffett Field: the spectacle does tend to “stick” with one for a long time. As is always true of their performances, all team members of the Blue Angels radiate assurance and confidence as they walk through the formal preliminary of approaching the flight line and settling into the cockpits of their airplanes waiting in precise formation on the tarmac. I very distinctly recall seeing something special in the persona of Lt. Lew Chatham from San Antonio, Texas, that afternoon. Aside from the blond crew-cut, something else about his manner uniquely stood out, and that something else was what apparently carried him to the top echelons of the United States Navy. He, even more than the other five “Blues,” seemed to have arrived straight from central casting for the role of Navy Blue Angel.

My thanks and kudos to the Hellcat Flyboys and to Admiral Chatham for their Navy service: I only hope that, at the very least, most of those Hellcat Flyboys, like Admiral Chatham, survived their Navy experience and had a rewarding life after the War.

The Corona Virus Pandemic of 2019/2020

We are living through a life-changing experience. The ultimate outcome of the current Corona Virus pandemic can hardly be imagined at this time.

 To draw upon an aviation metaphor, this experience feels akin to piloting a small, vulnerable airplane while entering a thick and very extensive bank of high clouds and ground-hugging fog – visibility zero. Flying into such a complete white-out, one becomes dis-oriented at the controls. Familiar landmarks on the ground are no longer visible, and the proximity of threatening mountain peaks in the region becomes a frightening conjecture.

Climbing for altitude to 10,000 feet would provide margin against the higher mountains in the area, but our little craft and its human pilot are not engineered to operate efficiently at that altitude, so we drone-on into the vast unseen before us. We hope and we wonder how long it will take to emerge from this cloud into the light of day. Will we find ourselves flying comfortably toward a bright horizon, or will events portend something more calamitous for us and our little craft before we emerge back into visual flight rules and safely land?

A virus pandemic with fatal overtones such as Covid-19 constitutes a perfect storm capable of threatening our way of life not only in these United States, but simultaneously around the entire planet. What with the threat of climate-warming looming close behind, this planet’s human species seems to be arriving at a critical juncture along its time-line on this earth. What does the future hold?

We are, of course, still largely at the mercy of nature and whatever god operates behind the scene. This is true despite the enormous scientific and technical progress made over the last century or two, progress which has enabled a marvelous degree of understanding and a significant semblance of control over nature and our near-term fate.

Nature does have her “bag of tricks” which seems diabolically designed to regulate this planet, its animal life, and its human inhabitants using a number of “checks and balances.”

One aspect of the Covid-19 virus that is especially apparent is its disastrous effect on densely populated areas such as New York City. My wife and I will often mutter to ourselves when stuck in our own, local California traffic jams: “Too many people here, now.” The population density in Northern California is nothing like that in New York, Los Angeles, and other great metropolitan areas of the country, however. Could it be that mother nature is trying to tell us something by turning loose this highly contagious virus and zeroing-in on densely populated regions? Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned.

Trader Joe’s with “senior line” (including my wife) forming at 7:45 am!

It is instructive to consider the responses of countries around the globe to this virus and its pandemic. Germany and South Korea are two regions which seem to have been well-prepared to harness a well-disciplined approach to managing the threat. Others like Italy and Spain have suffered disastrous casualties because they were not as prepared and disciplined in the beginning. It seems clear that the smaller, well-contained societies would predictably have an advantage over larger, more diverse populations. It also seems excruciatingly and embarrassing clear that the United States of America was not well prepared for what it now faces, nor is the country uniformly heeding the advice of our finest scientific minds.

The world populations are, all of us, living through history-in-the-making. When the story is finally written, this pandemic will occupy a prominent place in the overall history of this planet and its inhabitants. Clearly, we had better embrace scientific fact and research more closely than ever before in the biological fields of virology, epidemiology and immunology. On the heels of polio, AIDS, E-Bola, and H1N1, we now face the most challenging virus of them all, and who knows at this moment what the outcome will be?

Already, many heroes have surfaced in response to the threat. The first-responders and the medical staffs who are working to the limits of human endurance with personal risk and a spirit of sacrifice are heroes already…and will continue to be. Most state governors and their staffs are grappling tirelessly while carrying immense burdens of responsibility on their backs. By and large, we ordinary citizens understand the game plan and have sacrificed much while using the only tool we have at our immediate disposal with which to fight this virus: social isolation. It seems to clear to me that staying the course of social distancing and implementing mass testing/contact tracing are the requisite answers to stave-off disaster in the short term. But eradication of this threat will require something else: tools from our medical researchers which will rid us of the virus.

The names of the inevitable heroes of this ongoing saga will soon be entering the history books. These will be the lead-players within small teams of scientists and researchers who, daily, are burning the midnight oil in medical laboratories around the world in the race to stop Covid-19. Like Pasteur, Darwin, Mendel, Salk, Watson and Crick – like all those who poked and prodded nature to understand her secrets and thus harness medicine in order to ward-off nature’s challenges, a tiny group of current researchers will soon write their names large in history’s log.

I say it will be soon, because it can be soon and it must be soon. At stake for those who succeed in thwarting this ugly virus are scientific immortality as well as large financial and professional rewards. Satisfaction in knowing of their service to humanity will closely contend for top honor. Never has there been such a golden ring waiting to be plucked by riders on the medical carousel, and never has there been such pressure. Who will they be? The prize is huge, not to mention the importance to humanity of a vaccine or effective therapeutic. Never has there been a world-wide audience so tuned-in to events as is the case right now, because we are all at risk. Our very way of life is threatened, right now. Unlike certain influential people in this country, I believe wholeheartedly in the sciences which attempt to understand and explain the physical universe in which we live, and that gives reassurance at this uncertain time.

As a student of science and science history, I am very familiar with the exploits of legendary monster-minds who have miraculously shaped man’s understanding of his world – names like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. I am extremely confident that today’s researchers and scientists will – and very soon – announce some exciting and welcome news to the world community. We will then exit this enveloping cloud of despair and fly straight toward a bright horizon and a safe landing. We are all waiting, hoping, and we are ready.

One last observation:  Here is a commodity which has been elevated to “rare and collectible” status by the folly of our natures. While not quite in the same category (yet) as gold and diamonds, one must smile at the fact that demand has soared and availability has plunged from day one of this crisis. But this is really not so surprising because shit does happen, and this is our front line of defense. Be well!

A Kix Cereal Box-top and Fifteen Cents for a Genuine Atomic Bomb Ring!

I recall as if it were yesterday: I had collected a Kix cereal box-top, enclosed fifteen cents, and sent away for an atomic bomb ring! Promotions involving cereal box-tops were common back in the mid to late nineteen-forties, but this one was special – this one really tweaked my boyish enthusiasms!

The ad beckoned: See Real Atoms Split to Smithereens Inside Ring!

This mail-order offer dates to approximately 1947/48 when I was a seven-year old living in Chicago, Illinois. That would have been approximately two years after the world first heard of the atomic bomb and its use on Japan.

Within a week after mailing in my money and box-top, I began badgering my mother every afternoon: Did my ring arrive in the mail, today? I distinctly recall my agony-of-waiting as the elapsed time went well beyond three weeks. Finally, a little brown box arrived at our Wrightwood Avenue address, and I was beside myself with happiness as I unpacked the jaunty little finger-bomb with its polished metal nose and snappy red-plastic tail assembly which could be removed to reveal a glass-covered “viewing chamber.”

A small sheet of directions told how to condition the “radioactive” material inside the viewing chamber by exposing the ring to a bright light and then retreating to a dark environment (my mother’s closed pantry) in order to view tiny scintillations of light in the viewing chamber – the result of atomic activity.

I recall that the scintillations were there, for sure, but that they were not brightly visible. It took a bit of “peering” to reveal them.

Nonetheless, at age seven, I was thrilled with the atomic bomb ring-thing even though the more sinister aspects it represented were lost on me and, I suspect, on most Americans who were busily forging a new future after the devastation of World War II. Atomic energy and nuclear weapons had only recently been revealed to the general public; this little ring represented the excitement and mystery of the “new” technology in the eyes of the public.

I fondly recall sending for many such cereal box-top/mail-order offers when I was a kid: the excitement of ordering the newest treasure, and the agony of waiting for it to arrive are still vivid in my mind’s-eye even as I approach eighty years of age…and I am glad to still have such vivid recollections! Of all the mail-order offers I recall sending for as a youngster, none of them can surpass my fond memories surrounding the Kix atomic bomb ring. Sometimes, in life, little things can mean a lot.