Thomas Edison’s Biggest Mistake and Nikola Tesla’s Greatest Triumph: AC vs. DC Power for America’s Power Grid

Thomas Edison, America’s homegrown inventive genius, and Nicola Tesla, an immigrant from Serbia who arrived with four cents in his pocket at Castle Garden, New York, in 1884, were as different as day and night. Both men are remembered, today, as inventors with “genius” insights, and they each set out to tackle one of history’s great engineering challenges and commercial opportunities at the close of the nineteenth century. Their technological approaches to the challenge were diametrically opposed: one of these men was destined to win and the other to lose and lose big.

Thomas Edison, whose triumphantly successful electric lightbulb began to light the nation’s darkness in 1879, was to fail miserably in his efforts to provide the nation with sufficient electrical power to light the millions of his bulbs which rapidly materialized in homes and businesses across America.
Edison’s encore to his triumph with the light bulb was nothing short of designing and installing a series of prototype electric power stations which, if successful, would serve as a prototype for America’s first true power “grid.” Whoever first established a foothold in electric power would reap immense financial rewards.

On our recent vacation trip to Michigan, we spent a full day at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village (see my previous blog post) and toured the recreation of an early Edison electric power station. Inside the brick building, a remarkable collection of Edison artifacts included one of the original steam-powered dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison in one of America’s earliest power stations. That “Pearl Street station,” located in the heart of New York, was used from 1882 to 1890 to illuminate and power several square blocks of buildings which had installed Mr. Edison’s recently perfected lightbulbs. A fire destroyed the station in 1890 along with five of the six identical generators installed therein. The sixth and surviving unit was the very one on display at Greenfield Village.

This machine delivered low-voltage, direct current (referred to as “DC”) to its electrical load within the Pearl Street neighborhood – presumably a large array of electric light bulbs as well as small electric motors and electric appliances. A dynamo, when appropriately configured, can also generate alternating voltage, thus delivering alternating current (referred to as “AC”) to an electrical load. The reality is that a DC dynamo is slightly more complex electro-mechanically than is an AC dynamo. A DC machine is an AC machine with an electrical polarity-switching device called a commutator installed on the rotor.

Why Did Edison Choose a DC Based System? GOOD QUESTION!

First, a little elementary background: no formal math/science required!

The simplest version of rotating dynamo inherently generates alternating voltages in its individual rotating coils. The term “alternating” implies that the voltage generated is not constant in value and polarity over time: instead, the amplitude of the voltage varies while the voltage polarity reverses between “positive” and “negative” and back again some sixty times each second (in the North American, 60 cycle, AC system). This polarity reversal can be visualized as alternately a push then a pull on electrons whose resulting mobility/response constitutes electrical current in the connecting wire.

A garden hose analogy will help to visualize AC/DC current behavior!

Think of a DC electrical circuit as a garden hose (the wire) through which water (electrical current) flows at a constant rate in one direction into a basin/receptacle (the electrical load) in response to a steady water pressure (voltage) at the supply side of the hose.

Now imagine the same garden hose feeding the same basin of water (the hose output submerged in it), only now, the water pressure at the supply side alternates between positive and negative (akin to alternately blowing into and sucking out of the hose). In this case, water would alternately travel down the hose and into the basin and back up from the basin into the hose and into the negative (sucking) water pressure source during each repeating cycle.

As already noted, a rotating dynamo inherently develops an alternating, or AC, voltage across its rotating coils, not a DC, constant voltage. The DC voltage which appears at the output of a direct current machine is artificially produced by an electro-mechanical switching mechanism within the generator called a commutator which automatically reverses the polarity of the rotating coils on the armature as they rotate in such a way as to produce a voltage at the output terminals which is essentially “direct” (unipolar and roughly constant in value over time).

Can AC and DC each be used for electrical power?

Yes, AC as well as DC electrical current can deliver useful electrical energy to a compatible electrical load… like a light bulb or a toaster!

What would not constitute a “compatible” electrical load?

Here, is the crux of our story: In 1879, the year that Edison’s practical lightbulb materialized, the only electric motors in existence required DC power. While AC could be used to power Edison’s light bulbs, no electric motors existed which could run on AC power!

The absence of motor designs at the time that could run on AC power steered Edison and others in the direction of DC for power generation and transmission in their proposed central power stations; this decision proved to be extremely unfortunate for Mr. Edison!

Enter Nikola Tesla, Electrical Engineering Genius;
Tesla’s AC Electric Motor Is Developed in 1887

Oft-times, one is tempted to revert to the expression, “Fact is stranger than fiction: you just cannot make this stuff up!” Nikola Tesla illustrates the truthfulness of the contention. Often called, “the master of lightning,” Tesla displayed levels of imagination, creativity, personal eccentricities, and electrical genius never-before seen in the long history of technological progress.

Tesla sits amid extremely high voltage electric discharges in his laboratory!

Whereas Thomas Edison famously claimed that, “Inventive genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” Nikola Tesla’s greatest inventions came to him in meditative, “dream-like” states of consciousness while his mind was set free to roam. Striking, indeed, were the differences between the men, their methods, and their personalities. Tesla revealed that not only new ideas came to him in these mental states, but detailed implementations of these ideas materialized in his mind’s eye as well. There is one other striking contrast between the two men to be highlighted: although Edison ultimately lost big in the “AC/DC current wars” with Tesla and his industrial partner, George Westinghouse, Edison died a rich and very famous man. Tesla lived his last years in virtual poverty, penniless and forgotten by the general public, yet it was he who revolutionized electrical power engineering at the peak of his fame, and it was he who determined the future implementation of America’s power grid in partnership with industrialist and Edison competitor, George Westinghouse.

Tesla Arrives at Castle Garden, New York, in 1884 with a Letter of Introduction to Thomas Edison and Four Cents in His Pocket.

In spite of being an immigrant, “fresh off the boat,” Nikola Tesla was very familiar with the international reputation of his then-hero, Thomas Edison. Soon after arriving in New York, Tesla appeared before the great man in Edison’s offices at the Edison Electric Light Company, 65 5th Avenue. In hand, was a letter from one of Edison’s important associates in Paris, one Charles Batchelor. In the letter of introduction Batchelor had penned to Edison on Tesla’s behalf, he wrote: “I know two great men and you (Edison) are one of them; the other is this young man.” Most likely Edison viewed the young man standing before him with considerable skepticism: he undoubtedly thought Batchelor’s favorable comparison of this youngster to his accomplished self to be a rather large stretch, but Edison did need an engineer to help with myriad electrical problems he was dealing with at the time. Tesla was quickly employed by Mr. Edison, his hero, and was floating on cloud-nine.

It took barely one year before Tesla walked away from his position after some questionable re-negging on incentive bonus promises Edison had made to the young engineer who had performed superbly enough to earn them. Nor was it helpful to the relationship between the two men that Tesla was speaking forcefully about his visions for AC current electrical systems as opposed to DC systems in which Edison was already heavily invested. Also invested and looking over Edison’s shoulder was J.P. Morgan, the banker/financier who had an uncanny nose for financial opportunity. As one of Tesla’s biographers expressed the situation, when Morgan invested in a fledgling venture, the venture quickly became “Morganized,” meaning subject to very close scrutiny and a 51% controlling share for Morgan – considerable pressure for any entrepreneur!

The year 1887/88 found Tesla employed digging ditches – for Edison’s New York underground electrical transmission lines. The labor was hard…and demeaning for the proud young man who arrived from Serbia with such a solid technical education and such supreme confidence in his own abilities. During this trying period, he wondered if all his years of schooling were wasted when contemplating the practical, real-world financial successes of Edison, his former boss and hero, who had barely the semblance of a grade school education.

During this period, Tesla pursued his electrical visions and was issued seven patents; such accomplishments paired with his ever-active intellect began to attract attention and backing for the new Tesla Electric Company, located at 33-35 South 5th Avenue – literally just down the street from Edison’s offices. Quickly, Tesla began filing patent applications on no less than three complete AC power systems and their requisite electrical components: AC dynamos, AC motors, power transformers, and various automatic controls. Working feverishly day and night, it took Tesla but a matter of months to transfer his long-held mental images for these components into solid patent applications. The sudden blizzard of tremendously important patent filings was quite unlike anything the patent office had ever seen.

Wall Street and academics quickly became aware of these patent activities, and, soon, an invitation came for Tesla to address the prestigious American Institute of Electrical Engineers. On May 16, 1888, he delivered his presentation, “A New System of Alternate Current Motors and Transformers.” The lecture was received with widespread acclaim and was soon referred to as a “classic,” both in style and substance.

The Nikola Tesla/George Westinghouse Alliance Is Formed

At this time, there were several companies tinkering with the possibility of AC power. Most of these were small start-ups (or upstarts, shall we say). One of the serious players was The Westinghouse Electric Company founded by its namesake, George Westinghouse. Westinghouse immediately recognized the newly assembled technical mother lode of Tesla’s mind recently put to patent-paper. The industrialist made an offer to license the inventor’s patents. For his forty patents, Tesla received $60,000 – $5000 in cash and the remainder in Westinghouse stock. In addition, Westinghouse reportedly agreed to a mind-boggling offer of a $2.50 royalty to Tesla for every horsepower of electricity sold by the company. A few years later, when Westinghouse Electric found itself in financial straits due to market conditions and its heavy, up-front investment in AC electricity, Tesla supposedly agreed to help save the company by canceling the royalty agreement.

In less than a decade from that point, Tesla would have personally made millions of dollars in royalties which Westinghouse was at least morally obligated to pay per the original “agreement.” The reputed royalty situation may have literally been a “gentleman’s agreement,” originally. A modern Westinghouse historian states that there exists no written record of a legal, binding agreement and goes on to say that such royalties would, today, have been worth trillions of dollars to Mr. Tesla’s estate! The episode, whether true or not, does reflect Tesla’s disregard for money for money’s sake. The personal, intellectual satisfaction garnered from the success of his ideas was a far more valuable currency to Tesla than greenbacks!

George Westinghouse, the industrialist, was necessarily far more pragmatic about money matters than was his brilliant associate (discounting the aforementioned royalty “agreement”). Nonetheless, he was an honest broker with his Westinghouse employees and truly cared about them. Any patent granted within his company had the originator’s name on it. Patents granted to Edison’s companies based on the work of an individual employee invariably carried the name, “Thomas A. Edison.” George Westinghouse was not only the antithesis of the great industrial “robber barons” of the age, he was a dedicated husband and family man, as well – a decided distinction in such circles.

The Vicious AC/DC Current Wars:
Westinghouse Versus a Ruthless and Desperate Edison

The marketing battle waged between Westinghouse and Edison to win the favor of industries and public opinion was quite unlike anything ever seen before – and possibly since. The Tesla/Westinghouse alliance touted the logic and superior efficiency of the AC system as reasons why it should be the roadmap for America’s future power system. As events unfolded to his disadvantage, Edison proceeded to employ scare tactics through advertising in order to convince the public that the high AC voltages carried in the Westinghouse transmission lines posed a danger to the unwary public. Electricity seemed a mysterious entity to most of the public at the end of the nineteenth century, and fear of the unknown always sets a high bar. The fear of being electrocuted in one’s home while changing a lightbulb or making breakfast toast was palpable to much of the uninformed public, and Edison worked to capitalize on those fears.
Animals were electrocuted outside of Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in staged, public executions using high-voltage AC current to emphasize the supposed danger inherent in the Westinghouse system. The concept of capital punishment using a high AC voltage “electric chair” was the by-product of another campaign waged by the low-voltage Edison capitalists.

Edison was fighting a losing battle all along, as he likely soon realized after Tesla began his one-year tenure with Edison after arriving in New York.

Here is a brief outline of the Tesla/Westinghouse system of AC power generation and transmission which won the day and doomed Edison’s DC system after the latter had blown much capital and waged his vicious, but losing campaign against the Tesla/Westinghouse system:

-A (typically) steam-powered AC dynamo generates a moderate to low AC voltage (let us say 115 volts) at 60 cycles per second.
-The dynamo feeds a step-up transformer which boosts the voltage by an arbitrary factor, say 50X, resulting in 115 volts times 50 = 5,750 volts!
-The resulting higher voltage/lower current equivalent power is fed to the transmission line which can now be constructed of lower current-capacity (smaller diameter) copper conductors, thus minimizing voltage-drop (and power loss) in the line.
-At the “load” end of the line, step-down transformers reduce the line voltage by the original factor of 50 which makes 115 volts AC safely available to homes and businesses. Note: the step-up/step-down process occurs with minimal power loss.

After his tremendous accomplishment of quite single-handedly visualizing, designing, and birthing hardware for the master template of America’s future power grids, Nikola Tesla moved on to what, for him, were still more interesting and challenging endeavors.

One of Tesla’s long-lived and stubborn visions involved the wireless transmission of significant levels of electric power over long distances using the earth’s ionosphere as a conductor/conduit. In middle age, he relocated to Colorado and carried on his investigations into ultra-high voltage and wireless transmission utilizing the tower-dome of a specially designed and constructed laboratory. Among the many inventions for which Tesla justifiably claimed at least partial success and credit was a “death-ray” which could immobilize and destroy most anything in its path. The so-called “star-wars initiative” which President Ronald Reagan touted during the cold war with the Soviet Union was based on a satellite system of laser/death-rays in space, reminiscent of Tesla’s vision.

Upon Tesla’s passing in 1943, the U.S. military classified some of his work, and portions of it quite possibly remain classified, to this day.

The Personal/Mystical Side of Nikola Tesla:
Writing This Post on the Man

Nikola Tesla was the quintessential loner – a man who never married and a man who traveled through life with few close friends. He was entirely immersed in and consumed by the gyrations of his imagination and the work necessary to implement his far-reaching visions. The more one learns about Tesla, the greater is the intrigue that settles-in. I began this post with the intent of profiling him and his importance to technology in several written pages; I soon found myself right here, already on page eleven of this document, yet with much left to say in my efforts to convey the uniqueness of the man and his impact on society.
Those who knew him well, and they were few, recalled an earnestness, an old-world gentility, and a sweetness in his persona that does not usually pair with the notion of an edgy, narcissistic loner. At the height of his considerable fame and powers after the resounding successes of the Westinghouse system at Chicago and Niagara Falls, he became quite the celebrity and did allow himself to enjoy the spotlight for a time. He was courted by the rich and famous, became friends with the Astors and the Vanderbilts and was pursued by society women. Although never married, he appears to have had a definite attraction to the feminine mystique; he certainly enjoyed female companionship at that time in his life, yet he related that any serious relationship would have been incompatible with his driving ambition and the need to devote full time to exploring and implementing his personal visions.

As a young man, Tesla viewed the proper role of women as life-partners to men, to be respected and cherished for their role in a collaboration which implements God’s plan for humans. In his youth, Tesla expressed doubt that he could be worthy enough for a young woman, but in later years he wrote against the trend in women’s liberation. In 1924 he wrote, “In place of the soft-voiced, gentle woman of my reverent worship, has come the woman who thinks that her chief success in life lies in making herself as much as possible like man – in dress, voice and actions. In sports and achievements of every kind…The tendency of woman to push aside man, supplanting the old spirit of cooperation with him in all affairs of life, is very disappointing to me.”
Despite his intense focus on technology and creative innovation, Tesla was very much a renaissance man, a philosopher with wide-ranging ideas on many fronts. Although he lived an ultimately isolated life, the image he projected was that of an extremely bright and informed man, impeccably groomed and dressed – fluent with a genteel personality and a noble, old-world bearing.

At the height of his fame, Tesla could be seen dining nightly at Delmonico’s, a fashionable and exclusive New York restaurant. He was there, at the same table every night, precisely at 8:00 pm, dining alone. He was indulged by the management with his own personal waiter and his required stack of freshly laundered napkins. Personal tidiness and cleanliness seemed rather an obsession with the man, to the extent of seemingly obsessive/compulsive behaviors.

Tesla’s Late Years – A Bittersweet Ending

Tesla’s passion to achieve the wireless transmission of electrical power levels (as opposed to weak radio signals, for example) led him astray beginning in mid-life. By his later years, potential investors lost faith in the halting progress and promise of his still-considerable efforts. The local establishments including hotels like the elegant Waldorf Astoria and, later, the New Yorker, catered to him initially as a steady, good customer. Later, when his money was gone, Tesla would be carried along with credit by some out of a charitable recognition of his earlier achievements and personal uniqueness. He became, in other words, a local fixture, a notable, easily recognizable, once-famous “character.” It appears that the Westinghouse Electric Company stepped in at one point and committed to help with Tesla’s support in recognition of his past importance to the company and his role in its history.

At the end, as Tesla’s mind dulled and his money was gone, his life and his passion became the simple, daily ritual of sitting in local parks and feeding his loyal friends, the pigeons.

Nikola Tesla died alone in his room at the New Yorker hotel on January 7, 1943, in New York City at eighty-six years of age.

There is a concluding section to this post which follows. If you have read this far and found the material interesting, I urge you to continue on, forsaking any natural fears of a few simple algebraic equations. Your reward: a layperson’s easy-to-digest understanding of the great Edison vs. Tesla/Westinghouse “current wars” and insight into the basic technology behind today’s vast electrical grid, a technological marvel not to be taken for granted. Let the primer begin:

Ohm’s Law: a fundamental precept of electrical science and engineering was central to the failure of Edison’s DC power distribution scheme; let us begin here to follow the logic of the Tesla/Edison “AC/DC current wars.” First stated by Georg Simon Ohm in 1827, Ohm’s law is taught on day-one in all beginning electrical engineering courses.

Ohms Law: V = I R

Easy digestible translation: Ohm’s Law declares that a voltage-drop, V, along a wire (or electrical transmission line) carrying an electric current, I, is equal to the current, I, times the electrical resistance, R, of the line. For any current conductor, the overall resistance of the line can be quantified and shown to become proportionally higher, the longer the conductor/wire (twice the length, twice the resistance). For long wires like electrical transmission lines which carry large current, the voltage-drop along the line can be significant, resulting in less voltage, hence less electrical power transmitted to the load at the far end of the line. Ohm’s law also tells us that for a given fixed source voltage (at the dynamo output, for instance), the voltage drop in any given line will be proportional to the current being supplied by the line to the load (twice the current, twice the voltage-drop).

Ramifications of Ohm’s Law on Edison’s proposed system of power stations:

-In order to minimize voltage-drop in the transmission lines between Edison’s proposed low-voltage DC generator stations and intended customers, Ohm’s law dictates that either the current to be transmitted and/or the line resistance must be kept low.
-A low current transmitted means lower available total power at the customer end. Therefore, fewer customers can be served by each power station/transmission line, and more power stations are required. This is not an economical system.
-A low resistance requirement for the transmission line (wires) would mean shorter runs between power station and customer (again, more stations required) and/or thicker, heavier wire which offers less resistance per unit length and proves to be more expensive and more difficult to install over long runs due to the greater weight. Note: twice the diameter of a given wire yields one-fourth the total resistance in the same length of line. Copper is among the best-known conductors of electricity, thus very desirable, but copper has become very expensive, today! Another comment: long runs of thicker, thus heavier, copper wire between power station and customer pose structural challenges and greater expense for the construction of transmission towers.

The simple equation for deliverable power (from station to consumer):

P = V I

which declares that the power delivered, P, equals the voltage supplied by the dynamo to the transmission line, V, times the current delivered to the load, I, (assuming zero power dissipated/lost in the transmission line resistance).

Note from the above simple equation that the same numerical power can be delivered at one-hundredth of a given current if the applied voltage is boosted by a factor of one-hundred times! Small-gauge transmission lines could then be used to save cost and to simplify their construction. There is a problem, however: dynamos (generators) that directly supply high voltages are difficult to implement and operate. A second problem: at the customer’s end, a high voltage at the wall outlets in one’s home would be very problematic from a safety standpoint!

What Is Needed? A “Magic Black Box”

If the inherently lower voltages generated by dynamos could be boosted by some arbitrary factor, say, 50X by passing them through a “magic black box” before being applied to the transmission line, half the problem would be solved. If another, “inverse magic black box” which reduces the voltage at the transmission line output by that same factor of 50 before being distributed to homes and businesses, such a system would be safe for the consumer, economical in operation, and a commercial winner with huge financial rewards.

Two key items had yet to appear in 1882 when the AC/DC current wars began and Edison had already fatally committed to DC power: practical designs for both AC powered motors and for high-power transformers.

An electrical transformer in its rudimentary form is simply a magnetically soft-iron core shaped like a doughnut with two electrically separate coils of wire wound around the core. One of these coils is the “primary winding,” and the other is the “secondary winding.” Although the two coils are electrically separate from one another, they are magnetically coupled together via changing magnetic fields in the doughnut core which are generated by voltage changes across the primary winding. If the voltage from an AC (alternating current) dynamo is connected across the primary winding, an AC output will appear across the secondary winding according to the following relationship:

secondary voltage = primary voltage multiplied by the ratio Ns/Np where

Ns is the number of coil-turns of the secondary winding and Np is the number of coil-turns of the primary winding.

The transformer and its magnetic induction principle were first demonstrated in 1831 at the Royal Institution of Great Britain by Michael Faraday, one of history’s greatest physicists and electrical experimenters. Faraday truly was the “father of the electrical age,” having built and demonstrated the first electric motor (DC, of course!), the first dynamo, and the first transformer. Faraday was first to envision electric and magnetic “lines of force,” paving the way for the foundational electromagnetic theories of James Clerk Maxwell. With less than a grade school education, Faraday ascended to the pinnacle of science. Only names like Einstein, Newton, and Galileo, rank higher. An interesting comparison comes to mind: what the barely-schooled Edison ultimately was to invention and technology, Faraday, with his minimal schooling was to research and science – only in spades!

 

 

 

 

 

 

       Faraday’s induction ring       Faraday’s diary entry: Aug. 29, 1831

Faraday’s diary entry of August 29, 1831 reveals the details of his discovery of the principle of electromagnetic induction. Faraday showed that a voltage could be induced in the secondary coil of wire by a changing voltage applied to the primary coil even though they are electrically insulated from one another. His critical observation was that an induced voltage in the secondary resulted only when the voltage across the primary coil was changing. An unchanging DC voltage applied to the primary coil produced no voltage across the secondary coil. It was not until decades later that transformer designs emerged which were capable of high-power operation at relatively low AC frequencies like 60 Hertz (cycles per second).

In Nikola Tesla’s eyes, the potential of a transformer design capable of high power operation was the green light for AC power stations and transmission systems. Such a device, in concert with his own AC motor patents, foretold the demise of Edison’s DC power schemes. Tesla not only had the foresight to see the complete big picture clearly, his detailed designs for the first practical AC motors and suitable power transformers led the AC power revolution. Tesla personally calculated the optimal AC line frequency of 60 Hz (cycles per second) which is used exclusively today in North America. The levels of insight, engineering, and formal mathematics required to visualize the ultimate system and to invent/perfect its necessary components all speak to Tesla’s genius and ability. Thomas Edison’s cleverness and his grade school education were no match for Tesla’s engineering credentials and genius in the AC/DC current wars. Mr. Edison was, sadly, way over his head in this arena.

George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Electric Company had, by 1888, licensed Tesla’s AC motor, power transformer designs, and other auxiliary system components.

Here, once again to recap, is the short-form essence of the Tesla/Westinghouse system of AC power generation and transmission which won the day and doomed Edison’s DC system:

-A (typically) steam-powered AC dynamo generates a moderate to low AC voltage (let us say 115 volts) at 60 cycles per second.
-The dynamo feeds a step-up transformer which boosts the voltage by an arbitrary factor, say 50X, resulting in 115 volts times 50 = 5,750 volts!
-The resulting higher voltage/lower current equivalent power is fed to the transmission line which can now be constructed of lower current-capacity (smaller diameter) copper conductors, thus minimizing voltage-drop (and power loss) in the line.
-At the “load” end of the line, step-down transformers reduce the line voltage by the original factor of 50 which makes 115 volts AC safely available to homes and businesses. Note: the step-up/step-down process occurs with minimal power loss.

In the end, Edison had blown much of his own capital as well as investment money from the storied financier/banker, J.P. Morgan. What remained for Edison was the memory of both a failed system technology and a vicious, slanderous campaign against the Tesla/Westinghouse system.

Big “Wins” for the Tesla/Westinghouse AC Power System

Westinghouse outbid the Edison Electric Company for the rights to power the massive and important 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. A system of steam-powered AC dynamos was installed to power the Exposition and the thousands of lightbulbs supplied by the Westinghouse Electric Company. Westinghouse’s bid was far lower than Edison’s and, although perhaps not very profitable to Westinghouse, signaled a major triumph for the more efficient AC system over Edison’s DC proposal. Chicago proved to be a complete success for the AC system of Westinghouse Electric.

Westinghouse AC system exhibit at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition

George Westinghouse buys all of Nikola Tesla’s patents for $261,000
in 1897. The Westinghouse AC System harnesses Niagra Falls Hydro-power!

The success of the Westinghouse AC system in distributing power to the northeast sector of the United States from the newly harnessed hydro energy of Niagara Falls provided further and final credence to the early claims of Tesla and Westinghouse regarding the promise of AC power for the country.

The Final Strange Twist to This Story

As is often the case, technological innovation moves relentlessly forward and often changes the status-quo in strange ways. Recent decades and huge technological progress have produced electrical components and systems that now make the generation and transmission of extremely high-voltage DC currents feasible. Many selective portions of today’s power grid now transmit DC power over long runs using voltage levels of hundreds of thousands of volts. As pointed out in the preceding technical primer, high voltage and low current is the preferred balance for long distance power transmission. In the early decades, there was no way to accomplish this other than using AC, alternating current. Even so, the use of AC does impose secondary power losses in the system which can be minimized using today’s ultra-high-voltage DC transmission. So, in retrospect, Edison was accidentally prescient with his early DC proposals, yet he deserves no credit for his advocacy of DC in the “current wars” of his time. History has justly and amply rewarded Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse for their engineering expertise, efforts, and conviction.

In Conclusion (For Anyone Still Standing):

I now find myself on page 21 of this post (the longest and most challenging of my many efforts on this blog), yet my efforts to portray the full story of the brilliant, eccentric visionary that was Nikola Tesla necessarily fall far short. Tesla’s many other innovations, his name, and his story have been largely forgotten more than once by the public at-large. Today, the Tesla automobile and the engineering unit for magnetic flux density, the “Tesla,” have kept his name alive. That is as it should be!

Tesla demonstrating wireless electro-luminescence in a hand-held bulb

Greenfield Village, Michigan: Henry Ford’s Historic Legacy

Last month, Linda and I spent eight days vacationing in Michigan. We went there with two goals in mind: first, to see October’s fall colors minus busloads of New England tourists; second, to visit Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Greenfield Village can best be described as the personal passion and indulgence of one man, and that would be Henry Ford, one of history’s greatest industrialists and one of its richest men.

We stayed at Ford’s Dearborn Inn, a short walk from Greenfield Village and “The Henry Ford,” a vast and incredible museum – the indoor manifestation of Henry Ford’s personal desire to preserve the past and a reflection of his young world and the ideals he held dear. Henry Ford and his favorite motorcar, the ubiquitous Model T Ford, were driving forces behind the great mobilization of America at the turn of the twentieth century. Ford quickly became one of the country’s richest and most famous men. With both the means and a personal vision, Ford spent millions to create a living legacy to both the technology of his day and the way of life which invention and industrialization were busily changing… forever.

Greenfield Village is a concentrated restoration/recreation of many of America’s finest times and places. Thomas Edison’s famous research laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, is faithfully recreated and, indeed, literally reassembled in the Village. The first viable electric light bulb was perfected in 1879…in this building!

Also present is the original bicycle shop brought from Dayton, Ohio, in which Orville and Wilbur Wright conceived and developed the first powered airplane. Their first successful heavier-than-air flight in 1903 ushered in the era of aviation.

A significant part of the Wright Brothers’ research into the controllability and sustainability of flight took place behind the storefront of the Wright Cycle Shop. Much of the activity and the equipment is beautifully displayed, here.

I was long skeptical, early-on, about the concept of Greenfield Village, visualizing it perhaps as a sort of historical Disneyland creation. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Henry Ford was maniacally dedicated to authenticity and to preserving as much of the original buildings and artifacts as humanly possible. The original buildings restored/recreated here were literally disassembled by teams of Ford workers on their original, distant sites, packed and crated, and shipped at great expense to Dearborn on the way to their final resting places at Greenfield Village. Greenfield represents Henry Ford’s fervent devotion to authentically preserving a way of life which, perhaps sorrowfully, he realized would be unalterably changed by the industrialization and modernization for which he, as much as anyone, was responsible.

Mr. Ford, it seems, realized early the undeniable fact that tangible property and historical sites, no matter how important, were doomed to succumb to “progress” unless privately owned, funded, and maintained. As Linda and I strolled from attraction to attraction and learned from the docents inside, I came to realize the wisdom in Ford’s contention. Yes, it would be wonderful if Edison’s famous research laboratory still sat beautifully preserved on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey; the same can be said of the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, Ohio. The odds against that being the case were always practically zero in a society which is ruled by money and which too often looks forward and, almost never, backward to absorb the lessons and wisdom inherent in historical perspective. To his great credit and our good fortune, Henry Ford understood and acted by leaving us the next best thing.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford: Kindred Spirits

The influence of Thomas Edison is seen throughout Greenfield Village. Like Edison, Henry Ford had little formal education. Ford also realized two facts at an
early age: one, that he could never be happy following his parents as farmers; two,
that he had both an interest in and an aptitude for things mechanical. In fact, as a young man, he went to work in Thomas Edison’s light bulb factory, becoming foreman in less than a year. Soon, Ford’s growing ambition to work on things strictly mechanical led him to begin pondering the possibility of building an automobile. Others had similar ideas, but no one else envisioned the automobile as anything other than a toy for the wealthy, let alone as a necessity for the average man. It was Ford’s vision and ingenuity which led him, quite literally, to “invent” both the notion and the process of mass production. His embodiment of that vision came with the Model T which was introduced in 1908. In a market where others sold their fancy automobiles for close to $2000, Ford was selling his down-to-earth, practical and reliable Model T for $650 – and you could get it in any color as long as it was black! Of course, the economics of the production line dictated a single color only at such a price, but Ford carried his analysis of production line realities far beyond the obvious. As one of the early practitioners of production line time-and-motion studies, Henry Ford had determined that black paint dried much more quickly than did other colors – a fact supported by scientific knowledge that explains the fact that black absorbs heat much more readily than lighter colors. One might counter that the difference would prove minimal, but one would be wrong given that multiple paint coats were applied. In fact, a light color such yellow or white would consume twelve times the total drying time in the Ford process than would black! I found that fact to be extremely interesting.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both placed a premium on ingenuity, common sense, empirical testing, and hard work as the primary ingredients of success. They also displayed an inherent distrust of venturing too far into scientific research and theoretical speculation. This alienation from advanced learning and engineering was to cause them both problems along the way, especially Edison who utterly failed in his massive bid to supply direct current electricity to the many minions who had bought his light bulbs before the turn of the nineteenth century. My next blog post will deal with that dramatic and extremely important story.

The marker adds: “Henry Ford greatly admired Thomas Edison.” It goes on to say that Edison sat for the sculpture during the last months of his life.

Another Edison site in Greenfield Village that re-kindled my interest as a retired electrical engineer was the reconstructed Edison “electric power station” which contains one of the original six DC (direct current) dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison to power and illuminate several square blocks around Pearl Street in downtown New York in 1882. This Edison enterprise was the first “electric power station” in America. Despite its potential importance and the great hoopla surrounding its success in lighting a small section of downtown New York for several years, the enterprise along with Edison’s plans to corner the imminent American electrical market was doomed to spectacular failure.

As already mentioned, my next blog post will explore Thomas Edison’s losing battle in the electrical current wars waged between direct and alternating current to supply the nation’s immense power grid-to-be.

And I promise that no technical expertise will be necessary for you, the reader!

Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein and Four-dimensional Space-time

Is the concept of free-will valid as it relates to humans? A mathematics lecture presented in September of 1908 in Cologne, Germany by Hermann Minkowski not only paved the way for the successful formulation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916, it also forced us to completely revamp our intuitions regarding the notion of time and space while calling into question the concept of human free-will! Some brief and simplified background is in order.

Prior to Minkowski’s famous lecture concerning Raum Und Zeit (Space and Time), the fabric of our universe was characterized by three-dimensional space accompanied by the inexorable forward flow of time. The concept of time has long been a stubbornly elusive notion, both in philosophy and in physics. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there had increasingly been problems with our conception of “time.” The difficulties surfaced with the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his mathematical characterization of electromagnetic waves (which include radio waves and even light) and their propagation through space. Maxwell revealed his milestone “Maxwell’s equations” to the world in 1865. His equations have stood the test of time and remain the technical basis for today’s vast communication networks. But there was a significant problem stemming from Maxwell’s work, and that was his prediction that the speed of light propagation (and that of all electromagnetic waves) is constant for all observers in the universe. Logically, that prediction appeared to be implausible when carefully examined. In fact, notice of that implausibility stirred a major crisis in physics during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Einstein, Poincare, Lorentz and many other eminent physicists and mathematicians devoted much of their time and attention to the seeming impasse during those years.

Enter Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1906

In order to resolve the dilemma posed by Maxwell’s assertion of a constant propagation speed for light and all related electromagnetic phenomena, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which he published in 1906. Special relativity resolved the impasse created by Maxwell by introducing one of the great upheavals in the history of science. Einstein posited three key stipulations for the new physics:

A new law of physics: The speed of light is constant as determined by all “observers” in the universe, no matter what their relative motion may be with respect to a light source. This, in concert with the theoretically-based dictate from Maxwell that the speed of light is constant for all observers. Einstein decreed this as a new fundamental law of physics. In order for this new law to reign supreme in physics, two radical concessions regarding space and time proved necessary.
Concession #1: There exists no absolute measure of position and distance in the universe. Stated another way, there exists no reference point in space and no absolute framework for determining distance coordinates. One result of this: consider two observers, each with his own yardstick, whose platforms (habitats, or “frames of reference,” as it were) are moving relatively to one another. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s yardstick as identical in length to their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), the other observer’s “yardstick” will increasingly appear shorter to each observer, even though, when at relative rest, the two yardsticks appear identical in length.
Concession #2: There is no absolute time-keeper in the universe. The passage of time depends on one observer’s velocity with respect to another observer. One result of this: consider our same two observers, each with their own identical clocks. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s clock as keeping perfect time with their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light, the other observer’s clock appears increasingly to slow down relative to their own clock which ticks merrily along at its constant rate.

Needless to say, the appearance in 1906 of Einstein’s paper on special relativity overturned many long-held assumptions regarding time and space. Einstein dissolved Isaac Newton’s assumptions of absolute space and absolute time.The new relativity physics of Einstein introduced a universe of shrinking yardsticks and slowing clocks. It took several years for Einstein’s new theory to gain acceptance. Even with all these upheavals, the resulting relativistic physics maintained the notion of (newly-relative) spatial frames defined by traditional coordinates in three mutually perpendicular directions: forward/backward, left/right, and up/down.

Also still remaining was the notion of time as a (newly-relative) measure which still flows inexorably forward in a continuous manner. As a result of the special theory, relativistic “correction factors” were required for space and time for observers and their frames of reference experiencing significant relative, velocities.

This framework of mathematical physics worked splendidly for platforms or “frames of reference” (and their resident observers) experiencing uniform relative motion (constant velocity) with respect to each other.

The added complications to the picture which result from including accelerated relative motions (the effect of gravity included) complicated Einstein’s task enormously and set the great man on the quest for a general theory of relativity which could also accommodate accelerated motion and gravity.

Einstein labored mightily on this new quest for almost ten years. By 1913, he had approached the central ideas necessary for general relativity, but the difficulties inherent in elegantly completing the task were seriously beginning to affect his health. In fact, the exertion nearly killed Einstein. The mathematics necessary for success was staggering, involving a complex “tensor calculus” which Einstein was insufficiently prepared to deal with. In desperation, he called his old friend from university days, Marcel Grossman, for help. Grossman was a mathematics major at the Zurich Polytechnic, and it was his set of class notes that saved the day for young Einstein on the frequent occasions when Einstein forsook mathematics lectures in favor of physics discussions at the local coffee houses. Grossman’s later assistance with the requisite mathematics provided a key turning point for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Enter Hermann Minkowski with Raum Und Zeit

The initial 1909 publication of Raum Und Zeit

On September 8, 1908 in Cologne, Germany, the rising mathematics star, Hermann Minkowski, gave a symposium lecture which provided the elusive concepts and mathematics needed by Einstein to elegantly complete his general theory of relativity. Similar to Einstein’s 1906 special theory of relativity, the essence of Minkowski’s contribution involved yet another radical proposal regarding space and time. Minkowski took the notion of continuously flowing time and melded it together with the three-dimensional coordinates defining space to create a new continuum: four-dimensional space-time which relegated the time parameter to a fourth coordinate point in his newly proposed four-dimensional space-time.

Now, just as three coordinate points in space specify precisely one’s physical location, the four-dimensional space-time continuum is an infinite collection of all combinations of place and time expressed in four coordinates. Every personal memory we have of a specific place and time – each event-instant in our lives – is defined by a “point” in four-dimensional space-time. We can say we were present, in times past, at a particular event-instant because we “traversed-through” or “experienced” a specific four-dimensional coordinate point in space-time which characterizes that particular event-instant. That is very different from saying we were positioned in a specific three-dimensional location at a specific instant of time which flows irresistibly only forward.

What do Minkowski’s mathematics imply about human free-will?

By implication, the continuum of four-dimensional space-time includes not only sets of four coordinate points representing specific events in our past (place and “time”), the continuum must include points specifying the place and “time” for all future events. This subtly suggests a pre-determined universe, where places and “times” are already on record for each of us, and this implies the absence of free-will, the ability to make conscious decisions such as where we will be and when in the future. This is a very controversial aspect of Minkowki’s four-dimensional space-time with distinctly philosophical arguments.

For certain, however, is the great success Minkowski’s mathematics of space-time has enjoyed as a basis for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Most, if not all, aspects of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity have been subjected to extensive experimental verification over many decades. There is no instance of any validly conducted experiment ever registering disagreement with Einstein’s special or general theories. That is good news for Hermann Minkowski, as well.

Minkowski’s new reality takes us beyond the two-dimensional world of a flat piece of paper, through the recent universe of three-dimensional space plus time, and into the brave new world of not only four-dimensional space-time, but curved four-dimensional space-time. The nature of curved space-time serves to replace the Newtonian notion of a gravitational force of attraction which enables the celestial ballet of the heavens. For instance, the orbit of earth around the sun is now regarded as the “natural path” of the earth through the curvature of four-dimensional space-time and not due to any force of attraction the sun exerts on the earth. According to the general theory of relativity, the mass of the sun imposes a curvature on the four-dimensional space-time around it, and it is that curvature which determines the natural path of the earth around the sun. Minkowski and his mathematics provided the final, crucial insight Einstein needed to not only radically redefine the nature of gravity, but to also successfully complete his general theory of relativity in 1916. Einstein’s theory and its revelations are generally regarded as the most significant and sublime product ever to emanate from the human intellect. Take a bow, Albert and Hermann.

My eulogy to Hermann Minkowski

Albert Einstein is assuredly the most recognized individual in human history – both the name and the image, and that is very understandable and appropriate. Very few in the public realm not involved with mathematics and physics have ever even heard the name, “Hermann Minkowski,” and that is a shame, for he was a full participant in Einstein’s milestone achievement, general relativity. Minkowski’s initial 1907 work on Raum Und Zeit came to Einstein’s attention early-on, but its mathematics were well beyond Einstein’s comprehension in that earlier time frame. It was not until several years later, that Einstein and Marcel Grossman began to recognize Minkowski’s gift to general relativity in the form of his mathematics of four-dimensional curved space-time.

Hermann Minkowski delivered his by-then polished lecture on space-time at Cologne, Germany, in September, 1908. Tragically, he died suddenly in January, 1909, at the young age of forty-four – from a ruptured appendix. His latest findings as presented in the Cologne lecture were published in January, 1909, days after his death, sadly.

The “lazy dog” has the last bark

Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski first crossed paths during Einstein’s student days at the Zurich Polytechnic, where Minkowski was teaching mathematics to young Einstein. Noting Einstein’s afore-mentioned irregular attendance at lectures in mathematics, the professor reportedly labeled the student Einstein as, “a lazy dog.” Rarely in the annals of human history has such an unpromising prospect turned out so well! I noted with great interest while researching this post that Einstein long regarded mathematics as merely a necessary tool for the advancement of physics, whereas Minkowski and other fine mathematicians of the past tended to consider mathematics as a prime mover in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge, both theoretical and practical; they viewed physics as the fortunate beneficiary of insights that mathematics revealed.

In the late years, Einstein came to appreciate the supremely important role that mathematics plays in the general advancement of science. As proof, I will only add that the great physicist realized his dependence on the mathematicians Grossman and Minkowski in the nick of time to prevent his theory of general relativity from going off the rails, ending on the scrap heap, and leaving Albert Einstein a completely spent physicist.

Note: For a detailed tour and layperson’s explanation of Einstein’s relativity theories, click on the image of my book: The Elusive Notion of Motion – The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein – available on Amazon

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb: Triumph and Tragedy

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Along with Albert Einstein, one of the most interesting and important figures in modern history. Although very different in world-view and personality, the names of these two men are both linked to arguably the most significant human endeavor and resultant “success” in recorded history. The effort in question was the monumental task of the United States government to harness the energy of the atom in a new and devastating weapon of war, the atomic bomb. The super-secret Manhattan Project was a crash program formally authorized by president Franklin Roosevelt on Dec. 6, 1941. The program’s goal: In a time-frame of less than four years and against all odds, to capitalize on very recent scientific discoveries and rapidly develop an operational military weapon of staggering destructive power.

Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein, whose scientific resume ranks just behind that of Isaac Newton, had virtually no role in this weapons program save for two notable exceptions. First and foremost, it was Einstein’s follow-up paper to his milestone theory of special relativity in 1905 which showed that, contrary to long-standing belief, mass and energy are one and the same, theoretically convertible from one to another. That relationship is expressed by the most famous equation in science, e = mc2, where e is the energy inherent in mass, m is the mass in question, and c is the constant speed of light. One careful look at this relationship reveals its profoundness. Since the speed of light is a very large number (300 million meters per second), a tiny bit of mass (material) converted into its energy equivalent yields a phenomenal amount of energy. Note that Einstein had proposed a theoretical, nonetheless real, relationship in his equation. The big question: Would it ever be possible to produce that predicted yield of energy in practice? In 1938, two chemists in Hitler’s Germany, Hahn and Strassman, demonstrated nuclear fission in the laboratory, on a tiny scale. That news spread quickly throughout the world physics community – like ripples on a giant pond. It now appeared feasible to harness the nuclear power inherent in the atom as expressed by Einstein’s equation.

In August of 1939, alarmed by the recent news from Germany, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard asked his colleague, Albert Einstein, to affix his signature to a letter addressed to President Roosevelt. The letter warned of recent German scientific advances and Germany’s sudden interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo of Africa. Einstein, a German Jew who fled his homeland in 1932 for fear of Hitler’s growing influence, dutifully but reluctantly signed his name to the letter. Einstein’s imprimatur on the letter was Szilard’s best hope of affixing Roosevelt’s attention on the growing feasibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein and many other European scientists were, from personal experience, justifiably terrified at the prospect of Hitler’s Germany acquiring such a weapon, and the Germans had first-class scientific talent available to tackle such a challenge.

Einstein, one of history’s great pacifists, was thus ironically tied to the atomic bomb program, but his involvement went no further. Einstein never worked on the project and, after the war when Germany was shown to have made no real progress toward a weapon, he stated: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Stranger Than Fiction: The High Desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico

By early 1943, peculiar “invitations” from Washington were being received by many of this country’s finest scientific/engineering minds. A significant number of these ranked among the world’s top physicists including Nobel Prize winners who had emigrated from Europe. These shadowy “requests” from the government called for the best and the brightest to head (with their families in many cases) to the wide-open high desert country of New Mexico. Upon arrival, they would be further informed (to a limited extent) of the very important, secret work to be undertaken there. I have always believed that fact is stranger than fiction, and much more interesting and applicable. What transpired at Los Alamos over the next three years under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Army General Leslie Groves is scarcely believable, and yet it truly happened, and it has changed our lives unalterably.

One of my favorite narratives from Jon Else’s wonderful documentary film on the atomic bomb, The Day After Trinity, beautifully describes the ludicrous situation: “Oppenheimer had brought scientists and their families fresh from distinguished campuses all over the country – ivied halls, soaring campaniles, vaulted chapels. Los Alamos was a boom town – hastily constructed wooden buildings, dirt streets, coal stoves, and [at one point] only five bathtubs / There were no sidewalks. The streets were all dirt. The water situation was always bad / It was not at all unusual to open your faucet and have worms come out.” Los Alamos was like a California gold-rush boom town, constructed in a jiffy with the greatest assemblage of world-class scientific talent that will ever be gathered in one location. General Groves once irreverently quipped (with humor and perhaps some frustration) that Los Alamos had the greatest assemblage of “crack-pots” the world has ever known.

As improbable as the situation and the task at hand appeared – even given an open check-book from Roosevelt and Congress – Groves and Oppenheimer made it happen. I cannot think of any human endeavor in history so complex, so unlikely…and so “successful.” The triumph of NASA in space comes in a close second, but even realizing JFK’s promise of a man on the moon by 1969 cannot top the extraordinary scenario which unfolded at Los Alamos, New Mexico – all largely shielded from view.

The initial (and only) test of the atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945, on the wide expanse of the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos. The test was code-named “Trinity.” The accompanying picture shows Oppenheimer and General Groves at ground zero of the blast, the site of the high tower from which the bomb was detonated. Evidence of desert sand fused into glass by the intense heat abounds. The test was a complete technical success – vindication for the huge government outlay and the dedication on the part of so many who put their lives on hold by moving to the high desert of New Mexico and literally “willing” their work to success for fear of the Germans. By July of 1945, however, Germany was vanquished without having made any real progress toward an atomic bomb.

The World Would Never Be the Same

That first nuclear detonation signaled a necessary reset for much of human thought and behavior. Many events quickly followed that demonstrated the power of that statement. Of immediate impact was the abrupt termination of World War II, brought about by two atomic bombs successfully dropped on Japan just weeks after the first and only test of the device (Hiroshima, August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, August 9, 1945). The resulting destruction of these two cities accomplished what many thousands of invading U.S. troops might have taken months to complete – with terrible losses. The horrific effect of these two bombs on the people of Japan has been well documented since 1945. Many, including a significant number of those who worked on the development of these weapons protested that such weapons should never be used again. Once the initial flush of “success” passed, the man most responsible for converting scientific theory into a practical weapon of mass destruction quickly realized that the “nuclear genie” was irretrievably out of the bottle, never to be predictably and reliably restrained. Indeed, Russia shocked the world by detonating its first atomic bomb in 1949. The inevitable arms race that Oppenheimer foresaw had already begun… the day after Trinity.

The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Man

J. Robert Oppenheimer had been under tremendous pressure as technical leader of the super-secret Manhattan project since being appointed by the military man in charge of the entire project, Army general Leslie Groves. Groves was a military man through and through, accustomed to the disciplined hierarchy of the service, yet he hand-picked as technical lead for the whole program the brilliant physicist and mercurial liberal intellectual, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the most unlikely of candidates. Oppenheimer’s communist wife and brother prompted the FBI to vigorously protest the choice. Groves got his way, however.

Groves’ choice of J. Robert Oppenheimer for the challenging and consuming task of technical leader on the project proved to be a stroke of genius on his part; virtually everyone who worked on the Manhattan Project agreed there was no-one but Oppenheimer who could have made it happen as it did.

“Oppie,” as he was known and referred to by many on the Manhattan Project, directed the efforts of hundreds of the finest scientific and engineering minds on the planet. Foreign-born Nobel prize winners in physics were very much in evidence at Los Alamos. Despite the formidable scientific credentials of such luminaries as Hans Bethe, I.I. Rabi, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer proved to be their intellectual equal. Oppenheimer either already knew and understood the nuclear physics, the chemistry, and the metallurgy involved at Los Alamos, or he very quickly learned it from the others. His intellect was lightning-quick and very deep. His interests extended well beyond physics as evidenced by his great interest in French metaphysical poetry and his multi-lingual capability. Almost more incredible than his technical grasp of all the work underway at Los Alamos was his unanticipated ability to manage all aspects of this, the most daring, ambitious, and important scientific/engineering endeavor ever undertaken. People who knew well his scientific brilliance from earlier years were amazed at the overnight evolution of “Oppie, the brilliant physicist and academic” into “Oppie, the effective, efficient manager” and co-leader of the project with General Groves.

Indelibly imprinted upon my mind is the interview scene with famous Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe conducted by Jon Else, producer of The Day After Trinity. Bethe was Oppie’s pick to be group leader for all physics on the project. The following comments of Bethe, himself a giant in theoretical physics, cast a penetrating light on the intellectual brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his successful role in this, the most daring and difficult scientific project ever attempted:

– “He was a tremendous intellect. I don’t believe I have known another person who was quite so quick in comprehending both scientific and general knowledge.”
– “He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry, theoretical physics, or machine-shop. He could keep it all in his head and coordinate it. It was clear also at Los Alamos, that he was intellectually superior to us.”

The work was long, hard, and often late into the night at Los Alamos for its two thousand residents, but there was a social life at Los Alamos, and, according to reports, Robert Oppenheimer was invariably the center of attention. He could and often did lead discussions given his wide-ranging knowledge …on most everything! Dorothy McKibben (seated on Oppenheimer’s right in the following picture) was the “Gatekeeper of Los Alamos” according to all who (necessarily) passed through her tiny Manhattan Project Office at 109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, they checked-in and collected the credentials and maps required to reach the highly secured desert site of Los Alamos. Ms. McKibben was affluent in her praise of Oppenheimer: “If you were in a large hall, and you saw several groups of people, the largest groups would be hovering around Oppenheimer. He was great at a party, and women simply loved him and still do.”

The Nuclear Weapons Advantage Proves to be Short-Lived

What was believed in 1945 to represent a long term, decided military advantage for the United States turned out to be an illusion, much as Oppenheimer likely suspected. With the help of spies Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos, Julius Rosenberg, and others, Russia detonated their first atomic bomb only four years later.

Oppenheimer knew better, because he understood the physics involved and that, once demonstrated, nuclear weapons would rapidly pose a problem for the world community. When interviewed years later at Princeton where he had been head of the Institute for Advanced Studies (and Albert Einstein’s “boss”) he is shown in The Day After Trinity responding to the question, “[Can you tell us] what your thoughts are about the proposal of Senator Robert Kennedy that President Johnson initiate talks with the view to halt the spread of nuclear weapons?” Oppenheimer replied rather impatiently, “It’s twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer fully appreciated, on July 16, 1945, the dangers inherent in the nuclear genie let loose from the bottle. His fears were well founded. Within a few years after Los Alamos, talk surfaced of a new, more powerful bomb based on nuclear fusion rather than fission, nevertheless still in accordance with e = mc2. This became popularly known as the “hydrogen bomb.” Physicist Edward Teller now stepped forward to promote its development in opposition to Oppenheimer’s stated wish to curtail the further use and development of nuclear weapons.

Arguments raged over the “Super” bomb as it was designated, and Teller prevailed. The first device was detonated by the U.S. in 1952. A complex and toxic cocktail of Oppenheimer’s reticence toward development of the Super combined with the past communist leanings of his wife, brother Frank, and other friends led to the Atomic Energy Commission, under President Eisenhower, revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. That action ended any opportunity for Oppenheimer to even continue advising Washington on nuclear weapons policy. The Oppenheimer file was thick, and the ultimate security hearings were dramatic and difficult for all involved. As for the effect on J. Robert Oppenheimer, we have the observations of Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi, both participants at Los Alamos and Nobel prize winners in physics:

– I.I. Rabi: “I think to a certain extent it actually almost killed him, spiritually, yes. It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve. It destroyed him.”
– Hans Bethe: “He had very much the feeling that he was giving the best to the United States in the years during the war and after the war. In my opinion, he did. But others did not agree. And in 1954, he was hauled before a tribunal and accused of being a security risk – a risk to the United States. A risk to betray secrets.”

Later, in 1964, attitudes softened and Edward Teller nominated Oppenheimer for the prestigious Enrico Fermi award which was presented by President Johnson. As I.I. Rabi observed, however, the preceding events had, for all intents and purposes, already destroyed him. Oppenheimer was a conflicted man with a brilliant wide-ranging intellect. While one might readily agree with Hans Bethe’s assessment that Oppenheimer felt he was “giving the best to the United States in the years during and after the war,” there is perhaps more to the story than a significantly patriotic motivation. Oppenheimer was a supremely competent and confident individual whose impatient nature was tinged with a palpable arrogance. These characteristics often worked to his disadvantage with adversaries and co-workers.
Then there was the suggestion that, in addition to his patriotic motives, Oppenheimer was seized by “the glitter and the power of nuclear weapons” and the unprecedented opportunity to do physics on a grand scale at Los Alamos, and those were also major motivations. Other colleagues on the project later confessed to feeling the glitter and power of nuclear weapons, themselves. A brilliant man of many contradictions was Oppenheimer – that much is certain. Also certain is the likelihood that the man was haunted afterward by misgivings concerning his pivotal role, whatever his motivations, in letting loose the nuclear genie. The sadness in his eyes late in life practically confirms the suspicion. That is the tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Triumph has a way of extracting its penalty, its pound of flesh. I can think of no better example than Oppenheimer.

Immediately upon hearing of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hans Bethe recalled, “The first reaction which we had was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. Now the work which we have been engaged in has contributed to the war. The second reaction, of course, was one of shock and horror. What have we done? What have we done? And the third reaction: It shouldn’t be done again.”

Nuclear Weapons: The Current State and Future Outlook

In the headlines of today’s news broadcasts as I write this is the looming threat of North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North Koreans have developed and tested nuclear warheads and are currently test-launching long-range missiles which could reach the U.S. mainland, as far east as Chicago. Likewise, Iran is close to having both nuclear weapons and targetable intermediate-range missiles. Nuclear proliferation is alive and well on this earth.

To illustrate the present situation, consider one staple of the U.S. nuclear arsenal -the one megaton thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb with the explosive equivalent of just over one million tons of TNT. That explosive energy is fifty times that of the plutonium fission bomb which destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan (twenty-two thousand tons of TNT). The number of such powerful weapons in today’s U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles is truly staggering, especially when one considers that a single one megaton weapon could essentially flatten and incinerate the core of Manhattan, New York. Such a threat is no longer limited to a device dropped from an aircraft. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs present an even more ominous threat.

The surprise success of the first Russian earth-orbiting satellite, “Sputnik,” in 1957 had far more significance than the loss of prestige in space for the United States. Accordingly, the second monumental and historic U.S. government program – on the very heels of the Manhattan Project – was heralded by the creation of NASA in 1958 and its role in the race to the moon. President John F. Kennedy issued his audacious challenge in 1963 for NASA to regain lost technical ground in rocketry by being first to put a man on the moon …in the decade of the sixties – in less than seven years! Many in the technical community thought the challenge was simply “nuts” given the state of U.S. rocket technology in 1963. As with the then very-recent, incredibly difficult and urgent program to build an atomic bomb, the nation once again accomplished the near-impossible by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969 – well ahead of the Russians. And it was important that we surpassed Russia in rocket technology, for our ICBMs, which are the key delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons and thus crucial to most of the U.S. strategic defense, were born of this country’s efforts in space.

“Fat Man,” the bomb used on Nagasaki – 22 kilotons of TNT

Photo: Paul Shambroom

B83 1 megaton hydrogen bombs…compact and deadly

The above picture of a man casually sweeping the warehouse floor in front of nearly ten megatons of explosive, destructive power, enough to level the ten largest cities in America gives one pause to reflect. On our visit to Los Alamos in 2003, I recall the uneasy emotions I felt merely standing next to a dummy casing of this bomb in the visitor’s center and reflecting on the awesome power of the “live” device. Minus their huge development and high “delivery” costs, such bombs are, in fact, very “cheap” weapons from a military point of view.

One conclusion: Unlike the man with the broom in the above picture, we must never casually accept the presence of these weapons in our midst. One mistake, one miscalculation, and nuclear Armageddon may be upon us. The collective angels of man’s better nature had better soon decide on a way to render such weapons unnecessary on this planet. Albert Einstein expressed the situation elegantly and succinctly:

“The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Under a brilliant New Mexico sky on October 16, 1945, the residents of the Los Alamos mesa gathered for a ceremony on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s last day as director of the laboratory. The occasion: The receipt of a certificate of appreciation from the Secretary of War honoring the contributions of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos.

In his remarks, Oppenheimer stated: “It is our hope that in years to come we may look at this scroll, and all that it signifies, with pride. Today, that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish.”

In today’s world, each step along the path of nuclear proliferation brings humanity ever closer to the ultimate fear shared by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. The world had best heed their warnings.

Sir Isaac Newton: “I Can Calculate the Motions of the Planets, but I Cannot Calculate the Madness of Men”

Isaac Newton, the most incisive mind in the history of science, reportedly uttered that sentiment about human nature. Why would he infer such negativity about his fellow humans? Newton’s scientific greatness stemmed from his ability to see well beyond human horizons. His brilliance was amply demonstrated in his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he logically constructed his “system of the world,” using mathematics. The book’s title translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, often shortened to “the Principia” for convenience.

The Principia is the greatest scientific book ever published. Its enduring fame reflects Newton’s ground-breaking application of mathematics, including aspects of his then-fledgling calculus, to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of explaining motion physics. An overwhelming challenge for the best mathematicians and “natural philosophers” (scientists) in the year 1684 was to demonstrate mathematically that the planets in our solar system should revolve around the sun in elliptically shaped orbits as opposed to circles or some other geometric path. The fact that they do move in elliptical paths was carefully observed by Johann Kepler and noted in his 1609 masterwork, Astronomia Nova.

In 1687, Newton’s Principia was published after three intense years of effort by the young, relatively unknown Cambridge professor of mathematics. Using mathematics and his revolutionary new concept of universal gravitation, Newton provided precise justification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in the Principia. In the process, he revolutionized motion physics and our understanding of how and why bodies of mass, big and small (planets, cannonballs, etc.), move the way they do. Newton did, indeed, as he stated, show us in the Principia how to calculate the motion of heavenly bodies.

In his personal relationships, Newton found dealing with people and human nature to be even more challenging than the formidable problems of motion physics. As one might suspect, Newton did not easily tolerate fools and pretenders in the fields of science and mathematics – “little smatterers in mathematicks,” he called them. Nor did he tolerate much of basic human nature and its shortcomings.

 In the Year 1720, Newton Came Face-to-Face with
His Own Human Vulnerability… in the “Stock Market!”

 In 1720, Newton’s own human fallibility was clearly laid bare as he invested foolishly and lost a small fortune in one of investing’s all-time market collapses. Within our own recent history, we have had suffered through the stock market crash of 1929 and the housing market bubble of 2008/2009. In these more recent “adventures,” society and government had allowed human nature and its greed propensity to over-inflate Wall Street to a ridiculous extent, so much so that a collapse was quite inevitable to any sensible person…and still it continued.

Have you ever heard of the great South Sea Bubble in England? Investing in the South Sea Trading Company – a government sponsored banking endeavor out of London – became a favorite past-time of influential Londoners in the early eighteenth century. Can you guess who found himself caught-up in the glitter of potential investment returns only to end up losing a very large sum? Yes, Isaac Newton was that individual along with thousands of others.

It was this experience that occasioned the remark about his own inability to calculate the madness of men (including himself)!

Indeed, he should have known better than to re-enter the government sponsored South Sea enterprise after initially making a tidy profit from an earlier investment in the stock. As can be seen from the graph below, Newton re-invested (with a lot!) in the South Sea offering for the second time as the bubble neared its peak and just prior to its complete collapse. Newton lost 20,000 English pounds (three million dollars in today’s valuations) when the bubble suddenly burst.

Clearly, Newton’s comment, which is the theme of this post, reflects his view that human nature is vulnerable to fits of emotion (like greed, envy, ambition) which in turn provoke foolish, illogical behaviors. When Newton looked in the mirror after his ill-advised financial misadventure, he saw staring back at him the very madness of men which he then proceeded to rail against! Knowing Newton through the many accounts of his life that I have studied, I can well imagine that his financial fiasco must have been a very tough pill for him to swallow. Many are the times in his life that Newton “railed” to vent his anger against something or someone; his comment concerning the “madness of men” is typical of his outbursts. Certainly, he could disapprove of his fellow man for fueling such an obvious investment bubble. In the end, and most painful for him, was his realization that he paid a stiff price for foolishly ignoring the bloody obvious. For anyone who has risked and lost on the market of Wall Street, the mix of feelings is well understood. Even the great Newton had his human vulnerabilities – in spades, and greed was one of them. One might suspect that Newton, the absorbed scientist, was merely naïve when it came to money matters.

That would be a very erroneous assumption. Sir Isaac Newton held the top-level government position of Master of the Mint in England, during those later years of his scientific retirement – in charge of the entire coinage of the realm!

 

For more on Isaac Newton and the birth of the Principia click on the link: https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/the-most-important-scientific-book-ever-written-conceived-in-a-london-coffee-house/

Charles Darwin’s Journey on the Beagle: History’s Most Significant Adventure

In 1831, a young, unknown, amateur English naturalist boarded the tiny ship, HMS Beagle, and embarked, as crew member, on a perilous, five-year journey around the world. His observations and the detailed journal he kept of his various experiences in strange, far-off lands would soon revolutionize man’s concept of himself and his place on planet earth. Darwin’s revelations came in the form of his theory of natural selection – popularly referred to as “evolution.”

H.M.S. Beagle_Galapagos_John Chancellor

Since the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species in 1859, which revealed to the scientific community his startling conclusions about all living things based on his voyage journal, Darwin has rightfully been ranked in the top tier of great scientists. In my estimation, he is the most important and influential natural scientist of all time, and I would rank him right behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein as the most significant and influential scientific figures of modern times.

Young Charles Darwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1825 to pursue a career in medicine. His father, a wealthy, prominent physician had attended Edinburgh and, indeed, exerted considerable influence on young Charles to follow him in a medical career. At Edinburgh, the sixteen-year old Darwin quickly found the study of anatomy with its dissecting theatre an odious experience. More than once, he had to flee the theatre to vomit outside after witnessing the dissection process. The senior Darwin, although disappointed in his son’s unsuitability for medicine, soon arranged for Charles to enroll at Cambridge University to study for the clergy. In Darwin’s own words: “He [the father] was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which seemed my probable destination.”

Darwin graduated tenth in his class of 168 with a B.A. and very little interest in the clergy! During his tenure at Cambridge, most of young Darwin’s spare time was spent indulging his true and developing passion: Collecting insects with a special emphasis on beetles. Along the way, he became good friends with John Steven Henslow, professor of geology, ardent naturalist, and kindred spirit to the young Charles.

Wanted: A Naturalist to Sail On-Board the Beagle

On 24 August, 1831, in one of history’s most prescient communiques, Professor Henslow wrote his young friend and protegee: “I have been asked by [George] Peacock…to recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt. Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America [the coasts of South America]. I have stated that I considered you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation. I state this not on the supposition of ye being a finished naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in natural history.” Seldom in history has one man “read” another so well in terms of future potential as did Henslow in that letter to young Darwin!

Charles’ father expressed his opposition to the voyage, in part, on the following grounds as summarized by young Darwin:

-That such an adventure could prove “disreputable to my [young Darwin’s] character as a Clergyman hereafter.”

-That it seems “a wild scheme.”

-That the position of naturalist “not being [previously] accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition.”

-That [Darwin] “should never settle down to a steady life hereafter.”

-That “it would be a useless undertaking.”

Darwin 1840_RichmondThe young man appealed to his uncle Josiah Wedgewood [of pottery family fame] whose judgement he valued. Scientific history hung in the balance as Uncle Josiah promptly weighed-in with the senior Darwin, offering convincing arguments in favor of the voyage. In rebuttal to the objection from Darwin’s father that “it would be a useless undertaking,” the Uncle reasoned: “The undertaking would be useless as regards his profession [future clergyman], but looking upon him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him the opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few.” Enlarged curiosity, indeed! How true that proved to be. The senior Darwin then made his decision in the face of Uncle Josiah’s clear vision and counsel: Despite lingering reservations, he gave his permission for Charles to embark on the historic sea voyage, one which more than any other, changed mankind’s sense of self. Had the decision been otherwise, Darwin’s abiding respect for his father’s opinion and authority would have bequeathed the world yet another clergyman while greatly impeding the chronicle of man and all living things on this planet.

On 27 December, 1831, HMS Beagle with Darwin aboard put out to sea, beginning an adventure that would circle the globe and take almost five years. Right from the start, young Charles became violently seasick, often confined to his swaying hammock hanging in the cramped quarters of the ship. Seasickness dogged young Darwin throughout the voyage. I marvel at the fortitude displayed by this young, recently graduated “gentleman from Cambridge” as he undertook such a daunting voyage. Given that the voyage would entail many months at sea, under sail, Capt. Fitzroy and Darwin had agreed from the start that Charles would spend most of his time on land, in ports of call, while the Beagle would busy itself surveying the local coastline per its original government charter. While on land, Darwin’s mission was to observe and record what he saw and experienced concentrating, of course, on the flora, fauna, and geology of the various diverse regions he would visit.

St. Jago, an island off the east coast of South America was the Beagle’s first stop on 16 January, 1832. It was here he made one of his first significant observations. Quoting from his journal: “The geology of this island is the most interesting part of its natural history. On entering the harbour, a perfectly horizontal white band in the face of the sea cliff, may be seen running for some miles along the coast, and at the height of about forty-five feet above the water. Upon examination, this white stratum is found to consist of calcareous [calcium] matter, with numerous shells embedded, most or all of which now exist on the neighboring coast.”

Darwin goes on to conclude that a stratum of sea-shells very much higher than the current water line speaks to ancient, massive upheavals of the earth in the region. From the simple, focused collector of beetles in his Cambridge days, Darwin had now become obsessed with the bigger picture of nature, a view which embraced the importance of geology/environment as key to decoding nature’s secrets.

In a fascinating section of his journal, Darwin describes his astonishment at the primitive state of the native inhabitants of Tierra Del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. From the journal entry of 17 December, 1832: “In the morning, the Captain sent a party to communicate with the Fuegians. When we came within hail, one of the four natives who were present advanced to receive us, and began to shout most vehemently, wishing to direct us where to land. When we were on shore the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking and making gestures with great rapidity. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” A separate reference I recall reading referring to Darwin’s encounter with the Fuegians stated that he could scarcely believe that the naked, dirty, and primitive savages before his eyes were of the same species as the sherry-sipping professors back at Cambridge University – so vividly stated.

On 2 October, 1836, the Beagle arrived at Falmouth, Cornwall, her nearly five-year journey circumnavigating the globe complete. Throughout the trip, Darwin recorded life on the high seas and, most importantly, his myriad observations on the geology of the many regions visited on foot and horseback as well as the plant and animal life.

I often invoke the mantra to which I ardently subscribe: That fact is always stranger than fiction…and so much more interesting and important. Picturing Darwin, the elite Englishman and budding naturalist, riding horseback amidst the rough-hewn vaqueros [cowboys] of Chile speaks to the improbability of the entire venture. When studying Darwin, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that his equable nature and noble intents were obvious to those whose approval and cooperation were vital for the success of his venture. That was particularly true of the seaman crew of the Beagle and of Capt. Fitzroy whose private cabin on the ship, Darwin shared. Fortunately, Fitzroy was a man of considerable ability and efficiency in captaining the Beagle. He was, at heart, a man sensible of the power and importance of scientific knowledge, and that made his less admirable qualities bearable to Darwin. The crew made good-natured fun of the intellectual, newbie naturalist in their midst, but spared no effort in helping Darwin pack his considerable array of collected natural specimens, large and small, in boxes and barrels for shipment back to Professor Henslow at Cambridge. Many of these never arrived, but most did make their way “home.”

When Darwin returned to Cambridge after arriving back home at Cornwall, he was surprised to learn that Professor Henslow had spread news among his friends at Cambridge of the Beagle’s whereabouts in addition to sharing, with his university colleagues, the specimens sent home by his young protegee. Darwin had embarked on the Beagle’s voyage as an amateur collector of insects. Now, to his great surprise, he had become a naturalist with a reputation and a following within the elite circles at Cambridge, thanks to Professor Henslow.

Charles_Darwin_seated_crop[1]Once home, Charles Darwin wasted little time tackling the immense task of studying and categorizing the many specimens he had sent back during the voyage. By 1838, the vestiges of natural selection had begun to materialize in his mind. One situation of particular note that he recorded in the Galapagos Islands fueled his speculations. There, he noted that a species of bird indigenous to several of the islands in the archipelago seemed to have unique beaks depending upon which island they inhabited. In virtually all other aspects, the birds closely resembled one another – all members of a single species. Darwin noticed that the beaks in each case seemed most ideally suited to the particular size and shape of the seeds most plentiful on that particular island. Darwin took great pains to document these finches of the Galapagos, suspecting that they harbored important clues to nature’s ways. Darwin reasoned that somehow the birds seemed to be well-adapted to their environment/food source in the various islands. Clues such as this shaped his thought processes as he carefully distilled the notes entered in his journal during the voyage. By 1844, Charles Darwin had formulated the framework for his explanation of animal/plant adaptation to the environment. Except for one or two close and trusted colleagues, Darwin kept his budding theory to himself for years to come for important reasons which I discuss shortly.

 

Darwin published his book, Journal of Researches, in 1839. The book was taken from his copious journal entries during the voyage; within its pages resides the seed-stock from which would germinate Darwin’s ultimate ideas and his theory of natural selection. This book remained, to Darwin’s dying day, closer to his affections and satisfaction than any other including On the Origin of Species.

 

 

What Is the Essence of Natural Selection?

Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed that species are not immutable across time and large numbers of individuals. There appear random variations in this or that characteristic in a particular individual within a large population. Such variations, beginning with that individual, could be passed along to future generations through its immediate offspring. In the case of a singular Galapagos finch born with a significantly longer and narrower beak than that of a typical bird in the species, that specimen and its offspring which might inherit the tendency will be inevitably subjected to “trial by nature.” If the longer, narrower beak makes it easier for these new birds to obtain and eat the seeds and insects present in their environment, these birds will thrive and go on, over time, to greatly out-reproduce others of their species who do not share the “genetic advantage.” Eventually that new characteristic, in this example, the longer, narrower beak, will predominate within the population in that environment. This notion is the essence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If the random variation at hand proves to be disadvantageous, future generations possessing it will be less likely to survive than those individuals without it.

Note that this description, natural selection, is far more scientifically specific than the oft-used/misused phrase applied to Darwin’s work: theory of evolution. To illustrate: “theory of evolution” is a very general phrase admitting even the possibility that giraffes have long necks because they have continually stretched them over many generations reaching for food on the higher tree canopies. That is precisely the thinking of one of the early supporters of evolution theory, the Frenchman, Lamarck, as expressed in his 1809 publication on the subject. Darwin’s “natural selection” explains the specific mechanism by which evolution occurs – except for one vital, missing piece… which we now understand.

Genetics, Heredity, and the DNA Double Helix:
 Random Mutations – the Key to Natural Selection!

Darwin did not know – could not know – the source of the random significant variations in species which were vital to his theory of natural selection. He came to believe that there was some internal genetic blueprint in living things that governed the species at hand while transmitting obvious “familial traits” to offspring. Darwin used the name “gemmules” referring to these presumed discrete building blocks, but he could go no further in explaining their true nature or behavior given the limited scientific knowledge of the time.

James Watson and Francis Crick won the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for their discovery in 1953 of the DNA double helix which carries the genetic information of all living things. The specific arrangement of chemical base-pair connections, or rungs, along the double helix ladder is precisely the genetic blueprint which Darwin suspected. The human genome has been decoded within the last twenty years yielding tremendous knowledge about nature’s life-processes. We know, for instance, that one particular – just one – hereditary base-pair error along the double helix can result in a devastating medical condition called Tay-Sachs, wherein initially healthy brains of newborns are destroyed in just a few years due to the body’s inability to produce a necessary protein. Literally every characteristic of all living things is dictated by the genetic sequence of four different chemical building blocks called bases which straddle the DNA double helix. The random variations necessary for the viability of Darwin’s theory of natural selection are precisely those which stem from random base-pair mutations, or variations, along the helix. These can occur spontaneously during genetic DNA replication, or they can result from something as esoteric as the alpha particles of cosmic radiation hitting a cell nucleus and altering its DNA. The end result of the sub-microscopic change might be trivial, beneficial, or catastrophic in some way to the individual.

Gregor Mendel: The Father of Genetics…Unknown to Darwin

In 1865, a sequestered Austrian monk published an obscure scientific paper in, of all things, a regional bee-keepers journal. Like Darwin, originally, Mendel had no formal scientific qualifications, only a strong curiosity and interest in the pea plants he tended in the monastery garden. He had wondered about the predominant colors of the peas from those plants, green and yellow, and pondered the possible mechanisms which could determine the color produced by a particular plant. To determine this, he concocted a series of in-breeding experiments to find out more. After exhaustive trials using pea color, size of plant, and five other distinguishing characteristics of pea plants, Mendel found that the statistics of inheritance involved distinct numerical ratios, as for example, a “one-in-four chance” for a specific in-breeding outcome. The round numbers present in Mendel’s experimental results suggested the existence of distinct, discrete genetic mechanisms at work – what Darwin vaguely had termed “gemmules.” Mendel’s 1865 paper describing his findings, and the work behind it cements Mendel’s modern reputation as the “Father of Genetics.” Incredibly and unfortunately virtually no one took serious notice of his paper until it was re-discovered in 1900, thirty-five years after its publication, by the English geneticist William Bateson!

Original offprints (limited initial printings for the author) of Mendel’s paper are among the rarest and most desirable of historical works in the history of science, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the rare book/manuscript market. We know that only forty were printed and scarcely half of these have been accounted for. Question: Did Mendel send an offprint of his pea plant experiments to Charles Darwin in 1865, well after the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species in 1859? An uncut [meaning unopened, thus unread] offprint was presumably found among Darwin’s papers after his death, according to one Mendel reference source. Certainly, no mention of it was ever made by Charles Darwin.

 It is an intriguing thought that the key, missing component of Darwin’s natural selection theory as espoused in his Origin of Species possibly resided unread and unnoticed on Darwin’s bookshelf! And is it not a shame that Mendel lived out his life in the abbey essentially unknown and without due credit for his monumental work in the new science of genetics, a specialty which he founded?

Darwin’s Reluctance to Publish His Theory Nearly Cost Him His Due Credit

Darwin finally revealed his theory of natural selection to the public and the scientific community at large in 1859 with the book publication of On the Origin of Species. In fact, the central tenets of the book had congealed in Darwin’s mind long before, by 1844. He had held the framework of his theory close to the vest for all that time! Why? Because to espouse evolutionary ideas in the middle of the nineteenth century was to invite scorn and condemnation from creationists within many religions. No one was more averse to a more secular universe which promoted the notion of a less personal creator, one which did not create man and animals in more or less final form (despite obvious diversity) than Emma Wedgewood Darwin, Darwin’s very religious wife. She believed in an afterlife in which she and her beloved husband would be joined together for eternity. Charles was becoming less and less certain of this religious ideal as the years went by and nature continued to reveal herself to the ever-inquiring self-made naturalist who had set out to probe her ways.

To espouse a natural world which, once its fundamental constituents were brought together, would henceforth change and regulate itself without further involvement by the Creator would be a painful repudiation of Emma’s fundamental beliefs in a personal God. For this very personal reason and because of the professional risk of being ostracized by the community of naturalists for promulgating radical, anti-religious ideas, Darwin put off publication of his grand book, the book which would insure him priority and credit for one of the greatest of all scientific conclusions.

After stalling publication for years and with his manuscript only half completed, Darwin was shocked into feverish activity on his proposed book by a paper he received on 18 June, 1858. It was from a fellow naturalist of Darwin’s acquaintance, one Alfred Russel Wallace. In his paper, Wallace outlined his version of natural selection which eerily resembled the very theory Darwin was planning to eventually publish to secure his priority. There was no doubt that Wallace had arrived independently at the same conclusions that Darwin had reached many years earlier. Wallace’s paper presented an extremely difficult problem for Darwin in that Wallace had requested that Darwin pass his [Wallace’s] paper on to their mutual friend, the pathfinding geologist, Charles Lyell.

Darwin in a Corner: Academic Priority at Stake
Over One of the Great Scientific Breakthroughs

Now Darwin felt completely cornered. If he passed Wallace’s paper on to Lyell as requested, essentially making it public, the academic community would naturally steer credit for the theory of natural selection to Wallace. On the other hand, having just received Wallace’s paper on the subject, how would it look if he, Darwin, suddenly announced publicly that he had already deciphered nature and her ways – well before Wallace had? That course of action could inspire suspicions of plagiary on Darwin’s part.

The priority stakes were as high as any since the time of Isaac Newton when he and the mathematician Gottfried Liebniz locked horns in a bitter battle over credit for development of the calculus. It had been years since Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle which began the long gestation of his ideas on natural selection. He had been sitting on his conclusions since 1844 for fear of publishing, and now he was truly cornered, “forestalled,” as he called it. Darwin, drawing on the better angels of his morose feelings, quickly proposed to Wallace that he [Darwin] would see to it that his [Wallace’s] paper be published in any journal of Wallace’s choosing. In what became a frenzied period in his life, he reached out to two of his closest colleagues and trusted confidants, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice. The two been entrusted with the knowledge of Darwin’s work on natural selection for a long time; they well understood Darwin’s priority in the matter, and he needed them now. The two friends came up with a proposal: Publish both Wallace’s paper and a synopsis by Darwin outlining his own long-standing efforts and results. The Linnean Society presented their joint papers in their scientific journal on 1 July, 1858. Fortunately for Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace was of a conciliatory nature regarding the potential impasse over priority by way of his tacit acknowledgement that his colleague had, indeed, been first to formulate his opinions on natural selection.

Nonetheless, for Darwin, the cat was out of the bag, and the task ahead was to work full-steam to complete the large book that would contain all the details of natural selection and insure his priority. He worked feverishly on his book, On the Origins of Species, right up to its publication by John Murray. The book went on sale on 22 November, 1859, and all 1250 copies sold quickly. This was an excruciating period of Darwin’s life. He was not only under unrelenting pressure to complete one of the greatest scientific books of all time, he was intermittently very ill throughout the process presumably from a systemic problem contracted during his early travels associated with the Beagle voyage. Yes, the expected controversy was to come immediately after publication of the book, but Darwin and his contentions have long weathered the storm. Few of his conclusions have not stood the test of time and modern scrutiny.

The Origin was his great book, but the book that was the origin of the Origin, his 1839 Journal of Researches always remained his favorite. Certainly, the Journal was written at a much happier time in Darwin’s life, a time flush with excitement over his prospects as a newly full-fledged naturalist. For me, the Journal brims with the excitement of travel and scientific discovery/fact-finding – the seed-corn of scientific knowledge (and new technologies). The Origin represents the resultant harvest from that germinated seed-corn.

“Endless Forms Most Beautiful” –
Natural Selection in Darwin’s Own Words

In his Introduction to the Origin, Darwin describes the essence of natural selection:

“In the next chapter, the struggle for existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born that can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently occurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

Darwin and Religion

Charles Darwin, educated for the clergy at Cambridge, increasingly drifted away from orthodox religious views as his window on nature and her ways became more transparent to him over the decades. Never an atheist, his attitudes were increasingly agnostic as he increasingly embraced the results of his lifelong study of the natural world. The Creator, which Darwin believed in, was not, to him, the involved, shepherd of all living things in this world. Rather, he seemed more like the watchmaker who, after his watch was first assembled, wound it up and let it run on its own while retreating to the background.

 Another viewpoint, which I tend to favor and which may apply to Darwin: God, whom we cannot fully know in this life, created not only all living things at the beginning, but also the entire structure of natural law (science) which dictates not only the motion of the planets, but the future course of life forms. Natural selection, hence evolution as well, are central tenants of that complete structure of natural law. The laws of nature, which permanently bear the fingerprints of the creator and his creation, thus enable the self-powered, self-regulating behaviors of the physical and natural world – without contradiction.

 Charles Darwin: Humble Man and Scientific Titan

questioning-darwin-1024[1]

In writing this post, my re-acquaintance with Darwin has brought great joy. Some years, now, after initially reading the biographies and perusing his works, I re-discover the life and legacy which is so important to science. His body of work includes several other very important books beside his Journal and Origin. Beyond his scientific importance and the science, itself, lies the man himself – a man of very high character and superb intellect. Darwin was gifted with intense curiosity, that magical motor that drives great accomplishment in science. Passion and curiosity: Isaac Newton had them in great abundance, and so, too, did Albert Einstein. Yet, Charles Darwin was different in several respects from those two great scientists: First, he was fortunate enough to have been born to privilege and was thus comfortably able to devote his working life to science from the beginning. Second, Darwin was a very happily married man who fathered ten children, each of which he loved and doted upon. Third, Darwin’s character was impeccable in all respects. His personality was stiffened a bit by the English societal conventions prevalent then, but his humanity shows through in so many ways. His struggle with religion is one most of us can relate to.

Reading Darwin’s works is a joy both because he was an articulate, educated Englishman and because the contents of his books like the Journal and Origin are easily digestible compared to the major works of Newton and Einstein. Like Darwin himself, my favorite book of his is The Journal of Researches, sometimes referred to as the Voyage of the Beagle. What an adventure.

Darwins_Thinking_Path[1]

The “sandwalk” path around the extended property of his long-held estate, Down House. Darwin frequently traversed this closed path on solitary walks around the estate while he gathered his thoughts about matters both big and small.