Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Veteran scientist #18, Albert Sabin

Albert Sabin (1906-1993)

US Army Lieutenant Colonel 1943-1946.  Virologist, medical researcher and vaccine developer.

Albert Sabin saved countless human lives by inventing an effective polio vaccine.  The road to his success involved a few years in the US Army during World War II.

Born in Poland, as a teenager Sabin immigrated with rest of his family to New Jersey.  Only two years later, at age 16, Sabin graduated high school and entered college at New York University.  In Manhattan Sabin faced a dilemma common to many students.  He got a Bachelor’s and spent two years in dental school only to realize he wanted to be a researcher instead.  He left dental school, got a second Bachelor’s and entered medical school.

While working at a hospital to pay his way through school, in 1929 Sabin published his first discovery.  He developed a new test to determine which type of pneumonia afflicted patients—a necessary precursor to effective treatment.  Quicker than contemporary methods, his test saved many lives and is still in use today.

After graduating from medical school Sabin worked as a virologist in Manhattan, London and Cincinnati, studying a variety of diseases—pseudorabies, monkey B virus, rheumatoid arthritis, and polio.  He also studied new types of vaccines.

With the outbreak of World War II Sabin joined the US Army.  As a Medical Corps officer Sabin studied diseases afflicting troops around the world.  During a string of deployments to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific, in just a few years Sabin invented vaccines for three separate diseases—encephalitis, sand-fly fever and dengue fever.

In addition to the practical experience in research and vaccine development, his military experience also exposed Sabin to the practicalities of large scale vaccination campaigns in remote areas.  Sabin left the military in 1946 but continued to work with the Army for over 20 years as a consultant.

Returning to Cincinnati after leaving the Army, Sabin delved headlong back into his polio research.  At the time polio affected hundreds of thousands of people each year around the world.  There is no cure and it can cause death, deformity and paralysis.  It was one of the worst childhood diseases in the US, peaking in 1952 when an outbreak infected 58,000 people.  Over 3,000 died and over 21,000 were paralyzed—most of them children.

Early researchers thought that the poliovirus—Enterovirus C—lived primarily in the nervous system.  Sabin, however, discovered that it lived in the small intestines, which might make an oral vaccine possible.  In the 1950s Sabin and collaborators in the Soviet Union built on this discovery to develop an effective vaccine that was put in use by the end of the decade.

With widespread use of Sabin’s oral vaccine polio began disappearing around the world.  In 1988 the World Health Organization officially began a campaign to globally eradicate the poliovirus using Sabin’s vaccine.  Today the number of new polio cases every year is down by over 99%, polio has been eliminated from all but a handful of countries, and the disease may cease to exist within the next few years.

Sabin went on to do research in Israel, South Carolina, and the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.  He was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences and was awarded both the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In 2012 he was named a “Great Ohioan” by the Ohio Capitol Square Foundation.

Starting as a young refugee working his way through school, Sabin combined academic training with military experience to launch a successful career that improved human life around the globe.

Hauck Center for the Albert B. Sabin Archives. http://sabin.uc.edu
Sabin Vaccine Institute. http://www.sabin.org/legacy-albert-b-sabin

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Heading west

It was our last night in the field at MCT.  The next day we would return to the barracks, eat hot food and sleep in beds.  One final obstacle remained—the 10 mile hump back.

I sat in our hut, packing and preparing myself for the morning.  My favorite boots were soaked from the autumn mud and rain, so I wore my dry backup pair—my jungle boots.  With small mesh divets on the sides to allow water to run out, jungle boots are ideal for working in rainforests and swamps.  Their sides are also made of thinner material and propped up by stiff interior frames.  But I almost never wore mine.

In the chaos at the beginning of boot camp, when our gear and uniforms were haphazardly handed to (or thrown at) us, I ended up with a pair of jungle boots slightly too small for my feet.  The stiff frames dug into my heels and ankles.  So I put them aside until I could replace them out in the Fleet.  This final night in the field, I decided to try and break them in a bit while my other boots dried.

I loaded my pack and stuffed the rest of my belongings into my big green seabag.  When everything was ready I walked my bag over to an empty hut and placed it onto a growing pile.  A half hour later it was buried in a pyramid of anonymous green canvas.  A truck would take all the platoon’s bags to the barracks the next day while we marched.

And then it hit me.  In my haste I had forgotten to change out my boots.  I accidentally packed my good boots into my seabag—and there was no easy way to retrieve them.  I had been confident about the next morning’s hike, but now a feeling of dread weighed deep in my abdomen.  In my poor-fitting unbroken boots tomorrow’s hike would be painful, if not dangerous.

We woke in the middle of the night, donned our gear, and lined up in two columns on the road.  Then we were off.  For the first few minutes it wasn’t so bad.  Then my feet began to hurt.  Something was wrong, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  All I could do was walk.

After a few miles pain shot through my ankles with every step.  I had trouble focusing.  The pack straps dug into my shoulders.  I started to lag.  Every once in a while the Marine behind me, a friend from boot camp, would give me a slight push on my shoulders to remind me to speed up.  I’d jog a few painful steps forward and catch up to the Marine in front.

We halted a few times for short breaks.  I’d sit on my pack and chug water.  I didn’t dare take my boots off.  I was afraid of what lay beneath.  For now the problem was just pain and that was distracting enough.  Actually seeing what was going on with my ankles would only add another dimension of mental stress.

I put it out of my mind and continued on.  With the tolerance and annoyed help of the friend behind me, I managed to keep up.  It was the closest I ever came to falling out of a hump.

Eventually the forest opened up and the lawns and fences and drab buildings of the base appeared in front of us.  We pushed on to the barracks.  I made it.

I collapsed onto the grass and slid out of my boots.  I peeled off my wet and bloody socks.  On the outside of each heel, right below the ankle, a quarter-sized open sore oozed blood.  Barefoot, I hobbled over to a Corpsman.  A few Marines were already lined up on the lawn to see him.  I took my place in line and sat down.

“That’s pretty bad,” the Corpsman said.  “But there’s not much I can do, other than clean it out.  Try not to put pressure on it.”

He disinfected the wounds and taped a clear plastic film over each one, like windows in my skin.  I peered through the plastic into the raw subcutaneous world inside my feet.

The truck with our seabags arrived and we had to unload it.  Reluctantly, I slipped on my jungle boots, careful not to disturb the plastic wraps, and limped to the truck.  We formed a line and began handing the bags off to each other.

A tall Marine near me got impatient and began tossing seabags off to the side instead of handing them to the next Marine.  Each bag sailed a few meters through the air before crashing onto the ground.  Someone yelled at him to be careful.

Our lives were in those bags.  We were far from home, didn’t yet have a new home, and had been in the forest for weeks.  All our connections to anybody we knew were in those green canvas sacks.

The tall Marine didn’t listen.  He just wanted to be done and go inside.  He threw another bag and the things inside rattled together.  My ankles burned.  I was tired.

“Stop throwing the fucking bags!” I yelled.

He turned to me with a seabag in his hands.  He was also tired and miserable.

“How would you like it if we threw your stuff?” I asked.

He grunted and threw the seabag at me.  I caught it as it hit me in the chest, and staggered backwards.  Then the tall Marine charged.  I dropped the bag and stepped forward.  The working party imploded as nearby Marines dropped everything and rushed between us.

The tall Marine and I never touched.  We glared at each other as our friends pulled us apart.  We went back to work and finished distributing seabags.  No one threw anything else.

A couple days later the company gathered to receive our orders.  We sat in a large hall.  A clerk at a desk in front called people up by MOS.  He’d shout a list of names and those people would go up together to pick up their orders for their next school.  There were artillery Marines, cooks, admin people, aircraft mechanics.  Their papers said how long their next school would last—5 weeks, 10 weeks, 20 weeks.

Finally my name rang out.


That was it.  I was alone.  The sole Cryptologic Linguist in the company.  I was used to this.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were new and there weren’t many linguists in the Marine Corps.  Some of my instructors at MCT had never heard of the job.  By the time I got out of the Marines, after years of intelligence-driven counterinsurgency operations, I believe most infantry Marines knew of or had worked with linguists.  But in 2003 the field was unknown to many.

I walked to the clerk and received my orders.  I returned to my seat to read them.  My friends were curious.  What was my job again?  Where was the school?  How long did it last?

I would study in Monterey, California to be a linguist.  I didn’t know what language.  My orders said I would be there anywhere from six months to almost a year and a half.  Someone in boot camp had told me the linguist training pipeline was the longest in the Marine Corps, so I wasn’t too surprised.

Monterey sounded like a nice change.  Here in the east winter was coming, and I was sick of being cold and wet.  And I looked forward to the challenge of mastering a new language.

But again, the thought of over four and a half more years in the Marines was overwhelming.  I had made it through boot camp, and had now made it through MCT.  What would Monterey bring?  My life as a Marine so far involved a lot of misery.  Would it ever change?

I said goodbye to every Marine I knew, my boot camp friends, my new MCT friends, hobbled onto a plane and flew farther west, farther away from home, than I had ever been.

I never saw any of them again.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Veteran scientist #17, Alexander Friedmann

Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925)

Russian Army aviator 1914-1917.  Physicist and mathematician.

In his short life Alexander Friedmann published research in several fields, fought in a war, survived a revolution, and changed our view of the universe.

Growing up in St. Petersburg, he showed mathematical talent early on and published his first paper, on Bernoulli numbers, at age 18 before he even entered University.  Once there he studied physics and got a degree in mathematics, and went on to a Master’s program.

While a grad student Friedmann taught at mining and engineering institutes, which introduced him to the field of aeronautics.  After finishing his Master’s work he went on to study meteorology.

Then, however, World War I broke out, and Friedmann halted his studies to volunteer for the Imperial Russian Army, where he served as a pilot on the Eastern Front against the Austrians.

Meanwhile, he continued his mathematical work on the side and even developed equations to improve the accuracy of his bombing raids.  Friedmann survived at least two explosions and was awarded the Cross of St. George for bravery in combat.  Toward the end of the war he became an aeronautics instructor for younger pilots.

Then the revolution occurred, and Russia dropped out of World War I and began to fight its own civil war.  Friedmann left the military and became a professor, moving from post to post to avoid the moving front between the Whites and the Reds.  He used this time to publish his Master’s work on fluid mechanics and delve into explorations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

During this period Friedmann also battled a phenomenon familiar to many combat veterans.  Proud of his accomplishments, but also alienated by the futility of the war, he sank into a depression.  The nation he had fought for not only lost, but soon after ceased even to exist.  His countrymen now waged a new war among themselves, and everything he had done before seemed irrelevant.

In a letter to an old mentor he admitted “I’m very depressed; I often bitterly regret taking part in the war; it seems I achieved what I set out to do, but what’s the use of it all now?”

Nevertheless, Friedmann remained productive.  In 1922, using a solution of Einstein’s field equations, he proposed that the universe may be expanding rather than static.  Einstein himself, disturbed at the notion of an expanding universe, quickly wrote a rebuttal to Friedmann’s paper arguing that Friedmann made a mathematical error.  After Friedmann personally sent him his calculations, however, Einstein wrote a retraction to his previous rebuttal, saying that Friedmann had been right along and that he, Einstein, was the one who made the miscalculation.

Just a few years later, another veteran scientist, Georges LemaƮtre, would propose a similar expansion, and yet another veteran scientist, Edwin Hubble, would first observe it.

Shortly after his relativity work Friedmann resumed his meteorological work.  In one study he ascended over four miles into the atmosphere in a balloon to collect meteorological data.  The ascent was a record at the time.

Sadly, two months later he died suddenly from Typhoid at the young age of 37.

—The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive. http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I'm up, they see me, I'm down

I peered along the barrel of my rifle to the forest beyond, my elbows propped on damp fallen leaves.  A Marine rested beside me in the muddy fighting hole.  I fought to keep my eyes open while I searched the trees and listened for movement.

What’s my family doing right now?, I wondered.

The forest quieted as the sun set, leaving even less light to trickle through the thinly-leaved canopy.  I struggled to make out the trees twenty-five yards ahead.

I shivered and woke my partner for his shift on watch.  Sitting against the damp earthen wall of the fighting hole, I steeled myself for a fitful hour of muddy sleep.  It would be another cold night and my cammies offered little protection.

A new class one week behind us had just moved to the field camp.  They had been issued cold weather gear—sleeping bags, fleeces, beanies and Gore-Tex jackets.  In a twist of bureaucratic cruelty, ours was the last warm weather class.  Cold weather season officially began, so decreed the training calendar, one week after we checked in.

So while the new Marines had more gear to carry, we envied their warmth.  We slept most nights on the floorboards of a drafty hut.  Between the top of the wooden walls and the corrugated tin roof, a thin wire mesh was all that stood between us and the cold.  Wearing our full field uniforms, we wrapped ourselves in thin sleeping bag liners and zipped ourselves into our bivy sacks.  In this way, wishing we had actual sleeping bags, we passed the three or four hours of sleep we were allotted each night.

Tonight would be worse.  We were learning to dig, defend, and sleep in fighting holes.  Earlier in the day my partner and I spent hours excavating a 6 foot by 3 foot chest deep pit in the forest.  Ours was one of many along a defensive line facing a low swampy area.

Then, a miracle.  Word passed down the line that we were moving out.  Our platoon commander, the half-butted Staff Sergeant, wasn’t going to make us sleep in the mud without cold weather gear.  We packed up and marched back to camp and the pseudo-warmth of our huts.

In addition to their cold weather gear the class following us had something else we lacked—many of them carried an extra X chromosome.  Aside from some female instructors ours was a male only company.  They told us we would be the last.  Years before, Marines of different genders had trained separately at Marine Combat Training.  Then they progressed to a mixed strategy of some co-ed companies and some all-male companies.  We were the last remnant of that strategy.  After us, so they told us, all companies would be mixed.  MCT was finally integrated.

I got to serve during a period of many such historic moments—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iraqi elections, Saddam’s execution, the first NSA wiretapping scandal, the fall of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the Congressional debates over expelling gay Arabic linguists.  I even had the great pleasure of watching a friend—a sailor who fell victim to DADT—appear as a guest on The Colbert Report.

But that October in eastern North Carolina we weren’t really thinking about historic moments—we just wanted those sleeping bags.

Our infantry training culminated in a live fire and movement exercise.  Operating in four man fireteams we would assault an objective over open ground.  One at a time we’d bound forward a few meters before dropping to the deck, while the other three team members covered us, repeating the process until we closed on and destroyed the imaginary objective.

This was a dangerous exercise, possibly more so than the grenade course.  It involved running forward amid a stream of bullets.  A deviation of the runner too far to the right or left, or bad timing or aim on the part of the covering Marines, could mean death for the runner.

We built up slowly to the final run.  We practiced bounding and dropping for hours back in camp.  Our Polish Corporal lined us up at one end of an empty field.  We lay prone on the ground with our rifles.

“Up!” she yelled.

And we were up, sprinting forward for only a second or two before dropping to the ground.  In a combat situation, if you’re up too long you risk getting killed.  If you drop down too quickly, on the other hand, you don’t cover as much ground.  We had learned a simple mantra in boot camp to help us get the timing right.

I’m up, they see me, I’m down, I chanted in my head.  On down I’d throw myself into the earth, being sure not to impale myself on my rifle.

“Up!” she yelled again, and again we were off.

We practiced I’m up, they see me, I’m down all the way across the field, a few meters at a time.

Then we did it in fireteams with empty rifles, the covering Marines shouting Bang, bang! while the bounder ran.  Then we did it with rifles loaded with blanks.  Finally the day came for the real thing.

We lined up on a range in a marshy scrubland.  The sky was grey and there was a cold rain.  We lay in the wet grass along the firing line, rifles pointed downrange.  The nervous instructors stood behind us.

“Fire!” an instructor shouted.

Gunfire burst out along the line.  A Marine to my left yelled “Up!” and bounded forward.  I aimed straight ahead, firing a round every couple seconds.

As quickly as he was up the Marine dove to the ground.

“Set!” he shouted.

It was my turn.  I clicked on my rifle’s safety and launched to my feet.

“Up!” I yelled.

I’m up, they see me, I’m down.  I threw myself onto the vegetation a couple meters to the right of the first Marine.


A few seconds later the third Marine joined us to my right.  And so we continued.

It was late afternoon by the time the whole platoon finished.  We gathered together and police called the range.  Side by side we walked forward across the field, combing the vegetation for spent cartridges and storing the refuse in our cargo pockets.  The rain intensified.

Soaking wet, we turned in the collected brass and huddled under a shelter to wait for a bus to return us to camp.  We were ragged and sullen.  Weeks of sleep deprivation, field exercises and cold food had taken their toll.  I sat down, with only my wet cammies and flak jacket to keep me warm, and thought of another place.

A couple Marines sat on the concrete with their backs to each other.

“You two have the right idea,” a Sergeant told them.  “If you want to stay warm you need to work together.  You can’t be shy in the infantry.”

More Marines joined them, piling their bodies into a tangle of flak jackets and camouflaged appendages.  Each Marine wrapped his arms around the person to his front.  They laughed as they fit themselves together and made room for more Marines to join the scrum.

“Get over here, Helms,” a friend smiled and opened his arms.

I laughed and dove onto the pile and a couple Marines wrapped their arms around me.  Joking and passing around bits of food from MREs, we warmed up and rested.  We were content.

When the bus arrived we disentangled ourselves, gathered our rifles and piled on.  The bus driver deposited us back in camp for another night in our huts.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Veteran scientist #16, Frank Fenner

Major Frank Fenner (1914-2010).

Australian Army Medical Corps field officer, pathologist and malariologist.  Virologist and microbiologist.

Frank Fenner was one of the 20th century’s most influential virologists, perhaps most famous for his role in the global campaign to eradicate smallpox.  He got his start in the military.

Fenner graduated university just before the outbreak of WWII, and soon after joined the Australian Army.

He became an officer in the Medical Corps and served around the world during the war—Palestine, Egypt, New Guinea, Borneo, and back home in Australia.  He worked both at the front lines in field casualty stations and as a pathologist and malariologist.

Fenner returned to school during his military service, earning his M.D. in 1942.  Afterwards he deployed to the Pacific theatre to combat diseases afflicting troops fighting in the region’s rainforests.  For his work in New Guinea preventing malaria, in 1945 Fenner was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

After the war Fenner pursued virology research in Australia.  He became acquainted with smallpox by studying, and naming, mousepox in mice.  He also began studying Myxoma virus, with the aim of using it to combat one of Australia’s many species invasions.

Rabbits were introduced to Australia in the 18th century and had been plaguing the country ever since.  The problem was so severe that the Australian government built the world’s longest fence—a network stretching over 2,000 miles crossing the entire continent from north to south—to keep rabbits out of the last parts of the country they hadn’t yet reached.

Fenner and other researchers thought of using a rabbit specific pathogen—Myxoma virus—to control the population.  But the public worried that the virus, if introduced, might jump from rabbits to humans.  To prove the virus was harmless to humans, Fenner publicly injected himself with it.  The program was approved and the virus introduced into the invasive rabbit population.

Although it didn’t eradicate the rabbits, the virus drastically lowered their numbers within a few years.  The Myxoma virus introduction not only proved an effective way to control invasive species, but also provided popular textbook examples of population control by pathogens, the evolution of virulence in diseases, and the evolution of virus resistance in hosts.

Because of his expertise in viral ecology and his experience with poxviruses, in 1969 Fenner began advising the UN on its new effort to globally eradicate smallpox.  After little more than a decade the virus was nearly eradicated, and in 1977 Fenner was appointed chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication.  In a few years he demonstrated that the campaign was successful and in 1980 officially announced to the UN that mankind was free from smallpox.

During his career Fenner also helped lead an effort to standardize viral taxonomy, worked to advance the status of science in Australia, and advocated for environmentally responsible social policies.  To that end he founded and directed a Centre for Resources and Environmental Studies.

Just months before his death, in 2010 Fenner made headlines one last time by publicly predicting that humans would go extinct in less than 100 years, after dragging many other species along with them.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Ghost stories

“A few years ago there was a big field ex out here.  This sergeant took his squad on a patrol through a swamp.  So they’re wading in chest deep water, and the sergeant hears a voice.

"You’re gonna fuckin’ die.

"The sergeant thought it was one of his Marines fucking with him and pretended like he didn’t hear it.  Then he heard it again.

"You’re gonna fuckin’ die.

"The sergeant turns around to see who said it and his Marines look at him like he’s crazy.  They thought he was the one who said it.  Then they all hear the voice again.

"You’re gonna fuckin’ die.

"It seems like it’s coming from all around them.  The sergeant gets on his radio to call back to his platoon, but there’s nothing but static.  Something’s jamming the signal.  At this point the whole squad’s scared shitless, so they start patrolling back the way they came.

"When they get back to the platoon and tell everyone what happened, this Gunny tells them the swamp’s haunted.  He says they’re lucky they made it out alive.

"And that’s just one story.  There’s a lot of scary shit that happens around here.  The MOUT town’s haunted too.  I won’t go there alone at night.”

My squad leader, the lanky mustached sergeant, tried to convince us the forest where we lived was haunted.  We’d been to the MOUT town—the fake village of cinderblock houses for urban warfare training.  It would be a creepy place to hang out alone.  But haunted?

He wasn’t alone.  Other instructors also told ghost stories.

Lately we’d been doing land navigation training at MCT.  They taught us to calculate our average pace size, so we could measure distances by walking them or use dead reckoning to keep track of our location as we moved.  We learned to use compasses and topo maps, and how to move from place to place without deviating from a bearing.  We learned to minimize flashlight use when checking maps at night, and how to hide them from the enemy when we did use them.

In many aspects of Marine Corps life I often felt like I was just keeping my head above water, struggling to keep up with the other Marines.  Looking back, I realize it wasn’t just me and that everyone felt like that.  The Marine Corps instilled in us an unrealistic ideal of a true Marine, which we were always to strive for but never live up to.  At the same time, because we were all responsible for each other’s performance, any mistake or deficiency would be pointed out to you by your peers.  So we were always on, always trying to be at our best, and worried about not living up to expectations.  But I was confident about land nav.

Maps, angles, a sense of direction, moving through forests—land nav drew on a few of my talents and interests.  I wasn’t just good at it.  I enjoyed it.

Then came the big test—a day long exercise in small group navigation.  A plot of forest, maybe a few hundred to a couple thousand acres, was dotted with scattered posts.  Each post was printed with a unique two symbol code, like J8 or O4.

Given the grid coordinates for a subset of those markers, and using a map and compass, we would have to navigate to the appropriate posts, record the codes, and return them to the instructors.  They would check off our codes against a master list of grid coordinates.  If one of our codes was incorrect—if we had navigated to the wrong marker—we’d be sent back out to try again.

We worked in pairs.  My partner was a slow thin Marine.  He had been depressed all of MCT.  I mean, none of us wanted to be there and we all questioned our decision to join the Marines.  But he was sure he’d made the wrong choice.  He realized he wanted to be an actor, not a Marine.  In his mind, he should be in his first semester of theatre school right now, not traipsing through a forest with a rifle.

For much of MCT he was unmotivated and unresponsive, and land nav training was no exception.  When we first went into the field he told me how much he liked math and said he studied calculus in high school.  I later doubted that claim because he never quite grasped the intricacies of a compass or how to calculate angles.  Then again, maybe he just wasn’t trying.  But he was happy enough to walk in whatever direction I pointed him.

The first part of our land nav test was during the day.  Then we waited until darkness fell and returned to the course for a round of night navigation.  With a new set of targets and reduced visibility, this part of the test would further strain our navigational skills.

A dirt road circled the course—if we got lost we could escape by walking in any given direction until we hit the road, and then walking along the road until we found someone.  As a further precaution we each had a whistle attached to our gear.  If there was an emergency, or if someone was too injured to move, they could blow the whistle and nearby Marines would come help.

It was October and chilly.  We set off into the night.  Dozens of Marines walked in pairs through the forest and along the dirt road.  Occasional flashlight beams flickered from the undergrowth.  My partner and I navigated quietly from one point to another.

It quickly became apparent that we weren’t alone.  There were strange noises in the forest.   Mechanical sounds, like someone racking back the charging handle of an M16 or machine gun and then letting it slide forward again.  There would be sudden crashes through the undergrowth, or rustles of leaf litter.  Lights blinked on, hovered in the air, and blinked off.

So the instructors are out here messing with us, I thought.  I just wanted to navigate to my points and go to sleep.

We found all our targets and started to walk back.

Somewhere a whistle blew.  It blew again and again.  It was frantic.  Something was wrong.  My partner and I followed the sound to the road.  A bunch of Marines hurried by, flashlights blazing, carrying something big.  It was a Marine—Private Henry, a tall guy, over six feet.  He was limp.

We followed the group back to the instructors.  Our sergeant sat Henry against the front bumper of a pickup truck where he could see him in the headlights.

Henry was awake.  He was white and afraid.  His hands shook.

“Do you smoke, Henry?” the sergeant asked.

“No, Sergeant.”

“You do now.”  He lit a cigarette and handed it to the Marine.

Henry puffed on the cigarette and calmed down enough to tell his story.  He was in the forest when a floating light turned on a few meters away.  He tried to see who was holding it but couldn’t make out anything.  Then it suddenly turned off, and Henry passed out from fear.

His partner, only a few meters away but looking the other direction, turned and saw his partner on the ground, too big for him to carry, and blew his whistle.  Other Marines came and carried Henry out of the forest.

Henry was sure he saw a ghost.  In his telling he didn’t pass out.  Some malignant force yanked on his feet and made him go unconscious.

“There are no ghosts,” the sergeant said.  It was his turn to look frightened.

There was a crowd of Marines around the truck now.

“Forget any ghost stories you heard.  He got scared, that’s all.  He’s alright.  We’re done with the ghost shit.  Let’s not talk about it or repeat what any instructors said.”

We didn’t hear any more ghost stories from our instructors.  I got the impression they’d been warned before.  Scaring students in the forest is frowned upon.

It’s all fun and games until a tall pansy scares himself witless.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Veteran scientists #14 and #15, Thomas H. Huxley and Julian Huxley

We’ll start off 2015 with a dynasty of veteran scientists.  Reminiscent of the de Broglie brothers in France, the British Huxley family in the 19th and 20th centuries produced a series of eminent scientists and military men, including two veteran scientists.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

Royal Navy Assistant Surgeon 1846-1854.  Biologist, anatomist and science advocate.

Thomas Henry Huxley grew up in a time before people got paid to do science.  Scientists were generally self-taught wealthy men who could afford to do research in their spare time.  TH was no exception—he taught himself biology on the side while preparing for a medical career.

After finishing his medical studies TH joined the Royal Navy.  He served as Assistant Surgeon aboard the HMS Rattlesnake during a surveying voyage of New Guinea and Australia from 1846 to 1850.  During the voyage he devoted himself to the collection and study of marine invertebrates, mailing his work back home to be published.

Back in England in 1850 the Navy kept him on as a paid researcher so he could finish writing up the results of the expedition.  In 1854 he left the Navy and took up a series of posts at museums and societies, finding various ways to fund his research.

He branched out from marine invertebrates to study vertebrate paleontology.  Among other accomplishments during this period, he was the first person to recognize birds as a group of reptiles, he studied the evolution of North American horses, and he demonstrated that humans are a species of ape.

In the later part of his career TH became Britain’s leading science advocate and sought to transform science from an aristocratic hobby into a profession.  As part of this he led reforms of the British education system.  Before Huxley British schools and universities didn’t teach science.  After him science was a standard part of the curriculum.  Scientists could now be paid by universities or the public, opening up the field of science to people other than the wealthy elite.

It was also during this time that TH earned the nickname Darwin’s bulldog for his public defense of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and debates against anti-evolution reactionaries.  When Darwin died TH was a pallbearer at his funeral.

From his beginnings in an age where science wasn’t yet taught in schools, TH would go on to sire a dynasty of thinkers and military men.

Sir Julian Huxley (1887-1975)

British Army Intelligence Corps 1916-1918.  Evolutionary biologist, conservation biologist and Academy Award winning director.

Thomas Henry’s grandson Julian Huxley came of age in the early 20th century.  After getting his Ph.D. Julian worked briefly as a professor in Houston, Texas.  But after WWI broke out he returned to his home country to help in the war effort.  He joined the British Army in 1916 and served in the Intelligence Corps in England and Italy until the end of the war.

After the war he became a professor in England.  There he struck up a collaboration with the popular science fiction novelist H.G. Wells.  Julian resigned from his professorship to work full time with Wells to write the world’s first popular biology textbook—The Science of Life (1930).

Julian continued his work as a biologist and communicator of science.  He was instrumental in bringing about the modern synthesis—a unification of several fields of biology, such as ecology, genetics and paleontology, into a single comprehensive evolutionary theory.  In 1942 he summarized the movement, and coined its name, in a landmark book—Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.

In his later days Julian worked to improve science education, popularize science, and promote biological conservation.  He worked to set up universities in Africa, cofounded the World Wildlife Fund, and helped establish and was first Director-General of UNESCO.

He wrote popular essays, including one in 1961, The Crowded World, which warned of the dangers of overpopulation.  Based on his calculations, he predicted the human population would reach 6 billion by 2000.  He was right on target—we reached that number in October 1999.

In addition to his essays and public appointments, Julian appeared on radio and TV shows about science and was even a regular on one of the BBC’s first game shows.  He also delved into film.  In 1934 he directed the world’s first nature documentary, The Private Life of Gannets, which won an Academy Award.  Julian may be our only Oscar winning veteran scientist.

In addition to these two the Huxley family produced many other writers, scientists and veterans.

Thomas’s son and Julian’s dad, Leonard Huxley, was a writer.  The writer Aldous Huxley, author of the popular science fiction novel Brave New World, was Julian’s brother.  Another brother, Andrew Huxley, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963.  Yet another brother, David Bruce Huxley, fought in WWII in Africa and Iraq.  Julian’s nephew Michael Darwin became a curator at the Smithsonian Institution.  Julian’s cousin Noel Huxley Waller was an infantry colonel and decorated WWI veteran.  Another cousin, Thomas Lydwell Eckersley, was a theoretical physicist.  And yet another cousin, Gervas Huxley, was a decorated bombing officer in WWI.

That’s an intimidating family.