Category Archives: Physics

What a joke

One frigid February evening, I arrived home from a long day of dissertation-writing and fellowship-applying at my MIT office, and settled down with some kind of takeout to watch the latest episode of FX’s “Archer.” I thought I was done with the history of metrology for the day. I was so wrong.

For those of you who don’t know “Archer,” it can be a little difficult to describe. It’s an animated spy spoof, set in a quasi-1960s world in which the private espionage contractor of ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) battles the KGB. But ISIS’s agents have desktop computers and visit moon bases. To call this anachronism would miss the point; it’s intentionally surreal and viciously funny. Think one-third “Get Smart,” one-third “Adult Swim,” and one-third “Arrested Development” (with whom it shares a creative team), and you’ll get an idea.
Among the protagonists (all wild alcoholics) are Mallory Archer, the owner of ISIS; her son Sterling, simultaneously a narcissistic fool and the world’s greatest secret agent; his ex-girlfriend Lana Kane; the ISIS accountant, Cyril Figgis; and the HR manager, Pam Poovey. The best character is a mad scientist named Krieger, who may or may not be a clone of Adolf Hitler. The show’s writers are particularly famous for having these characters make endless witty references, not just to contemporary culture, but to obscure parts of it.
In the latest, fifth season, the showrunners got bored of secret-agent storylines; ISIS got shut down by the Feds and the gang became fugitives, strapped for cash but with a thousand kilograms of cocaine to unload. By the fourth episode, they’ve sold some of it, but Pam has eaten much of the stockpile. The cold open shows Cyril presenting their predicament.
The metric-system jokes begin immediately. But it’s easy to make fun of the United States’s obstinance.

Cyril: From our initial supply of one thousand kilos of cocaine—
Archer: Hold on, dummy, we had a ton of cocaine¡
Cyril: Well, we had a “tonne,” t-o-n-n-e, also known as a metric ton.
Mallory: Pssh! Metric, who uses metric?
Lana: Every single country on the planet except for us, Liberia, and Burma.
Sterling: Wow, really? Because you never think of the other two as having their [censored] together.

My own work is about the links between the measurement of nature and of economic value; in my dissertation, and in a forthcoming article, I write that “the history of capitalism is a history of struggle over the terms by which to evaluate human labor and the products of nature.” It would, possibly, be too much to suggest that’s what the “Archer” writers meant by the following pun:

Cyril: As you can see, we’re already down to 125 kilos of cocaine, which was worth about six million dollars—
Sterling: And, wait, how much is that in pounds?
Cyril: Forget pounds! We’re doing kilos!
Sterling: No, I meant pounds—
Mallory: Sterling!
Sterling: Exactly! As in “Doctor Who” money.

But shortly thereafter—through cartoon logic too convoluted to explain—Mallory comes to a conclusion about what to do with Pam. And this is where the episode just got weird.

Mallory: We throw her a party! With an enormous cake! Cyril, can we spare another five pounds of cocaine?
Lana: Mallory!
Mallory: 2.27 kilograms, then. Who are you, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall?
Sterling: Ha! Right?

This is when I fell off the couch. Who would make a joke about Thomas Corwin Mendenhall? Who would even think to make a joke about him? Who even knew who he was?
Of course, I knew—but it’s my job. In fact, I had spent an entire cold, dark, rainy, fruitless week in Mendenhall’s papers at the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, in the winter of 2005/6. Mendenhall was an American physicist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who spent most of his career performing fundamental metrological work, determining ever-more-precise values of such quantities as solar wavelengths and the Earth’s mass. In 1889, he became superintendent of the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey, responsible for maintaining the accuracy and consistency of the government’s weights and measures, a topic addressed in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution (not to mention Deuteronomy 25:13-16). It was during his superintendence that Mendenhall issued the order that officially calibrated all Federal units, even English ones, to the metric system. (If the joke is “about” anything, it’s about this Mendenhall Order.)
Mendenhall circulated his order just a month before the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Alongside the Exposition’s pavilions, canals, and sadistically murderous hoteliers, numerous international scientific congresses met in an attempt to settle once and for all the values of fundamental units, particularly but not only new and disputed ones dealing with electromagnetic phenomena. It is no joke to say that an important part of agreeing on a fundamental unit was to agree on its name; nomenclature, as Evan can tell us much better than I, is a crucial means by which scientists from astronomers to atomic physicists claim priority, credibility, and facticity.
And indeed this is what I, anyway, mostly remembered Mendenhall for. My week spent in his papers was fruitless; there was nothing about the domestic electrical meter, the subject of my undergraduate thesis. But there was this letter, from Mendenhall to Arthur Gordon Webster, a polymathic physicist at Clark University, on May 13, 1893. At stake was not just names, but the orthography of names. “I have not failed to observe, as you suggest,” Mendenhall wrote to Webster, “that the English write ‘metre.'”

I have noticed, also, that they write ‘annexe’, ‘honour’, ‘jewellery’, and ‘shew’. (The spelling ‘dogge’ has gone out, even there.) They also wear their trousers turned up on the street, and, I am informed, now wear pink shirts at afternoon weddings. I see as good reason for our imitating them in one practice as in another. Like yourself, I am no advocate of an ‘American’ spelling unless a decided advantage can be shown to exist, but I see no reason for doing a thing simply because the English do it.

Such was the spirit of internationalism that surrounded world’s fairs. As Ken Alder has recently argued, the nineteenth century’s scientific congresses were junkets just as today’s are: excuses for  scientists to see colleagues and have a good time in a new city.
What to make of all this? It appears to be humor week on the blog, and like Jenna yesterday I’ve found humor important for understanding the past. I don’t just mean as source, but almost as analytic—it’s important to recognize when a story from the past is absurd, since contemporaries often did.
In any case, the Mendenhall joke raises two lines of historico-philosophico-comedic questions for which I don’t have good answers. One is practical: how is a joke about an obscure figure from the history of American science conceived? (Did the writers start with the Wikipedia page for the metric system, and work outward? Had one of them taken an undergraduate class in the history of American science?) I tried getting in touch with an “Archer” writer in order to talk about how the show’s more obscure jokes get written. After much trawling, I found contact information for just one—an Emerson student who had submitted a particularly good spec script. From her, I learned that the Mendenhall joke was written by none other than Adam Reed, the show’s chief creative brain. But that’s as far as I got. If anyone has an in with the “Archer” team, please let me know in the comments.
Second, and perhaps more troublingly, is the humor equivalent of the question about the tree falling in the forest. If a television show makes a joke that almost nobody except historians of American metrology is able to “get,” is it even a joke at all?

An Experiment in Teaching Hiroshima to Tomorrow’s Engineers

As many of our readers attempt to recover from the semester’s end, I’m pleased to present a guest post by David Spanagel, reflecting on a just-completed pedagogical experience.

This past term, I had the rare pleasure of teaching the history of modern American science and Technology survey course at WPI, an institution populated predominantly by engineering and natural sciences majors.  Despite the high opportunity costs involved, I selected just two books to “cover” the twentieth century portion of this course, and both of these featured the role of physicists in developing the atomic bomb during World War II. A Tale of Two Cities, produced by the War Department in 1946, online thanks to the Prelinger Archives — and one of Dan’s favorite teaching films

David Cassidy’s recently published A Short History of Physics in the America Century lived up to its title, providing my fact-obsessed but reading-averse engineering students with just 170 pages that introduce and contextualize all the important people, institutions, events, activities, and ideologies that transformed physics in America from its small-scale parochial late-19th century practical and experimental preoccupations, through its remarkable mid-century wartime theory-based revolutionary technological achievements, to its twin legacies as a international collaborative pursuit of ephemeral fundamental natural objects and a lavishly-funded bastion of nationally competitive military scientific employment.

To complement Cassidy’s dense but dispassionate chronological account, I chose to assign a highly personalized analysis of the central episode in this larger trajectory – Mary Palevsky’s Atomic Fragments. Using both published documents and an extensive series of interviews, Palevsky crafts an account of her own interactions with several leading Manhattan Project scientists, seeking to learn about the roles that they played in developing atomic weaponry, and to discern their retrospective feelings of responsibility for and reconciliation to the manner of exactly how the bombs were (or should have been) used in August 1945.

Educational policy debates trumpet the need to cultivate undergraduate engineering students’ ethical development (with an insistence and frequency that suggests that this need has not been fully addressed within the realm of engineering courses), so I figured: “Why not use history as a creative tool to support this important endeavor on behalf of my students?”  By pairing these two quite different styles of historical analysis, I hoped to inspire my students to see beyond the black and white orderliness of standard chronology-based cause and effect arguments, so that they might begin to develop some more refined sensibilities about the richness of history’s gray areas. The moral questions that Palevsky probed with her venerable interlocutors seemed especially promising for student discussion.

The upshot: this experiment of mine came out surprisingly well. Despite a distance from the Cold War that has now grown so great for my students, none of whom were alive when the Berlin Wall fell, the history of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still provoke a compelling set of questions about the meaning of technical achievement in various contexts.  On her final exam, one student wrote: “This book [Atomic Fragments] humanized the scientists, so when we watched the Los Alamos documentary [I had shown the class Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity], they seemed more real.”

Another student was sparing in his praise for the readings, but he directly apprehended my whole purpose in assigning that pair of course texts: “On their own, these two books are nothing extraordinary. Palevsky’s book is full of subjectivity and the importance of her personal inquiry overcomes the relevance of her interviewees on the development of American science.  Cassidy’s book is not much more than a condensed summary of factual information about the ups and downs of American physics. Both books combined, however, provide the right balance of the scientific facts and the moral, ethical, and personal reasons behind the actions [which] introduced nuclear power to the world.”

To supplement these secondary source reading assignments, I devote some class time to what I call “primary source” workshops – a packet of excerpts of historical document are given to pairs of students to read on the spot, then discuss with each other, and then report out the class as a whole. For the atomic bomb topic, I gave the class the minutes of the Target Committee and Interim Committee meetings of May 1945, so that my students could figuratively eavesdrop on two of the rare instances where a handful of atomic scientists actually participated in specific decisions about how the bombs would be utilized in the ongoing war against Japan. The timing of these meetings is significant. Virtually all of the European refugee scientists had originally joined the Manhattan Project with some idea of preventing Nazi Germany from being the world’s first atomic power, but after the first week of May 1945, Hitler was already dead and Germany had surrendered.

The students were quite surprised to discover, from their analyses of these documents, the degree to which both scientists and policy-makers shared a deep concern that Japanese cities would soon be too damaged to adequately “see” the dramatic effects of an atomic explosion.  A scientific attitude of experimentation had the effect of rendering all those inhabitants of a target city into an abstract material substance.  That the committee members could simultaneously insist that the bombs be dedicated only to “military” targets, and still advise that city centers would be optimal locations for maximizing devastation (in order to achieve the intended “psychological” effect of totally disheartening a notoriously stoic enemy people), is an extreme paradox that young 21st century readers really found difficult but nevertheless imperative to sort through.

David Spanagel is an Assistant Professor of Humanities & Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the recently elected Chair of the Forum for the History of Science in America, which sponsors this blog.