Category Archives: science and its publics

No dessert unless you eat your US history…

I love this insight from scientist and blogger Ian Hopkinson (SomeBeans) on some salutary side-effects of well-done history of science:

“In the same way that Poirier’s biography of Lavoisier introduced me to the French Revolution, this book on Franklin has introduced me to the American War of Independence. It’s like sneaking vegetables into a child by hiding them in something they like.”


Moon Trees

A few weeks ago, Joanna joked that I should write a guest post on a subject she and I both find intriguing: moon trees. Even though I find myself joining AmericanScience as a regular contributor instead of a guest, and should probably begin a little more seriously, I find the topic too fun to pass on a chance to talk about it.

“Moon tree” usually refers to a tree grown from one of several hundred seeds that orbited the moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. These were subsequently cultivated by the Forest Service and distributed across the country as seedlings. Many were planted in public spaces in celebration of the country’s bicentennial in 1976.

In one attempt to ascribe some meaning to these ceremonial “Bicentennial Moon Tree” plantings, President Ford connected them to American achievements, past and present: “This tree … is a living symbol of our spectacular human and scientific achievements. It is a fitting tribute to our national space program… May this young tree renew our deep-rooted faith in the ideals of our Founding Fathers.”

Sponsored in part by the Forest Service, the tree plantings were also meant to “mark the contributions forests have made to our way of life.” So when the first planting of a bicentennial moon tree took place in Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park, both Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa and Woodsy the Owl presided.

Space flight. Founding ideals. Forest stewardship. That’s a lot to ask of just one tree.

Having just heard a talk by Neil Maher of Rutgers/NJIT, whose work on the environmental history of the space race connects this history to many currents of American culture and politics in the 1960s and 70s, I know not to be too surprised by the mishmash of ideas represented in the bicentennial moon trees. Most obvious here is the entanglement of space exploration and environmentalism, i.e., the idea of “Honoring Earth’s Green World of Trees” with a plant that had come so near the barren, lifeless surface of the moon.

As I see it, the interesting aspect is less the potentially confusing symbolism and more that individual trees are rather transient tributes to these weighty subjects. As living symbols, they will by their very nature someday be dying symbols. The moon tree in Washington Square was taken down just a couple of weeks ago, apparently after nearly three years of being pretty much just a barren, lifeless trunk. Honoring Earth’s Green World of Trees, indeed.

So it seems like this idea went awry somewhere, right? Wrong. Wrong because “moon tree” now increasing applies to clones of the trees, or trees grown from seeds of the original trees. In 2009 NASA celebrated Earth Day by planting a second-generation moon tree at the National Arboretum. The Philadelphia tree has just been replaced with its own clone, a sapling sycamore. Apparently a few years ago you could even buy your own moon tree, derived from one of the original moon sycamores, direct from the American Forest’s Historic Trees program.

Which is why the moon trees are actually pretty brilliant: as living entities reproducible at minimal cost there is, theoretically, an infinite supply. Not only can the living symbol of the moon tree be made immortal, in a way, but it can also be widely distributed. We don’t even have to go back to the moon!

NASA made a call for information about the location and condition of the bicentennial moon trees, old and new, just this year. The amount of publicity it has generated demonstrates that people are still pretty interested in these space-age artifacts. And, unlike moon rocks (which can get you into big trouble) or pieces of spacecraft (except when they fall from the sky), I bet it’s pretty easy to gather your own space-race memento from some of the moon trees.

In short, these organic monuments are a successful if unconventional reminder of an intensely technological accomplishment, and perhaps also of the Founding Fathers and the need to prevent forest fires. But it’s not really because they call to mind a specific event in the history of spaceflight. It’s because they feed on – and quite literally multiply through – the imaginative appeal of space exploration and popular interest in its material artifacts.

It kind of makes you rethink plaques and concrete slabs, doesn’t it?

Cinematic Cultural Cartography: Scientists in Hollywood

Kubrick and Clarke working on 2001


This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey in the company of a bevy of historians of Cold War science. One of them, a specialist, as he puts it, in “the human experience in the milieu of space,” pointed out the way in which Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke – the author of the book that formed the basis for the movie – worked closely with engineers at NASA to shape such visions. It seems fair to say that 2001 played an important role in stoking support for the Apollo Program that led astronaut Neil Armstrong to take his momentous “small step” on July 20, 1969.

Why I am telling you this? There could be a thousand reasons. But the one I want to highlight in this short post is about scientists as technical advisers to filmmakers. I’m particularly interested in the role that claims to technical accuracy (not to be confused with T/truth) play in mediating science and fiction.

In my research on the history of cryobiology I have been startled at how often scientists, as early as the 1930s (if not before), were asked to go on set to ensure the ‘accuracy’ of scenes involving attempts at human preservation. For example, in the late 1930s scientist Ralph Willard was credited as a consultant to the film “The Man With Nine Lives,” a medical thriller starring Boris Karloff as a mad-scientist who attempts to freeze humans alive. Willard, who is now viewed as a purveyor of pseudo-science, conducted early experiments with cold-induced hibernation. In the late 1950s, James Lovelock (yes, that James Lovelock) earned a day’s pay by serving as an on-set consultant for the play The Critical Point, which “revived” the effort to depict humans in a state of cryopreservation. Before he came up with his cybernetic Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock made important breakthroughs in the ability to keep blood and sperm functional after exposure to low temperatures. The ability to defrost and revive whole bodies remains controversial and elusive, but is an example that makes it worth asking: What’s at stake for scientists when they participate in the production of fiction? The boundary work of scientists behind the scenes of pop culture is still largely uncharted territory for students of the cultural cartography of science.

I’ll conclude with an example from the present. In the weeks following the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a number of the scientists and public health officials who served as technical advisers for the film have used their involvement as a platform for raising awareness about biosecurity and epidemic preparedness. Assuring accuracy in the film both legitimates them as experts and legitimates the film as an extension of that expertise. Time will tell if anyone is taking them seriously and how.

There are many, many more examples. What scientists/films come to mind? What sort of scholarship — work on nature films, scientists as consultants in other fields, etc — could one draw on to go deeper into these questions?