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8 Learning to Love the Bomb

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

As I was completing my Ph.D. dissertation in the spring of 1967, I uneasily awaited my orders to report for active duty in the U.S. Navy. The anticipation was tense because I was a line officer and thus could have been sent to serve in a warship cruising off the Vietnam coast, a depressing thought. The Vietnam War was every day becoming ever more obviously a futile exercise made up of empty victories and doctored body counts. Each night statistics were reported in television briefings featuring confident and heavily be-medaled generals who jabbed pointers at authoritative-looking multicolor charts. No matter how glorious the assertions, effective victories were elusive. The war was a waste of life without any claim to a valid purpose. There were fevered references to hapless countries succumbing to communism like falling dominoes if American troops went home, but in reality combat churned on only to protect the reputation of a president who couldn’t admit defeat. The fateful orders finally arrived. The envelope lying on my desk held my future – orders were orders. It seemed like the famous box containing Schrödinger’s cat, which existed in an undecided state between life and death. I opened the envelope; the cat was alive. I had been assigned to a research institute at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which had a slot for a line officer. With my assignment to active duty, Beth got a booklet in the mail called Welcome Aboard to the Navy Wife. She was incredulous at the instructions about when and how to wear white gloves and, worst of all, that she should respond to the wishes of her commanding officer’s wife as her husband did to his commanding officer’s orders. Actually, nothing of the sort happened, and we shared social occasions with friends serving similar tours of duty.

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12 Dining with Darwin

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

Biologists like to have a sense of connection with places or events associated with Darwin. That comes mainly from reading Voyage of the Beagle, which along with the great Darwin biography industry has given us an amazing sense of intimacy with him, a sort of feeling of kinship. I feel it, too, and I have enjoyed my contacts with Darwin’s traces even though I’ve never tried to follow his Beagle travels. The first Darwin site I saw happened to be the place where he spent most of his post-Beagle life and where he wrote Origin of Species. That was Down House in Kent, about sixteen miles south of London, which Beth and I visited in September 1974. Our trip there was long before Darwin’s popularity peaked again. Down House was empty of visitors, so we could look around the garden in solitude and stroll the famous sandwalk where Darwin walked for exercise and to think. As we were alone in the place, the custodian opened the cord blocking casual entry into Darwin’s study and showed us around, a treat that may be harder to come by now. The room was preserved pretty much as it had been in Darwin’s time. We stood in front of his desk, his mantel, and his bookcases. I put my hand on his desk. This was the room he wrote in. You might imagine that you could speak to him there, but you can’t reach across time except in imagination.

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2 Layers of the Past

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

My mother, Therese Dufresne, was the daughter of a well-liked local physician, Albert Dufresne, who practiced from 1930 onward in Shawinigan and the surrounding countryside. His house calls could mean anything, including grueling trips into the backcountry by horse-drawn sled or canoe. By the time he retired, my grandfather had delivered or treated most of the living citizens of the town. He once estimated that he had delivered eight thousand Shawinigan babies. In 1966 he was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre de Saint-Gregoire-le-Grand, a papal award for his charitable acts to his many patients unable to pay in hard times. A street in Shawinigan now bears his name.

Going to visit Shawinigan during summer vacations was the highlight of my early life. Shamefully, it was not because I liked spending an entire vacation in my grandparents’ rather formal house. I was too energetic for that. What I cherished most was any time I could spend out in the woods at a lake. My Uncle Gérard Dufresne’s family had a remote cottage on Lac des Îlles, where on one visit I was impressed to see the hole where an enterprising bear had clawed its way through a soil-filled double-log wall into the icehouse. What a frisson to realize that wooden doors would be as paper to hungry bears (not that they bothered cottages with people around). Most of my cottage experience though was at Lac Souris (Mouse Lake – had they run out of better names?). Here the vast Quebec forest lapped the edge of civilization. On the far side of the lake, inaccessible from the end of the rutted lake road, my uncle Guy Ricard (the husband of my mother’s sister Margot) and my grandfather had built a summer cottage. To get to the cottage from the road head, we would uncover my grandfather’s old motorboat, drag it over the wet sand into the shallows, load up supplies and gas, and push off with battered oars to get into water deep enough to lower the outboard. Then, with some boat rocking, repeated pulls of the starter cable finally got the balky engine going. We’d head off at two miles per hour in a cloud of fragrant blue smoke. If there were just the two of us, I’d be allowed to run the engine and steer with my grandfather’s nervous guidance. Once steady, I could throttle up enough to leave a discernable wake across the usually glassy surface. I have a photograph of one of those days – me a skinny ten year old wearing an oversized old raincoat of my grandfather’s belted around my waist, he with his inevitable cigar in his mouth.

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19 Creationist Makeovers

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

By the 1960s the scene had shift ed again. The shock of America being beaten into space by the Russian launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite ever placed in orbit, thrust the quality of our science versus their science into the hysteria of Cold War rhetoric. On the plus side, the Sputnik debacle at least prompted thinking about a renewal in public school science education. I know that I benefited from the boom in science education funding that followed. The creationists, once so loud, had vanished from the public eye in the years following the Scopes Trial, because they had for all practical purposes won and no longer needed to be active. Publishers had cooled creationist fervor by letting evolution slip away from school textbooks. Nevertheless, creationists lay like dormant termites within the walls of American life. When new curricula and high school biology texts eventually restored the teaching of evolution as a fundamental idea of biology, creationism reappeared in fully energized righteousness.

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20 Evolution Matters

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

If there are two common paths for children to become entranced with science, either through an early interest in nature or through a later intellectual awakening in school, there seems as well to be another kind of division that comes into the kind of science we do. For some scientists the draw is basic science, but for others the pull is toward research that has an application in mind. This division cuts across disciplines. There is applied ecology and paleontology just as there is applied molecular biology. The utility of science to human needs was built into the origins of modern science. The link between scientific anatomy and medicine goes back to the remarkable sixteenth-century anatomist Vesalius. Although first-class science does not have to be motivated by practical or humanitarian goals, it many times is. Important research has been directed at the discovery of cures for diseases, the discovery of new materials, or the development of useful technologies, including recently fiber optics, digital photography, and computers, all of which make major contributions to the quality of our lives. In my own life growing up, I watched my father devote his career to designing new polymer materials for useful applications. His view was that science had to have a practical expression, and it was doing that science that he found compellingly interesting. I was influenced by my father to be drawn into science, but I could never feel any appeal for applications of science that attracted him.

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