Something Very Few of Us Literally Do

When recommending someone avoid rushing into an activity, we still say “Hold your horses.” This is a modern spelling of the idiom. As Wikipedia says

“Hold your hosses” (‘hoss’ being a US slang term for horse) appears in print that way many times from 1843 onwards… The first attested usage in the idiomatic meaning [came] from Picayune (New Orleans) in September 1844, “Oh, hold your hosses, Squire.”

The literal meaning is older:

In Book 23 of the Iliad, Homer writes “Hold your horses!” when referring to Antilochus driving like a maniac in a chariot race.

It seems strange that the idiom has survived the arrival of motorized vehicles, but there is a modern variation: cool your jets, which Stackexchange says originated in the US and was first quoted in a newspaper:

1973 Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids) 29 Jan. 1/1 If you want to cool your jets, just step outside, where it will be about 10 degrees under cloudy skies.

Disease and Rumors Spread Like Wildfire for Centuries

Sources agree on the definition: something that quickly affects or becomes known by more and more people. Rumors, diseases, and memes can spread like wildfire. But only dictionary.com offered anything on the origin.

In the twelfth century the term “wildfire” referred to a skin disease (if it was highly contagious,  the modern usage for disease sounds like it has a very old origin) and the “figurative sense is recorded from c.1300.” includes several historical examples, but all modern – for example, from The Messenger by Elizabeth Robins, 1920. News can fly and flee, as well as spread, like wildfire.

Can Perception Become Reality?

There’s a lot of discussion these days about how the media influences people – whether the stories are real or fake. I ran across an interesting example that predates our current political mess by decades: Mad Gasser of Mattoon in 1944

ANESTHETIC PROWLER ON LOOSE
Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims
Both Recover; Robber Fails to Get Into Home

Even for a newspaper, that’s a lot of assumptions: first, that these were only the “first” victims; second, that the prowler was using some sort of anesthetic; and third, that he was a robber. But it was enough. Within days, several more people called police saying that they too had been attacked by the prowler they read about in the newspaper. Their stories were published in the paper on September 5, owing to no publications on Sunday and the Labor Day holiday.

And that’s when the real melee began.

MAD ANESTHETIST STRIKES AGAIN

STATE HUNTS GAS MADMAN

[Then] the character of the newspaper reports changed dramatically. The headlines became: THE MANHUNT FOR MR. NOBODY

And as soon as that became the tone, suddenly there were zero more police reports. skeptoid.com

No residue of gas or lasting symptoms were observed, no gas is known to cause all the symptoms reported, and no prowler was ever caught – though there is an anecdotal suggestion that the initial attack could have been real.

In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published one research article on the Mad Gasser. Graphs of newspaper space in square inches compared to the number of reports showed a very apparent effect. If the morning newspapers dedicated more space to the Gasser, more reports came in that day. And during that initial 2-day Labor Day publishing break, no gassing was reported.

It’s depressing to think people can be manipulated so easily.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon became one of the most famous case studies in mass hysteria. skeptoid.com

This was a small event in a small town during wartime, and it was over in a couple weeks when the local newspaper moved on. Consider Americans today, reading and viewing stories aimed at an agenda, whether pushed for ideological or financial reasons. Over and over, day after day. Maybe a single story gets repeated a dozen times – it feels as if it happened a dozen times.

As individuals zero in on fewer outlets, they get caught in the “echo chamber” of their own fears, hopes, and biases. Depending on which rabbit hole each of us chooses to fall down, we end up in “living” in different worlds.

No one can save us from ourselves – the answer must come from us.

Last Spanish War Volunteer Dies

The Spanish Civil War at the end of the 1930s was called the dress rehearsal for World War II as the Germans and Italians supported Franco’s Fascists and the Soviet Union supported the Republicans or Loyalists. There were some 2800 Americans who travelled to Spain to fight with the communist Republican forces in what was called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. About 800 of them were killed fighting on the losing side. Delmar Berg was a dishwasher in California when he saw Young Communist League billboard advertising for soldiers to serve in the conflict. He made it to Spain and was wounded in battle. He remained a communist throughout his life and died at the age of 100. He was the last remaining U.S. volunteer.

The members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade returned to the U.S. to be treated as heroes by liberals who celebrated their service against the Fascists. In actions that would later weigh against him J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife hosted and attended fund raising events to support the veterans. The service became a liability for the veterans during the Cold War when the “Red Scare” became a nationwide concern and anyone with ties to communism began to be viewed with suspicion.

A Bridge Too Far

I’ve heard this phrase bandied about as pundits discuss the latest political gaff of this year’s sorry presidential election. It means an action or step that is too ambitious or overreaching. I have the impression that it implies something that cannot be accepted or accomplished after a series of successful actions – and now I know why.

This is a fairly recent phrase coming from Operation Market Garden, an Allied airborne military operation of 1944 designed to strike at the heart of Nazi industry. Securing bridges for advancing ground forces was an essential part of the plan. Several brides were captured, but the operation failed to capture the main road bridge over the river Waa.

The specific phrase A Bridge Too Far is a 1977 epic war film, based on the 1974 book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi

atoms-in-the-familyI obtained this book by Laura Fermi published in 1954 by my usual method of interlibrary loan. It is an excellent book that gives personal insights into Enrico and many other of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent companion to the book by Leona Woods reviewed last week, and readers shouldn’t become accustomed to having a review posted each week. I’m doing more writing than reading lately. Also, I once again am posting a summary of the book complete with page numbers for reference, which is how I usually save information to be used in my book about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the Rocky Flats Plant.

The first sections of the book introduce Laura Capon and Enrico Fermi in Italy when they first became acquainted in Italy. It progresses to their wedding and the beginning of the troubles for Jews imposed by Mussolini (Il Duce). Laura was a non-practicing Jew, so she and the children were all at risk. She tells of how their lives became increasingly dangerous until the family left Italy by travelling to Sweden to accept Enrico’s Noble Prize and made it to the United States. The “becoming Americanized” is fascinating reading. Laura’s father, an Italian naval officer, was at first not concerned about the actions that Mussolini took in the early days. “Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions.” 5-6

The book describes the childhoods and families of the Capons and the Fermis. As an example, a traumatic loss struck the Fermis when Giulio, the oldest son, died of complications from an abscess in the throat. (Laura and Enrico would name their son Giulio.) The family moved into a melancholy existence and Enrico filled his life with studying and outdoor activities. It wasn’t long before his teachers declared that he was “exceptional.” His academic achievements and early career are described. 15-32 Much of one chapter is devoted to his yellow Peugeot, which is described as having a top speed of 20 mph. The next chapter describes the Fermi’s early married years 33-68

Fermi began to achieve wide recognition for his brilliance and was named to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929. Enrico and Laura spent two months of 1930 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also spent some time in New York City, where Laura was astonished to note “…with a shock the existence of tattoos…on the bare arms of summer riders, in the most civilized city in the world.” (What would she think today?) They were often asked what they thought of Mussolini, which was “…indicative of the great interest fascism had aroused in the United States. Those were good times for fascism, which was looked upon with tolerance, often with sympathy, both inside Italy and abroad.” 73-81 Continue reading

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading