May 31, 2013
In 1941, writes Stephen Budiansky in his wonderful new book, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare, “after a year of unbroken and devastating U-boat onslaughts, the British War Cabinet decided to try a new strategy in the foundering naval campaign. To do so, they hired an intensely private, bohemian physicist [named Patrick Blackett,] who was also an ardent socialist.”
Some of Britain’s best minds were already working on the Enigma project, attempting to decipher Germany’s coded radio messages. So Blackett put together an unusual team of “leftover” scientists: chemists, astronomers, actuaries, and biologists—including one who specialized in the sex life of the oyster. And for the next year, they put aside their own research and devoted themselves to solving the U-boat problem. According to Budiansky:
In April 1941, a month after starting work at Coastal Command, [Blackett] paid a visit to the operations room of Western Approaches Command in Liverpool, where a large wall map displayed the current estimated positions of all U-boats in the Atlantic. Blackett knew the number of hours being flown by Coastal Command aircraft and the areas they were patrolling. “I calculated in a few lines of arithmetic on the back of an envelope the number of U-boats which should have been sighted by the aircraft,” given the actual number of U-boats operating in the area as shown on the wall of the Western Approaches Command. The theoretical number Blackett obtained from his quick calculation was four times the actual number of sightings that Coastal Command air patrols were reporting. “This discrepancy,” Blackett continued, “could be explained either by assuming the U-boats cruised submerged or by assuming that they cruised on the surface and in about four cases out of five saw the aircraft and dived before being seen by the aircraft. Since U-boat prisoners asserted that U-boats seldom submerged except when aircraft were sighted, the second explanation was probably correct.” All of the obvious solutions were recommended: equipping the aircrews with better binoculars, avoiding flying into the sun, improving training. Then, discussing the problem one day, an RAF wing commander asked Blackett, “What color are Coastal aircraft?”
They were in fact mainly black, as they were mostly night bombers diverted from Bomber Command. Night bombers were painted black to reflect as little light as possible from searchlights. But by day, under most conditions of cloud and sun, an aircraft is seen as a dark object against a light sky. Tests were quickly ordered and it was verified that repainting the aircraft white reduced by a fifth the average maximum distance at which the planes could be seen. The undersurfaces of the wings were the part of the aircraft that stood out in particular contrast to the sky, and a scheme of using glossy reflective white paint for these surfaces was adopted. [Physicist E.J.] Williams calculated that the change to white camouflage would increase the number of U-boat sightings, and sinkings, by 30 percent. The plan was implemented within a few months. Air patrols during the winter had been yielding one U-boat sighting per every 700 hours of flying. By summer 1941, with the camouflage change and other improvements, the yield had doubled to one sighting per 350 hours.
April 29, 2013
They’re small, secretive, nocturnal, and look creepy hanging upside down in caves. And at one point during World War II, they were recruited as potential killing machines.
Yep, bats as weapons of mass destruction.
“A plan to turn millions of bats into suicide bombers bearing tiny napalm time bombs was the most spectacular of the special projects at Louis Fieser’s Harvard laboratory,” writes Robert M. Neer in his new book, Napalm: An American Biography.
The project was the brainchild of Lytle Adams, a Pennsylvania dentist with a passionate hatred of the misunderstood Chiroptera.
The “lowest form of life is the BAT, associated in history with the underworld and regions of darkness and evil,” Adams wrote in a 1942 memo to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Until now reasons for its creation have remained unexplained. As I vision it the millions of bats that have for ages inhabited our belfries, tunnels and caverns were placed there by God to await this hour to play their part in the scheme of free human existence, and to frustrate any attempt of those who dare to desecrate our way of life.”
Seems a tad harsh, no?
The bats were to be loaded with a tiny (17.5 gram) napalm bomb, stuffed into a North American B-25, and flown over Japan. Upon reaching the target, 26,000 angry bats would be tossed out of the aircraft (they had parachutes), and would land upon highly flammable Japanese houses.
A test run over Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Air Field, New Mexico, with bats bearing dummy bombs went surprisingly well.
Fieser and his team, however, wanted to have the test filmed, so a second trial was set, using six bats with armed bombs.
Unexpectedly, the bats took off, and shortly after, the barracks burst into flames. “Flames…jumped from building to building,” writes Neer. “Many structures lay in ashes.”
“Unfortunately,” he writes, “to preserve secrecy…the team had deemed fire equipment unnecessary.” In a masterpiece of understatement, Fieser summed up the experiment: “We made a little mistake out there.”
And that was the end of the bomber bats.
April 25, 2013
As early as 1919, airlines in Europe hired attendants—all male—to serve passengers during flights. But it wasn’t until 1926 that Stout Air Services in the United States engaged stewards for its service between Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the next few years, the in-flight attendant job was deemed best suited for female nurses. As Victoria Vantoch writes in her new book The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), the decision was influenced by the family of William Patterson, a vice president at Boeing. Patterson’s wife and children, says Vantoch, always got airsick when traveling: “My mother and I didn’t want young boys holding our hair when we got sick—no customer wanted that—so we told my dad to hire women instead,” recalls Patricia, Patterson’s daughter.
When the DC-3 arrived six years later, Vantoch writes, passenger miles increased 600 percent between 1931 and 1941. With the DC-3, “the airline industry began to focus on passenger service and the stewardess was catapulted to new importance,” and the number of flight attendants rose from below 400 to 1,000.
By the mid-1940s, “stewardess candidates had to be twenty-one to twenty-eight years old,” writes Vantoch, “unmarried, 5’3″ to 5’6″ tall, no more than 125 pounds, with good posture and an ‘attractive appearance,’ and preferably with some college education.” (The nursing requirement had been dropped because nurses were required for the war effort and could not be spared for airline service.) “Stewardess training was also arduous,” notes Vantoch, “with strict rules, fifty subjects (including flight physics, emergency procedures, radio navigation, and meteorology), and a series of intense exams.”
The transformation of the stewardess from all-American girl next door to a sexier image, was largely the work of the Burnett advertising agency, which won the United account in 1965, and Mary Wells, the advertising director of Braniff Airlines. Leo Burnett’s team realized that young consumers were an emerging market—and appropriating aspects of the 1960s counter-culture “could help market United to older Americans who still wanted to feel young and hip.” At the same time that the Burnett agency was struggling with its campaign, Branniff kicked off its “Air Strip” television ad, in which a stewardess slowly removed pieces of her Pucci uniform during the flight. Shortly after, United’s ads promised consumers that stewardesses would “go all out to please you!” The sexual revolution had infiltrated the airlines, and other carriers soon modified their images as well.
April 23, 2013
German photographer Dietmar Eckell is drawn to abandoned objects: neglected railroad tracks, stranded ships, detritus from past Olympic Games. His latest project, titled Happy End, documents aircraft wreckage—but only from accidents where everyone on board survived.
The photograph above, the last image in the series, shows a B-24 that crashed in Papua New Guinea during World War II. “I wanted a warbird in the jungle with a miracle story,” Eckell wrote in an email, “and always loved the stories of the Pacific wrecks, so I started looking in Papua New Guinea.” According to his information, all nine crew members on board survived the crash.
The Douglas C-47 above was the first aircraft Eckell documented during the two-year project. “I’ve been there [Yukon Territory, Canada] twice already, and next time I want to go back in February, as the crash happened in February 1950. The pilot walked all the way to the Alaskan Highway to get help.”
Eckell asks local pilots to help pinpoint exact locations and provide story details, and he searches for information in local archives. “I [was originally] inspired by paintings of shipwrecks in the romantic period,” he writes. “But soon I got hooked on these planes and stories, and it was like a pilgrimage to ‘wonders’ around the world.”
March 25, 2013
Looking for a science book to read? Something with eccentric characters, irrational obsessions, and extreme experiments? Try Alex Boese’s book Electrified Sheep: Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012).
Boese notes that when Pierre and Marie Curie first isolated radium in their lab in 1902, the mysterious metal appeared to produce a limitless amount of energy: “And where there is energy, medical entrepreneurs noted, there must be health! Physicians swung into action, promoting the beneficial effects of ‘radiumizing’ the body to an eager public. Retailers sold radium-treated water, describing the faintly glowing solution as ‘liquid sunshine.’ ” The radium craze persisted well into the 1930s; even Marie Curie insisted on the metal’s health benefits, maintaining this belief right up until 1934, when she died of radiation exposure. Boese writes:
A curious descendant of the invisible energy enthusiasm can even be found in a rather unlikely place—the Chinese space programme. Chinese scientists, from the very start of their space programme, have expressed great interest in the effect of cosmic rays on plants, hoping that such rays might produce Super Veggies to feed their growing population. At first they used high-altitude balloons to fly seeds up to the edge of space. Now seeds are taken aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft. The resulting crops, grown back on earth, are occasionally served in Shanghai restaurants. Space spuds, it’s reported, taste more “glutinous” than terrestrial varieties.
On 12 October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft blasted off carrying a particularly special cargo—40 grams of pig sperm to be exposed to cosmic rays. Whether or not the experiment generated positive results is unknown, because, after the initial announcement, a shroud of official state secrecy descended upon the mission. But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud.
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