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an essay by ©David J. Rhees, May 23, 1977 
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Public Images of Science In America:
Science News-Letter, 1922 - 1929

"Drama lurks in every test tube, dwell sin every [sic] shovelful of earth lifted from the sight of an ancient civilization, is a passenger on the wide wings of a whirring airplane, spans thousands of miles via the wonder of radio. To know these facts while news really is news - that is the desire of every thinking person."     - Science News-Letter, 1927
On March 18, 1920, at his San Diego estate, wealthy newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps met with distinguished members of three national science academies to found an institution for the popularization of science, called Science News Service, later shortened to Science Service 1 The function of this non-profit organization, generously endowed by Scripps, was the preparation of news stories on science to be distributed to American newspapers on January 1, 1921, under the editorship of Edwin E Slosson, Science Service began work in the offices of the National Research Council in Washington, D.C.  About a year later, on March 13, 1922, Science Service fostered the publication of a weekly popular science journal, SCIENCE NEWS-LETTER , composed mainly of articles culled from its own [sic] newswriting service. 2

The aim of this paper is to examine the efforts of SCIENCE NEWS-LETTER (hereafter referred to as SNL "to translate and interpret science" for the American public, during the tenure of Edwin E. Slosson as editor, from 1922 until his death in 1929. 3 For the most part, this examination will be restricted to the pages of SNL in order to reconstruct, as faithfully as possible, the images of science it alone conveyed to the American public. In analyzing these images, we must keep in mind a distinction between the two selfprofessed tasks on SNL mentioned above: while translation involves only a relatively neutral rendering of scientific events into the language of the common man, interpretation implies a highly subjective process of explanation in terms of a body of ideological values. These two functions were quite often mingled in the reporting of SNL , yet we will here confine ourselves to the job of articulating only the more objective and easily definable images of science that were contingent on actual scientific events of the 1920's, and not on the interpretive ideology that accompanied them. My decision to work with concrete imagery of SNL is founded on the belief that long after ideologies are gone and forgotten, the public still remembers the discovery of king Tutankhamen's tomb in 1927, or Charles Lingbergh's solo slight across the Atlantic in 1927, and that images of such specific and dramatic events are more likely to produce historically significant changes in public opinion and public policy on science than any abstract ideological propaganda. 4

While it is not my intention to speculate on the possible influence of SNL on, for instance, public support of scientific research, it is justifiable to say that an influence may have occurred. Although SNL itself had a fairly limited circulation, the newspaper features of Science Service enjoyed a daily readership, by 1928, of nearly four million readers, or approximately one-fifth of all newspaper reader in America. 5 Since SNL was assembled from the cream of these newspaper reports, we may assume, for all practical purposes, that the images of science disseminated in SNL and Science Service's press releases were essentially the same. Hence, the total audience for the popular science we find in SNL reached a sizeable portion of the American public, and its potential to consider the possible repercussions of SNL in American culture, it will be sufficient here to mention that such there may have been, and proceed to articulate that specific imagery of science available to the American public in its pages and, by implication, in the newspaper reports of Science Service.

According to Edwin E. Slosson, the two most popular science in 1928 were astronomy and archeology, with the more practical science regrettably low in the public's esteem. 6 The readers SNL would certainly have been amazed and intrigued by the rapid expansion of the dimensions of the observable universe following the installation of the 100-inch reflection telescope at Mt. Wilson in 1918. In 1924, Edwin Hubble used the Mt. Wilson telescope to estimate the distance of the furthest visible object, the Andromeda Nebula, as one million light years away, thus quadrupling the previous record of 250,000 light years. Two years later he increased this figure, (for the furthest visible object [ed.]), to about 140 million light years, making a total increases of three orders of magnitude.

Although the concept of the light year was known and used by SNL writers, it is interesting that they often preferred the older, perhaps more dramatic, expressions for large numbers. A typical reader would surely have been impressed by the long rows of zeros that SNL writers were fond of stringing across the page to produce a proper appreciation of astronomical distances; his ear would also, no doubt, have delighted in the sounds of the exotic names of these numbers: quadrillions, [sic] quintillians, and sextillions became the new denominations of astronomical size.

Regardless of how the distances were expressed, there seemed to be no limits on how far man could go into space, except mechanical limits, and these were expected to be transcended when plans were announced in 1929 to build a 200-inch telescope. This dramatic project, which received heavy publicity in SNL , was not realized until 1948, but it symbolizes the unbounded expectation of the period that man's vision would soon penetrate into the darkest depths of the universe. The readers of SNL would certainly have agreed with Edwin Hubble's claim that "the history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons." 7

Indeed the horizon seemed to be literally receding, for the 1929 Hubble used the red shifts in light from the galaxies to determine that the universe is rapidly expanding, introducing a new dynamic element into a previously static cosmos. Not only were the galaxies in motion, but the very continents of the earth were slipping and sliding about, according to the theory of continental drift proposed in 1915 by Alfred Wegener, which, according to SNL in 1928, "was seriously accepted by many geologists." 8 The receding galaxies and drifting continents introduced instability and change where there had been none before: the slowing of the earth's rotation was detected, the motion of the continents was measured, the period of revolution of the solar system around the galactic hub was estimated, and the speed of the receding galaxies was calculated.

The relative size and significance of the solar system and out galaxy dwindled considerable in the light of these discoveries. While the earth had long lost its centrality, the sun too was deposed from its position as the center of the galaxy, which was now located in the constellation Sagittarius 47,000 light years away. It was also humbling to learn that the Milky Way is merely one "vast numbers of stellar galaxies comparable to our own, scattered about through empty space and separated from one another by distances of inconceivable magnitude." 9 Furthermore, the galaxies, or "galactons" are only subsidiary members of the much larger super-universes, or "cosmons," as Harlow Shapley called them. 10 Each new revelation of the astronomers seemed to increase the scale and complexity of the universe and decrease the stature of man's place in it, yet in SNL they were interpreted as the progressive conquest of nature by science. While the sun and out galaxy lost their preferred status in the cosmos, the intellect of man was glorified for discovering this.

Not only were the spatial dimensions of the universe expanding, both observationally and physically, but its temporal parameters were being extended as well. The age of the earth was nearly doubled in 1929 when Ernest Rutherford estimated it as about three and one-half billion years. The life expectancy of stars was increased from hundreds of millions of years to trillions of years, while the age of the universe itself was, as yet, unimaginable. Time and space, on might say, had become truly astronomical.

Less cosmic, but just as likely to excite the public's imagination, were the sometimes dazzling discoveries in archeology. For example, the discovery of Kind Tut's tomb in the "Valley of the Kings" was sure to evoke exotic images of pyramids, hieroglyphs and fabulous riches in the middle of most Americans. Other sensational finds included sacrificial "death pits" in the ancient Mayan cities of Mexico, prehistoric Indian mounds in the United States, priceless art treasures in the buried city of Pompeii, and excavations in Carthage, Greece, Babylonia and many other places. Prehistoric skulls and skeletons were also being constantly dug up and heralded as the oldest known this-or-that. The age of man was set at 500,00 years, and dinosaur eggs, ten million years old, were discovered in Mongolia. Just as astronomy was expanding the dimensions of the universe, archeology (and anthropology) were rapidly extending man's cultural history into the remote past, revealing a heritage tinged with myth and pregnant with mystery. The concrete, dramatic and sometimes exotic discoveries of astronomy and archeology, served to fix them as symbols of science in the public mind; it is no wonder these tow sciences cornered the popular interest in the 'twenties.

While the motion of the galaxies and the history of civilization were obviously beyond the control of science, other natural processes, more prosaic in scope, were coming within reach of human manipulation. Though the sciences of less spectacular phenomena were not as popular as the sciences of exotic phenomena, they received a great deal of attention as well.

Evolution, for instance, was a prime topic, especially in the middle of the decade when anti-evolution bills in several states threatened freedom. The John Scopes trail in 1925 stimulated a flurry of SNL articles in strong, almost violent, support of evolution. 11 While the controversy raged over the natural variability of species, the work of Hermann J. Muller in producing artificial mutations, by bombarding sex chromosomes with X-rays, became something of a sensation in itself. Able to speed up the rate of evolutionary charge a thousand times, and produce new varieties of fruit flies, Muller's techniques seemed to promise the complete manipulation of heredity by man. The use of X-rays and other methods to create bisexual organisms, or ever to reverse sex traits, implied that "all man's inherited bodily and mental characteristics may be considered as subject to change and control." 12 The power to alter the course of nature, such as Ernest Rutherford demonstrated in artificially transmuting the chemical elements, now seemed to be available to the biologist as well. Such images of power and control were ubiquitous in SNL , and others will be discussed as they arise.

For instance, the power to regulate racial characteristics through eugenic methods was of great concern in the 'twenties. The mixing of races, particularly of black with white, was viewed with increasing dismay. According to Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, "the greatest danger before the American people today is the blending of the [sic] negro tenth of the population into the superior blood of the white race." 13 One scientist, at the Race Betterment Conference in1928, urged the need for a new religion based on Science, and advocated eugenic marriage as an article of its creed. 14 Eugenics was regarded as a weapon to prevent the degradation of the white race and subsequent downfall of civilization.

Not only were heredity and racial purity thought to be subject to control, but psychologists were providing tools with which the human mind might be tamed as well. Most of the news-making psychology reported in SNL was of the applied variety, mainly in industrial, educational, and criminal areas. Typical topics included maximizing efficiency on production lines, methods of measuring intelligence, and developmental patterns of juvenile delinquents. The less "scientific" studies of psychic researchers, and even of psychoanalysts, were regarded as hindering, if not actually overthrowing, reason and religion. 15 Scientific psychology, as portrayed in SNL , had as little room for spirits as for bestial instincts, the latter of which had already caused a world war, and which threatened to emerge again in the depraved forms of futuristic art. Edwin Slosson considered the new art no less than a throwback to the mentality of the stone age, arguing that "instead of listening to reason, [the futurists] simply succeeded in giving expression to very primitive tendencies that have been successfully inhibited by the real intellectuals who have contributed to the progress of civilization." 16 Freudian psychoanalysis which delved into just such "primitive tendencies," could thus have little to contributed to scientific progress, and Slosson urged that science should not "waste time" on the meaning of dreams, but should search for their physical causes. 17

  The "real intellectuals," one supposes, were people like Julian Huxley, who advocated the reduction of personality to a function of the endocrine glands, making it possible to improve temperament by adjusting hormonal imbalances. 18 The influence of the glandular secretions was, in fact, the subject of intense study at this time, and new hormones were being discovered in rapid succession. The effect of adrenalin on the nervous system, and of thyroxin on growth, were already known by 1920, but were soon followed by the isolation and/or synthesis of insulin from the pancreas, parathormone from the parathyroid glands, several hormones of the pituitary glands, and male and female hormones in testes and ovaries. 19 Perhaps the most sensational of these discoveries was the isolation of insulin by Frederick G. Banting in 1922. It produced an almost immediate drop in the death rate from diabetes and won a Nobel Prize for Banting in the following year. 20 Though the benefits derived from the other hormones may nor have been so dramatic, the implications of their use in preventing disease and regulating body processes ere made quite clear in the pages of SNL . Perhaps man really could use chemicals to control his emotions as Julian Huxely suggested. No longer would he be at the mercy of dwarfism, giantism and other such freakish sports of nature. Soon he would be able to prolong his life, which averaged only 58 years in 1929, and restore his youth.

A nearly simultaneous explosion in vitamin research also promised to improve and extend human life. Three vitamins were already known, vitamins A, B 1 , and C, and three more were discovered in the 'twenties, vitamins B 2 , D and E. 21 These "food factors" were essential for the prevention of diseases such as scurvy and rickets, and were the proper functioning of vital processes such as vision and reproduction. early every day it seemed as if the chemists produced a new vitamin or hormone to make man healthier and happier. The quality of human health was advancing on other fronts as well, as the contagious diseases ere gradually moderated. Vaccines and various "wonder drugs" made perceptible reductions in fatalities from typhoid fever, tuberculosis, syphilis, measles, yellow fever, malaria, scarlet fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. There were three influenza epidemics in the 'twenties, but they were of relatively minor proportions, and the great pandemic of 1918-1919 seemed a thing of the past. Treatments for paresis, goiter, anemia and hookworm were also developed, and in general, medicine seemed to be bringing human diseases and disorders under control. The death rate in the United States in 1924 was the lowest ever to that date, and 1927 was hailed as "the healthiest year in human history." 22 The feeling that medicine was approaching a watershed in the conquest of man's natural infirmities is expressed in the prediction of a Yale professor that "the time will come perhaps . . . when the human being will have an indefinite life span, when his defective and worn-out parts can be replaced and renewed like those of a watch." 23

A shadow was falling on these advances, however, for while the death rate in general was decreasing, fatalities from cancer, automobile accidents and industrial accidents were on the rise. News of various cancer "cures", which always proved false, periodically raised, and then dashed, the hopes of SNL readers. In spite of the progress of medical science, cancer remained an unconquered and increasingly dangerous threat to man. The number of auto deaths also became alarming, for in 1923 auto accidents killed as many people as died of scarlet fever and whooping cough, and from 1917 to 1927 the number of auto fatalities doubled, and automobiles became the principal cause of fatal accidents. Now only did auto themselves cause deaths, but their exhaust fumes were already pollution the air, and in cities caused more deaths they typhoid fever. 24 Industry, too, was taking its toll, causing as many deaths in 1923 as did measles, whooping cough and diphtheria. 25

The track record of science in saving lives was impressive in the 'twenties, but the growing rate of technology-related accidents must have been disturbing as well. While the discoveries of basic science were improving the quality of life, the technological by-products of science were eroding it. Since science and technology were mingled in SNL reporting, its readers were likely to have blended the two together in their minds. If so, they would surely have reacted ambivalently toward an activity which sheltered man from natural hazards only to sacrifice him to man-made ones: "The public reacts ambiguously to technology. They acknowledge its many benefits and yet they are personally aware of the problems it has engendered in out society." 26 The confusion of science with technology inevitable results in the association of science with the deleterious, as well as beneficial effects of technology, yielding mixed attitudes in the public's image of science. The positive aspects of technology, however, were of direct appeal to the average citizen and probably dominated his attention. Perhaps the most prominent images of technological advance in the 'twenties were the radio , the "radio-visor ," or television, and the airplane. In 1920, station KDKA 27 Raidovision soon entered the scene , on a experimental basis, in 1923, when the first moving shadows were transmitted through space. Its first public demonstration in 1925 prompted one scientist to predict that "one day we shall even see around the earth." 28 In 1927 Bell Laboratories broadcast pictures of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover by wire and air, and two years later pioneered the first color television. When radiovision first arrived it was expected to become commercially available in just a few years, but it never became the integral part of American life that radio was in the 'twenties, in spite of predictions in 1928 that "radiovisors will be the novel and really smart Christmas gift this year." 29 Although its public debut was deferred for many years, television, and the ubiquitous radio, constituted the transcendence of the natural limitations on man's ability to communicate.

The airplane, and other flying machines, also attracted intense public interest. In 1923, the first non-stop flight across the United States was made and air mail service was successfully demonstrated. In 1924 the American zeppelin "Shenandoah" crossed the continent as American fliers circled the earth. Charles Lindergh made the first solo, non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and the same year passenger airline service was inaugurated in the U.S. In 1929 Germany's Graf Zeppelin made the round-the-world flight by dirigible, and Richard Byrd flew to the South Pole. The nineteen-twenties witnessed an incessant stream of such historic "firsts" in aviation, with records for distance, duration, speed, etc., being set, and then broken, within months of each other. These remarkable achievements, particularly that of Lindbergh, the archetypal barnstormer, stood in minds of the public as symbols of science's heroic conquest of the earth's gravitational hold on man. While astronomy and archeology were expanding the spatial and temporal dimensions of the universe, aviation and electronic communications were contracting the distances on earth separating man from man and continent from continent.

Many of the new technological and industrial products were children of chemical innovations. We have seen how chemistry aided medical science, but it was also creating many other kinds of materials. Readers of SNL we, no doubt, astonished to learn that food could be made from shale, sugar from sunflowers, coal from oil, rubber from coal, soap from coal, ice cream from crude oil, and ever gold was claimed to have been distilled from mercury. The modern "wizards" of chemistry seemed to be realized the age-old dream of the alchemists. Edwin Slosson, formerly a chemist himself, proclaimed that

the world is passing into another era now, the age of synthesis, when the chemist will build up instead of breaking down. . . [and] can construct at will all sorts of valuable compounds for which we formerly had to rely upon nature. 30
Consequently Slosson saw chemistry as a force in international politics, for in altering the natural distribution of resources, it could break down natural monopolies and promote national independence. For instance, Chile's monopolies on nitrates was effectively broken when a method was discovered for fixing nitrogen, necessary for making fertilizer and bombs, from the air. 31 Germany had relied on this method during World War I to maintain its food and munitions supplies, but if such techniques were available to all nations the spectre of wars fought because of the need for raw materials could be eliminated. 32 Not only was chemistry beating Mother Nature at her own game, but it was taking international relations out of the hands of the diplomats.

In a less global vein, chemistry was busy searching for the missing elements in the periodic chart. Only five elements remained to be found out of 92, and tow of these were discovered in the 'twenties: hafnium in 1922, and bohemium, now called rhenium, in 1925. The weights of the isotopes were also being gradually determined.

In physics, a similar mopping-up operation was under-way, at least through the first half of the decade. The speed of light was measured more precisely, the gravitational constant was calculated ten times more accurately, the gap between heat waves and radio waves was filled, and the cosmic rays were discovered. The paradoxes of Einstein's relativity theories created hardly a ripple in the tranquility of the largely classical type of physics predominant in SNL . In fact, "ether waves" remained a part of SNL vocabulary as late as 1925. Coverage of relativity was limited to the new evidence for or against it, and detailed discussion of the theories themselves was scarce until the late 'twenties. The three main "tests" of relativity were all, with occasional exceptions, yielding positive results, but SNL remained [sic] noncommital until later, data were established. In fact, relativity was nearly thrown out the door when Dayton Miller's repetition of the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1925 indicated positive ether drift. Not until Michelson himself repeated the experiment in 1928, with negative scrutiny in SNL . The curious absence of discussion on relativity in SNL during the intense public debates of the early 'twenties, may thus have been to due to a conservative policy on controversial theories. 33

Another, more internally compelling, reason for avoiding the relativity issue, was the difficulty of translating its mathematical concepts into popular terms. Slosson himself came under criticism, in a letter from W. J. Humphrey published in SCIENCE , for an article he wrote on relativity in SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY . 34 Slosson's response defended the necessity relativity available to the common man, but added the almost despairing note that "all that can be done is to give by illustrations and analogies some notion of the conception." 35 The problem was that illustration and analogies could not faithfully relate ideas that were intrinsically unimaginable. Relativity offered no concrete symbols, except perhaps the person of Einstein himself, that the layman could easily fix in his mind, only abstract riddle which bemused him for a moment and then fled from memory. Quantum mechanics, too, suffered from this ailment, and the papers of Heisenberg, de Broglie, Schrodinger and Dirac received little or no mention [sic] til at least several years after their respective publication dates. 36 Regardless of the reasons for the dearth of material on relativity and quantum theory, whether because of conservative skepticism or semantic obstacles, the new imageless physics did not constitute an active part of the popular view of science presented in SNL

In the course of this paper we have tried to reconstruct the images of science on SNL likely to have become a part of the popular imagination. These images seem to fall into two categories: those which express man's exploration of the unknown, and those expressing man's conquest of nature. In is interesting to note that the two most popular sciences of the time, astronomy and archeology, were of the former type, whereas the more practical sciences, which were lower in popular esteem, were of the latter kind. In general, it appears as if the less pragmatic, more exotic, sciences held greater appeal for the public then the sciences which were of direct benefit to human life. From this we inter that the images of exploration, such as the Mt. Wilson telescope, were the predominant popular images of science in the nineteen-twenties.

This is not to say that SNL did not try to emphasize the practical, manipulative sciences, for the following summary of scientific events in 1929 indicates an editorial belief in their greater, though less dramatic, significance:

In the air, under the sea and on the surface of the earth, man's searching in the mysteries of the universe having progressed during 1929. The earth was circumnavigated by airship for the first time. Airplanes flew in the Antarctic, one of them reaching the South Pole. The depths of the sea yielded new secrets. Telescopes searched father and more searchingly into the depths of the universe. Less spectacular but perhaps more important to posterity were investigations on life, chemistry and the constitution of matter conducted in quiet laboratories. 37
The pages of SNL were filled with man images of man's increasing domination of nature, including Muller's x-ray machine for inducing mutations, eugenic methods of purifying racial stock, psychological techniques for improving assembly-line efficiency, hormones, vitamins, vaccines and drugs for conquering disease and prolonging life, synthetic products which free nations from dependence on natural resources, and airplanes and radios which enable man to transcend time and space. The impact of relativity and quantum mechanics had not yet, however, struck home in a popular science still classical in its naive belief that science would tame the forces of nature.

The ultimate consequence of the conquest of nature, it seems, is to eliminate mystery from the universe, for once man can "wrest from Nature the secrets so jealously guarded by her and bend them to his own desire," he is left with only the dull pleasures of slavish technologies, and these soon pall when desire is satiated. 38 Perhaps the American public was jaded with the commonplace benefits of applied science, and found a glimmer of excitement and romance in the intellectual adventures of the astronomer and the archeologist as they pursued horizons which seemed always to recede beyond their grasp. As an advertisement in SNL so aptly worded it, "There is no better propaganda for science than the romantic facts of research and discovery" 39  


Copyright David J. Rhees, May 23, 1977



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