JF Ptak Science Books
1932 in my book turns out to be one of the most collectively epochal years in the history of science. Certainly others stand out for individual achievements, like 1905 (Einstein’s four papers over two volume of the Annalen), 1687 (Principia), but there are other yeas with fabulous achievements by numerous people.
1543 is one. That year witnessed the published of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, two giant achievements for the outer and inner worlds, one challenging the structure of the universe and the other the Galenic tradition of physiology and anatomy. (To a lesser extent is Peter Ramus’ Animadversions on Aristotle which was a very sustained and elegant attack on the ancient-precept Aristotle an physics.)
1859 saw the publication of On the Origin of Species…JC Maxwell’s work on the kinetic theory of gases, Riemann’s hypothesis, and the spectacular invention of the spectroscope of Kirchhoff and Bunsen (that turned much of the invisible universe visible).
1939 (nuclear fission, chain reaction, neutron stars, magnetic moments, penicillin (advancement), Vit K, FM) and 1948 (nuclear structure, QED, transistor, Big Bang) also come quickly to mind.
1932, though is really quite something, seeing a sweeping array of discoveries in the large and small. Carl Anderson identified the positron while James Chadwick discovered the neutron; also, the Joliot-Curies’ made their monumental discoveries in radiation.1 Iwanenko described the neutron as a constituent f the nucleus, while Heisenberg described the nucleus as composed of protons and neutrons. Knoll and Ruska built the electron microscope, allowing a vision of the interior parts of the interiors of the smallest things, offering images almost as spectacularly new as Hooke’s two centuries earlier. Looking up and out, in the same year, Lev Landau postulated the existence of neutron stars while Karl Jansky invented radio astronomy. There was also the perfection of the “Polaroid” process by Ed Land, and the isolation of ascorbic acid (Vit C, by Charles Glen King, and the beginning of a long war between him and Szent-Gyorgyi on priority of discovery). (In the non-sciences, there was the addition of Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler to their national agendas. It was also a banner year for literature: Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway; Light in August, William Faulkner; 1919, John Dos Passos; The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett; Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell; Young Lonigan, James Farrell; Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder; and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley…)
The thread of thinking about all of this came to mind looking at this image of a bombing instruction room for aviation in England in 1932. The image is also a great one; the aviator at far left looks like a marionette; the three men above responding to his piloting maneuvers as he concentrates on the endless panoramas of landforms that advances before him on a horizontal diorama. It is a fabulous analog flight simulator constructed at a time of great change in aviation
1932 is also the year of the publication of Carl W. Spohr’s classic future-vision/speculative fiction apocalyptic-atom bomb end-of-the-world two-parter (so many hyphens!) that appeared in Wonder Stories.2 The story begins with a relatively simple series of catastrophic bombings that lead to a sort of détente, a kind of mutually assured destruction, which is then upset when the combatants discover and construct the atomic bomb. MAD breaks down, and the ensuing massive exchanges result in a devastated world. Pretty prescient stuff, all-in-all, even so far as the policy goes—especially so when you wrap this sci-fi story around the elements of 1932—Chadwick, Anderson, Joliot-Curie—that made all of this stuff possible just 13 years later.
1 The Joliot-Curie discovery was called “one of the most important discoveries of the century... the consequences of the discovery of artificial radioactivity are immense" from Segrè, From X-rays to Quarks, 198-199).
2. Part one appeared in the March issue, which also carried stories like"Red April, 1965" by Frank K. Kelly; "The Eternal World" by Clark Ashton Smith; "Waves of Compulsion" by Raymond Gallun; "Mutiny on Mercury" by Clifford D. Simak; "The Time Stream" by John Taine (Eric Temple Bell), and others. Pretty good bumper crop of sci-fi writers in itself.