Frick Chemistry Laboratory, photographed in 2013.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Nick Barberio

She blinded me with science
And hit me with technology.
— Thomas Dolby & Jo Kerr, 1982

I reside in a battleground state, one of those somewhat equally divided among Red, Blue, and Psychedelic. Thus we are the focus of constant electioneering lawsuits, pointless civic changes and truly hideous procedural “ideas” that relate to democracy and social order the way a baitworm relates to the WMAP satellite’s analysis of the Big Bang. Naturally enough, I seek out the apolitical wherever it may (or even may not) lurk.

So let’s just say I was susceptible to the recent New Yorker article by music critic Alex Ross, who turns out to be an aficionado of Thomas Mann, the Nobel-winning German novelist who, during a long and varied 80 years, served as the bedrock of the German expatriate community during World War II and a professor at Princeton from 1939-42, where he lived a few doors down from Einstein. Ross goes into some detail describing Mann’s struggle in his early conservative years, attempting to carve out an area in the artistic world that can be free of politics; then his attitudes later that show his abandonment of any such aspirations, and Mann’s resulting presumption that art was inherently political, even if not all politics was inherently artistic. As much as I have enjoyed Mann over the years, perhaps this is why I haven’t read him in a while. 

Thus we end up today looking elsewhere beyond art for escape, to the first stereotypical field to offer a politically sheltered environment: the hard sciences. One plus one is always two. During the pandemic, which we’re miserably failing to drive into oblivion, it has been opined countless times that sticking to the science is undoubtedly our most promising approach to successfully minimizing the catastrophe. Then the fights begin over what the current research results mean: Shave all your body hair and hide in the root cellar? Get three injections, or is it four, of the same or different designer drugs, unless you’re under 46? Party like it’s 1999? Party like it’s 1969 (that’s more like it...)? This unseemly degradation of “science” leads me, in the spirit of the early Thomas Mann, to yearn for a world where science is/was apolitical and went about its orderly knowledge-building with precision and clarity. And where better than the labs and classrooms of Princeton past, with our long history of inspired scientific teaching, periodically even interspersed with inspired learning?

Let’s begin with Princeton’s preeminent proselytizer of science in the 20th century, Professor Hubert Alyea 1924 *28. A chemistry whiz who gave us the seminal lecture on “Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries, and the Prepared Mind” and inspired a Disney character in The Absent-Minded Professor, his lifelong mission was to bring the broadest possible audience under the big tent of science, and show them how to help themselves to the wonders and boundless potential of the scientific method. Not content to simply do that in the classroom or in textbooks, he created entire curricula for teaching chemistry with modest but exacting teaching materials that cost only pennies per student, and so could widely be used in even the poorest countries on Earth, where he enthusiastically went to promote the program. In that sense, he qualifies as a literal ambassador of science. 

But during the era in which he taught, Alyea did not have the luxury of stopping there. He was not involved in the Manhattan Project as were many of his Princeton fellows and students. Indeed at the time, dating back to Einstein’s seminal 1939 note from the Institute for Advanced Study to President Franklin Roosevelt, I suppose that there is an argument that developing the atomic bomb was not a political issue, either because it did not become partisan (which was impossible, given its secrecy) or because it was truly existential, which was Einstein’s point, and so transcended politics in any practical sense. The clarity of that argument began to erode immediately after the reports of results from Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, and the world recognized the opening of a Pandora’s box of cataclysmic potential. As nuclear power and weaponry became the focal point of the Cold War and the stuff of ideologies, Alyea leapt in with the clarity of knowledge and created a lecture, almost as mesmerizing as “Lucky Accidents” and far more urgent. Almost wistfully entitled “Atomic Energy: Weapons for Peace,” the performance piece brutally describes the physical/chemical bases for the A-bomb and its carnage, explicitly noting Hiroshima and the indiscriminate effects of the weaponry on the city and populace. By the end, he logically has created a mind experiment, in which a truly international governing body alone controls this fearsome power and its equally great potential for peacetime prosperity for all. What is left unsaid is the fate of the world were that not to happen, which of course it hasn’t. Alyea gave his ebullient “Lucky Accidents” lecture an amazing 600 times in an acclaimed career, including World’s Fairs and dozens of Reunions; his sense of urgency drove him to give the “Atomic Energy” address over 2,800 times from 1947 onward. It really behooves you to watch it here and consider that.

But, c’mon now, the apple falling on Newton’s head wasn’t political, right? So somewhere in between was truly objective, altruistic science for the sake of knowledge, right? Eureka! Well then, let’s go for the obvious and get down with one of Princeton’s most renowned teachers of any era, and the granddaddy of all physical science education, Joseph Henry. Inveigled from Albany to Princeton in 1832 by Vice President John Maclean Jr. 1816 (son of the nation’s first college chemistry professor), Henry created a natural science curriculum from a standing start, taught almost everything including architecture, geology, and astronomy (in which he was essentially self-taught), but was primarily a world-rank authority in electromagnetism and its emerging applications to commerce, communication, and manufacturing. The students adored him and his wired message system from Philosophical Hall to his new custom-designed house (now Joseph Henry House, duh) to let his wife know when he’d be home for lunch. His lectures got even better after 1840, when the trustees hired Sam Parker, a Black assistant, to work in his labs, sometimes functioning — literally — as a conductor. Not only was Henry not political, but he wasn’t even pecuniary: While in his thousands of lab experiments he discovered electronic principles that would drive telegraph, telephone, and then even wireless systems many decades into the future, he never filed a single patent application. His appreciation of his opportunity to advance from a poor childhood to the scientific leader of a hemisphere seemed to preclude it.

You’re waiting for the “but” here, right? In this case it took the material form of the 1835 estate of James Smithson, whose legacy to the U.S. government “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men'” led to a somewhat foggy project concept requiring an organizer and eminence. So the call went out from President James Polk (George Dallas 1810 was vice president, by the way) to Joseph Henry, science exemplum, to take the reins of the future Smithsonian Institution. This was not some sort of curatorial position: It was to be the de facto Minister of Science Policy for the entire country. Perhaps, you inquire, he didn’t view this as political? Well, maybe, but he did regard his guilt-ridden 1846 Washington acceptance and closing of his Princeton lab as the death of his respected scientific career, and a potential degradation of permanent fame down to “transient reputation.” And if you don’t regard that as particularly political, consider his eventual impact by the time he died, still on the job in 1878 after 32 years. The entire U.S. government closed for his funeral on May 16, attended by President Rutherford Hayes, Vice President William Wheeler, the entire cabinet and Supreme Court, many members of Congress, and the commanding officers of the Army and Navy. For the 1883 dedication of Henry’s statue outside the Smithsonian Castle, John Philip Sousa (then another government employee, conducting his U.S. Marine Band) wrote the Transit of Venus March, honoring Henry with a melodic interpretation of the prior year’s astronomical event. On balance, as a self-taught bureaucrat he may have been even more successful than he was as a self-taught scientist, so foundational they named the basic unit of electrical inductance — the henry — for him. 

So as the dust settles to a trumpet flourish, it seems if we meticulously learn our lessons from Princeton’s centuries of exalted history in scientific inquiry, with 30 scientific Nobel Prizes and 19 National Science Medals and all the rest of the accolades showering down, the primary conclusion regarding apolitical, objective science is this: Given the full knowledge for a wise choice between a fusion reactor for infinite energy or a fusion bomb for infinite destruction, human beings will unfailingly choose … both. Don’t forget to hand in your answer sets on the way out of today’s lecture.