Authors Posts by Elof Carlson

Elof Carlson

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By Elof Carlson

I recently had the pleasure of reading Lee Standlin’s “Storm Kings,” a short work on the history of weather forecasting and how scientists tried to figure out how storms form. The book begins with Benjamin Franklin’s discovery that lightning is electricity. I learned that Franklin was quite a showman as he toured Europe and the Colonies, showing his experiments with electricity.

I knew that much earlier people tried to interpret weather as the acts of gods. For the Norse, Thor was the god of thunder. For the Greeks, Aeolus was the deity who blew gale winds and caused ships to crash and sink under gigantic waves. For the Bible, Genesis describes the “waters above” and the “waters below,” distinguishing oceans from drenching rains as two separate creations of water.

In “Storm Kings,” we follow the bitter controversies of nineteenth century scientists who attempt to explain storm formation. Each participant is hostile to the ideas of rivals and theories collide with the ferocity of storms. But out of those debates, the Army Signal Corps was formed and established first, a series of flags to indicate weather for ships at sea and then, telegraph accounts of weather readings — temperature, barometric pressure, clouds, wind speed and direction — sent to military bases around the United States.

Politics played a role in the rivalry of contending candidates for heading up the Signal Corps and politics limited what it could forecast. Tornadoes were taboo because acknowledging them or determining their frequency would lower land values in the Midwest. The Signal Corps was cut back, had its operations shifted to the Agriculture Department and was renamed the Weather Bureau so it could be more effectively monitored by lobbyists.

After the Civil War, science began to change. Weather was seen as a complex physical process and weather fronts were identified. The collision of warm moist air from the south and cold dry air from the north led to line storms and tornadoes in the Midwest. It was not until World War II that a more thorough weather forecasting was allowed for the Weather Bureau.

What distinguishes the history of weather forecasting as a science from evolution in biology as a science is the relative absence of religious objections to the interpretation of storms and weather phenomena.

Disasters are still thought by some as visitations from God to punish the wicked. But no one would ban the teaching of the physics of storm formation or cloud formation in classrooms.

Astronomy and physics are also downgraded by some religious writers who deny the idea that objects can be more than 10 thousand light years away or that some elements in the earth have a radioactive decay rate measured in millions of years.

The brunt of the attack on science, however, is evolutionary biology, because it deals with life, and we humans are alive and aware of that existence. Most people have no clue what is meant by light years, radioactive half-lives of isotopes of elements, or the dynamics of ocean currents, wind patterns, and rising or descending masses of air. Unfortunately, almost all major religions have their origins hundreds or thousands of years ago when science was relatively new or altogether absent and the religious texts of those times reflect this.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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By Elof Carlson

For the past four years I have participated with a writing group at Indiana University’s Emeriti House, where old-timers like me gather and once a month discuss what we have written. I much enjoy listening to the stories told.

A Norwegian opera singer described his youth near Oslo on an island in a fjord and how that idyllic childhood was shattered by the Nazi occupation. A linguistics professor discussed what it is like to eat with one’s hands in Kathmandu where table manners are very different than the world of knives and forks or chopsticks. A Spanish teacher described her adventure learning how to chop wood with a wedge. A journalism professor described sailing a boat alone from New England to Florida and back. Along the way we learned that some growing up experiences were frightening, especially those who were refugees during WWII in the Baltic states.

A different opportunity arose recently when my daughter Christina located the granddaughter of my Uncle Charles Vogel. I had seen him a few times as a child when my mother would visit him at his home in Brooklyn. He sold clothing door to door and he gave me about a dozen ties so I could wear them to my high school. My mother said he sold to gangsters. I never knew if this was part of my mother’s psychotic beliefs or real, but I downloaded this previously unknown relative’s manuscript called “Charlie’s story” based on a 1985 interview she had with her grandfather. It turned out he sold men’s clothes to Al Capone, Gaetano Luchese, Lucky Luciano and Albert Anastasia. He also survived a disastrous childhood accident in Bound Brook, New Jersey, when he was hit by a car that had him hospitalized for a year. Later he ran away to join the Barnum & Bailey Circus until his father located him. These family stories are usually oral and then forgotten after a couple of generations. But if someone types them up after an interview, they can be part of the delight of tracing our ancestors and seeing how things change over several generations.

Social history decays rapidly, and many of us have only scattered memories of our childhood. We know virtually nothing about our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ lives. If we have our DNA examined for selected genetic markers, we can identify different ethnic components (Asian or African or Middle Eastern or Native American). Each person who has a European ancestor is related to virtually every person in Europe if one goes back 2,000 years (something difficult to do for those who do not have a royal lineage).

All Native Americans in the western hemisphere are related to ancestors who lived in eastern Siberia about 15,000 years ago. The genetic crumbs of information of this past ancestry tell us little about who these people were and what they did. But what we preserve as memoirs can last for many generations delighting our descendants. Every time I open up a volume of Samuel Pepys’ diary the world of the 1660s shifts from history to eyewitness narrative.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.