scene of change

Red alert, day 72. Lockdown, day 62. I continue to note the counts for each day in a notebook, and they are still alarming.

Marscon (January, Virginia) now takes the prize for farthest-off cancellation.

The house cleanout in 2018 unearthed many hardback books with lofty titles about science, even more than I knew we had. One of them came back to Ipswich with me: Scene of Change: A Lifetime in American Science by Warren Weaver. Weaver was one of the men like Vannevar Bush who led US technology policy in the years after World War II. Bush, an electrical engineer, was the country’s chief science officer during the war and helped supervise the conversion to peacetime (Cold War) research, notably with the creation of the National Science Foundation, as proposed in his book Science – The Endless Frontier. Weaver, a mathematician who had also studied civil engineering, worked mainly on the private side. He ended up running the Rockefeller Foundation and later moved to the Sloan Foundation. He also coauthored the root text on information theory with Claude Shannon.

Weaver was born in the 1890s, as was Bush, in a small town in Wisconsin. His autobiography contains plenty of evidence of how much life has changed: for example, as a child one of his jobs was to turn the mangle for his mother, and another was to use old newspapers to clean the glass chimneys of kerosene lamps. When he joined the faculty of Cal Tech in 1919, his salary was $1,800 a year, and his rent for a cottage with backyard, ten minutes from the university, was $17.

Coming from an age when so many fields were in their beginnings, publishing was slow, and it was possible to keep up, Weaver was able to become a real generalist. He was obviously thoughtful as well as polymathic. I will post a few choice ramblings on other days. However, the abiding impression of the book is how the small number of “meritocratically” selected men in the American prewar generations – in his case the Lost Generation [1] – had an outsize influence on, well, everything. The robber barons and auto-industrialists had an even more outsized influence. It is no wonder that the Silicon Valley plutes expect the same power after growing up seeing Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, Ford, Sloan etc. plaques on everything. Concentration of power creates vassalage, and the largest part of Weaver’s book consists of accounts of junkets around the world to be feted by local scientists who hoped to get some Rockefeller aid.

The report of the Mexican agricultural programme dates particularly badly. Weaver stresses the need to convince Mexican officials that the American project to change their crops was their idea, and the importance of choosing men who could sell it:

…as is critically true of any project, the scheme would never be any better than its leadership, so we were determined to get the best. We did, as events have clearly proved. J. George Harrar was, at that moment, the head of the department of plant pathology at Washington State College. He had spent several years as professor of botany at the University of Puerto Rico, and both he and his wife were fluent in Spanish. Beside his technical and professional qualifications, George had been a four-letter athlete at Oberlin, and when he eventually became the head of the Mexican-North American agricultural group in Mexico he furnished them leadership at every level – he could run faster, jump a wider stream, dance the samba better, shoot better, and work harder both in the office and in the field than anyone. In tact and courtesy, in skill and knowledge, in his infectious personality, in energy and dedication, he was the ideal leader. That Harrar is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation is but the natural culmination of a plot that some of us schemed in 1941.

No doubt, Harrar was talented and good at his job, but I find this cringey – the assumption that an American should lead the joint project, the assumption that Harrar could be better at Latinx culture than Latinxs, the ableism, the clubbiness, the hero-worship. We are such a long way off here from decolonization, own voices, privilege checking, balance of all kinds. The Harrar generation was still around, though retired, when I entered the workforce.

The Mexico project, as described in the book, involved breeding new grains and standardizing agricultural practices to maximize production. I suspect monocultures, DDT and so forth were involved, as that was the direction in US farming at the time. This is the kind of work we are now looking to undo with crop rotation and diversified farming, indigenous knowledge of additional grain varieties, organic farming and so on. Though in the short term, the extra food was needed.

[1] The Lost Generation were so called because of the Great War caused many to feel unstuck in time (to borrow a phrase from a book about another war). Weaver incidentally was too thin to be regularly drafted in 1917, but on his first sojourn at Cal Tech in 1918, his boss had him posted to the Bureau of Standards and that was his service. The flu pandemic is not mentioned.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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