Monday, March 31, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 10: As Above, So Below


At last, Marianne and I reached Boston.  Driving over the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge (also known as the Harvard Bridge), we had the opportunity to view the smoot marks originally created as a pointless student prank -- and probably the most famous such hack ever -- by (of course) frat boys from (where else?) the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  In October 1958, members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity had pledge Oliver R. Smoot lie down at one end of the bridge, marked his length with a line of paint, then had him lie down again at the line over and over again, to ultimately determine that the bridge was exactly 364.4 smoots long.  There have surely been wittier pranks in the 66 years since, but this one caught the public imagination much as The Blob is celebrated long after better movies were forgotten.  Exactly why will always be a matter of conjecture.  But the smoot-marks are repainted every year and will doubtless continue to be repainted far into the foreseeable future.

Not far from the bridge we found the MIT Museum, where we met up with fantasist Greer Gilman, author of several core works of fantasy including the seminal novel Moonwise and, most recently, the Small Beer Press chapbook Cry Murder in a Small Voice in which playwright Ben Jonson turns detective (and which, rather offhandedly, refutes the Oxfordians centuries before they appear). Together we three spent rather a lot of time before the collection of rare and historic slide rules, sharing reminiscences, before examining the other technology-related displays, including an informative series of student-made videos explaining how the Internet operates and why it's unlikely to ever do so satisfactorily (spoiler alert: no adult supervision).  It's a small museum, but an engaging one.

On the second floor were some very choice robotics exhibits, and some very fine technology-based artworks.  My favorites were Arthur Ganson's kinetic sculptures which, while limited to classical mechanics, were both witty and engaging.  You can find three representative film clips here.

Less successful, alas, was the gallery of holographic art.  A few years ago at the Chicago Worldcon, a writer friend told me he had just removed a 3-D picture from a new story because he'd realized that it was "fossil science fiction."  Back in the 1960s, when holograms were invented, he explained, everybody assumed that the photographs and art of the future would be holographic.  Now, it looks like they were a fad of the times and one that's rapidly fading into the past.  "I was only including it because that's the sort of thing that used to be in science fiction and it's never really been purged.  Hovercraft are another example of something that makes your story look instantly dated.  And if you have a holograph of a hovercraft in your story, you've really go a problem."

The gallery was a fascinating glimpse back at a time when holography was going to be important someday.  But that's all it was.

Down the block, we had a late lunch at Miracle of Science, a foodery so hip that it doesn't have a menu -- just a chalkboard in the shape of the periodic table, with the burgers and fajitas organized according to spurious principles of foodishness.  There discussed Greer's upcoming publications and other matters of personal interest.

The afternoon was spent, at Greer's suggestion, at the Harvard Museum of Science & Culture, mostly
in their Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.  Perhaps the flashiest of which was the Grand Orery begun by Joseph Pope in 1776 and finally finished in 1785. Twelve-sided, domed, and featuring bronze figures of Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Bowdoin (then governor of Massachusetts) that were cast by Paul Revere, it's always been an almost pornographically prestigious piece of luxury goods.

Here's part of the museum description:

This gear-driven model of the solar system is made of mahogany and brass and is operated by hand-crank. The planets--Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn--are included with their known satellites. The planets revolve on their axes, the moons revolve around the planets, and each planetary system revolves around the sun at relative speeds. The Earth's system also shows the rotation of the lunar node, represented by a small ivory ball on a stick... Half-way through the project, Uranus was discovered (in 1781). Pope did not include this new planet.
The rest of the collection is chockablock full of stuff that would drive your science-illiterate aunt mad with boredom, but which we three found endlessly fascinating -- including the control console from Harvard's cyclotron, which was ripped out on its final day of use (appropriately enough in 2001) and put on display, taped-up cartoons and all.

There was a special display of historically significant autopsy-related tools and illustrations in a separate room.  Ordinarily, the most amusing part of going to see such a display is my company, since I start out chipper and upbeat and by slow degrees turn a fetching shade of green.  But this time, it was the plaster death-cast of the head of notorious "resurrection man" William Burke, carefully shaved bald as a billiard ball, because of Greer's crying out as she saw it, "But Burke has no hair!"

[If you don't get the joke, two minutes on Google will resolve your confusion.]

Finally, we left, weary from our travels, but happy, enlightened, and filled with a sense of the geekish wonder of the modern world.  On the way out we passed the Mark I computer.  Which was the use-name for the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, a general purpose electro-mechanical computer employed for military purposes in the waning days of World War II.

As it was in the beginning, so it shall be at the end.  I began this journey in Philadelphia with a visit to the first large-scale electronic computer, at the University of Pennsylvania.  Now I ended it with a visit to one of the last large-scale electro-mechanical computers.  The one was the beginning of an industry and an utterly changed world.  The other was the culmination of mechanical computing, a dinosaur unaware that the rug was about to be pulled out from under its raison d'etre.

And so off to the home of friends for conversation and food and then sleep and then, ultimately, the long journey home.

Above:  The Mark I.  It continued in use until 1959.



Brian Borchers said...

You missed the best part of Smoot's story. Oliver Smoot went on to be the head of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the the International Standards Organization (ISO), institutions that are responsible for setting measurement standards!

Unknown said...

You might want to fix the title of Greer Gilman's story: it's "Cry Murder in a Small Voice" not a small press.

Though now I'm thinking of a mystery story set at a small press . . .

Michael Swanwick said...

Already done. This trip left me pretty tired.

Michael Swanwick said...

Brian, I had not known that. Very cool indeed.

Matt Keeley said...

I'm not sure the Burke pun is great or terrible or both, but I laughed nonetheless.