Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Mad Scientists' Club

This Jody Bottum essay about a series of kids books may be the most beautiful thing I've read this year:
There’s a kind of negative sound a model rocket makes after you throw the switch or light the fuse, a sort of indrawn breath as the spark disappears into the touchhole.

For an instant the whole rickety contraption—dunce-hat top, stove-pipe body, shark-tail fins—seems to shrink back like one of those wide-eyed girls on the cover of a 1940s
Amazing Stories as the tentacles of the space monster stretch toward her scoop-necked blouse. Then with a screech of exhalation, the rocket begins to lift, straining from the metal-tubing frame to climb through the blue sky toward the black of space: faster and faster, too fast to see, a parabolic smoke trail penciling its passage. And maybe, if everything goes right, at the end there’s this little poof and the handkerchief parachute pops from the nose and floats the bombard gently home to earth: a victory, an achievement—a marker laid down, with a surveyor’s precision, for a world in which things work.

Except that it hardly ever did go right. The ignition spark would fail, or the flight would start to corkscrew, or the rocket wouldn’t climb more than a few inches, thrashing against the frame like a demented squirrel until it finally flipped over and burned itself out burrowing into the ground. Besides, metal tubing was expensive, and the frame was probably rusty tiebar, those knobby metal sticks that reinforce concrete, filched from a construction site and strung together with baling wire and duct tape—for baling wire and duct tape were the fallbacks and the fix-alls for every one of the after-school rocketeers: the young inventors, the proto-geeks, the science boys.

You almost certainly knew some of them, if you are of a certain age. They were the ones in your algebra class drawing suspension bridges and cloverleaf freeway interchanges in the margins of their spiral-bound notebooks. They understood all about slide rules and ham radios and those physics-lab gizmos that sparked and hissed and made your hair stand up with static electricity so you looked just like Lon Cheney. Mad! you’d howl, They said I was mad! while the science teacher was out of the room. And the girls would giggle, but the science boys would look down at the careful cross-hatchings in their notebooks, because it wasn’t funny to them. It was real, the way things worked. The way things wanted to work.

Theirs was a world of the kind of stuff army-navy surplus stores used to stock on the dusty tables way in the back: leftover radar parts from Korea and oversized walkie-talkies in olive drab—Press To Talk, Switch NOT Depressed While Receiving—and metal detectors like mop-handled soup plates and Geiger counters and Breast-Plate Microphone Holders for Wireless Set WS-19 and vacuum tubes and radio headphones and manuals on COMSEC and Morse code. Theirs was the erector-set cosmos of
Popular Mechanics, with its pictures of moonwheels and frictionless bearings, and its ads for kits to put a sleek fiberglass body—As Aerodynamic as a Porsche!—on the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle, and its stories about how some credulous banker in Spokane had been suckered again by con men with a perpetual-motion machine.

Part of the attraction may have been the Tomorrowland utopia the technology seemed to promise, with its glimpses of a Jetsonian future: the People-Mover! the Paperless Office! the Self-Cleaning Corningware Stove Top! the Robots That Will Serve Us Coffee in the Sparkling Comfort of Our Space-Age Homes! And part of it was the sheer gadgetry: the fetish of the accessory that made, for instance, a 1960s shutterbug ache for all the telephoto doohickeys and widgets in the mail-order catalogue that came every other month from that We-Have-It-All! camera emporium in New York City.

But an underappreciated element, I’ve always thought, was the language, the nuts-and-bolts poetry in all those pre-computer words: a kind of rhetorical gluttony that might have driven Rimbaud mad—that did drive Kipling mad as he scribbled down stories filled with Scottish engineers and ship’s boilers and No. 12 steam-fitting wrenches and the work of the men who actually make things work. For the American science boys, it was oscilloscopes and cathode rays, diodes and dynamos, capacitors and step-down transformers. Or the great mechanical words they got to use: axial force and momentum, vector and differential, tension and torsion.

There's more. Enjoy.


Steven Den Beste said...

I read some of those stories in "Boy's Life" magazine when I was in grade school. And they were cool.

Anonymous said...

A fine essay. Made me want to reread "Rocketship Galileo" and "Have Spacesuit Will Travel."

But then I'm an analog guy living in a digital world.