Wednesday, February 18, 2015

October 1940 closing of the New York World's Fair & 'The World of Yesterday'

One can only imagine that after reading about or witnessing the exuberant optimism still omnipresent at the October 27th 1940 closing of the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, many mommies and daddies apparently went straight to bed ... and made babies.

Lots and lots of babies.

How else to account for the world's near simultaneous Boom in Baby births a few months later in 1941---- this,  after a decade of steady decline ?

All the men in their fifties and sixties designing the Fair had billed it as predicting and revealing the leading aspects of "The World of Tomorrow", the near future of the 1960s decade - a world a generation away that they didn't expect to be taking an active part in  - maybe not even be alive to witness.

But, as usual in America, they did it 'all for the kiddies' .

Did it for kiddies already born and (as it turned out) zillions upon zillions of little kiddies about to be born, thanks in no small part to these planners' uplifting display of faith in the world-bending wonders of Modern Scientism.

Today we (we outside of the late night warm bathwater of all-man Fox TV) no longer display such a wide-eyed naive faith in the mind and matter altering powers of science-off-its-leash.

We see the Fair instead as the last gasp of Modernity, Modernity at its peacetime Apogee, just moments before Modernity finally got a war all of its own to play with.

The Fair displayed fully the sense that the human Will could triumph over anything the World could offer - that civilized Man could best primitive Mother Nature at anything and everything --- do it better, faster, cheaper.

But today we see lurking behind the 1940 New York Fair's massive ceramic Fountain of the Atom, promising future energy from the "atom-smashers" at NY's Columbia University that would be 'too cheap to meter', the Manhattan nuclear Project and Hiroshima and the Cuban Crisis.

Behind the synthetic autarky of Du Pont's fabulous new 'nylon' stockings and its boast that it could make anything and everything out of water air and coal ,today  we see the synthetic autarky of the Nazi war machine revving up, fueled by hopes they could fight forever thanks to their synthetic petroleum made out of the same three bog-common ingredients.

And yes 1940 did also reveal yet more variants of the amazing life-saving synthetic sulfa medicines --- one of the most cherished fruits of 'living better through chemistry'.

The Nazi synthetic autarky went much further : they even saw chemistry's energy powering machines  could replace  the need to keep alive millions with human energy and skills.

That faith motivated their Hunger Plan East, to starve thirty million 'useless mouths' to death in western Russia, so all of her mechanized farm product could go to feed Germany and her armies instead.

 (And it was the reason they felt comfortable diverting military resources to kill all nine million European Jews,  even as that same war machine was starved for lack of extra civilian manpower.)

Behind the Fair's infamous rocketgun propelling passengers non-stop from New York to Europe, today we see WWII's V-2 rockets and their postwar kin, propelling nuclear mega-death 'too cheap to meter' half way around the world.


But yes, we also see some of the Fair's actual predictions carried out in the 1960s.

Plastic and synthetic fabrics everywhere, near-artificial food like Wonder Bread and Tang, mechanized farms, rockets to the moon, super-highways and cars everywhere.

But that wasn't all of the Sixties - not by a long shot.

For every baby boomer enthralled with a high tech trip to the moon, another boomer was taking a low tech trek 'back to the land' , to cotton shirts, brown bread, organic farming and renewable non-polluting energy.

Could October 1940 New York  have seen this - did October 1940 New York foresee this ?

I argue yes - yes it did.

For Columbia University is 'A House of Many Mansions' and on its uptown medical campus, a medical scientist was becoming less and less convinced that civilized Man had all the answers and that primitive Mother Nature had only the blank stares.

Martin Henry Dawson had first developed this idea in the 1920s and 1930s, while seeing how defensively the entire scientific world had instinctively rejected the very idea that tiny ancient primitive strep pneumonia bacteria could unerringly slice and dice genes to create new variants of itself - something that modern civilized Man could not dream of doing back then (and even now can't do unaided by bacteria).

Dawson took up the cause of what he called "bacteria transformation" and what we more generally today call HGT (horizontal gene transfer), becoming the first ever to set DNA to work in a test tube and to observe quorum sensing.

If biology rather than chemistry is the central science of the sciences today, much of the credit has to go to Dawson, because without his pioneering cheerleading efforts, HGT and DNA, along with the massive microbiology and microtechnology industries they spawned, might have died stillborn.

But now,  in October 1940, Dawson sensed that some of the tiny and primitive beings of Mother Nature had more new - all natural - tricks up their sleeve that even the smartest synthetic scientist couldn't best.

He sensed that raw crude un-purified (natural) penicillin might cure diseases as well as or even better than human synthetic penicillin whenever or if ever (it never has) came along.

The analogy is how a glass of impure natural orange juice delivers a dose of vitamin C as well (and much tastier) than Tang (or a little white pill of the pure stuff) ever does.

He had a young black and a young Jewish patient before him , dying needlessly because their rheumatic heart disease (the polio of the poor) was judged unworthy of much medical research while American medicine prepared for war.

He was convinced that only penicillin and penicillin alone could save their lives (he was right).

So on October 16th 1940, just days before the Fair of the World of Tomorrow closed, Dawson opened our Age of Antibiotics, by being the first ever to inject penicillin-the-antibiotic, injected into the arms of his two patients, Aaron (Leroy) Alston and Charles Aronson.

I remember much more about my school yard bullying than about my school work as a young school kid.

But naturally, as a small kid much bullied by the big and the powerful, I remember well the takeaway lesson about small children's lives saved by antibiotics .

That lesson was that antibiotics were not made by scientific Man in some vast chemical lab, but came from tiny primitive creatures living in Mother Nature's dirtiest and most overlooked spots : basement wall slime fungus, jungle dirt and sewage outflows.

If future historians wish to look for the headwaters of postmodernity's belief in the value of the diversity of life, I suggest they look at naturally made antibiotics as a good place to start.

And that postmodern opening to the diversity of life began in October 1940, just as the prewar World of Yesterday, Modernity's Last Hurrah , was closing ..

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