150 Years Of The Atlantic January/February 2007

Science

This is the twelfth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.
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Darwin on the Origin of Species
July 1860

By Asa Gray

Several months after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the Harvard botany professor Asa Gray, a friend of Darwin’s, defended the book’s controversial theory of evolution.

We cling to a long-accepted theory, just as we cling to an old suit of clothes … New notions and new styles worry us, till we get well used to them, which is only by slow degrees …

Such being our habitual state of mind, it may well be believed that the perusal of the new book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” left an uncomfortable impression …

[But] surely the scientific mind of an age which contemplates the solar system as evolved from a common, revolving, fluid mass,—which, through experimental research, has come to regard light, heat, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and mechanical power as varieties or derivative and convertible forms of one force, instead of independent species,—which has brought the so-called elementary kinds of matter, such as the metals, into kindred groups … the mind of such an age cannot be expected to let the old belief about species pass unquestioned.

Vol. 6, No. 33, pp. 109–116

Mars
May 1895

by Percival Lowell

Following an Italian astronomer’s 1877 discovery of what appeared to be canals on the planet Mars, the astronomer Percival Lowell (brother of the poet Amy Lowell) began to investigate the possibility of Martian life. In a four-part Atlantic series, he laid out the evidence. Lowell later went on to predict the existence of Pluto, and to initiate the investigation that led to its discovery after his death.

Amid the seemingly countless stars that on a clear night spangle the vast dome overhead, there appeared last autumn to be a new-comer, a very large and ruddy one, that rose at sunset through the haze about the horizon. That star was the planet Mars, so conspicuous when in such position as often to be taken for a portent … From [Mars] … of all the heavenly bodies, may we expect first to learn something beyond celestial mechanics, beyond even celestial chemistry; something in answer to the mute query that man instinctively makes as he gazes at the stars, whether there be life in worlds other than his own.

Hitherto the question has received no affirmative reply, although the trend of all latter-day investigation has been to such affirmation; for science has been demonstrating more and more clearly the essential oneness of the universe. Matter proves to be common property. We have learnt that the very same substances with which we are familiar on this our earth, iron, magnesium, calcium, and the rest, are present in the far-off stars that strew the depths of space. Nothing new under the sun! Indeed, there is nothing new above it but ever-varying detail. So much for matter. As for mind beyond the confines of our tiny globe, modesty, backed by a probability little short of demonstration, forbids the thought that we are the sole thinkers in this great universe.

Vol. 75, No. 451, pp. 594–603

In the Noon of Science
September 1912

by John Burroughs

John Burroughs, a naturalist and popular essayist whose circle of friends included Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt, noted in 1912 that the growing primacy of science was bringing about a new, more dispassionate and mechanistic view of the world.

With the rise of the scientific habit of mind has come the decline in great creative literature and art. With the spread of education based upon scientific principles, originality in mind and in character fades …

In the light of physical science our bodies are mere machines, and every emotion of our souls is accounted for by molecular changes in the brain-substance. Life itself is explained in terms of chemico- mechanical principles …

[But] let us give physical science its due … The sources and nature of dis­ease, the remedial forces of nature, the chemical compounds, the laws of hy­giene and sanitation, the value of foods, and a thousand other things beyond the reach of our unaided experience, are in the keeping of science … It is only when we arm our faculties with the ideas and with the weapons of science that we appreciate the grandeur of the voyage we are making on this planet. It is only through science that we know we are on a planet, and are heavenly voyagers at all.

Vol. 110, No. 3, pp. 322–331

From Plato to Max Planck: The Philosophical Problems of Atomic Physics
November 1959

by Werner Heisenberg

In 1959, the physicist and philosopher Werner Heisenberg—developer of the uncertainty principle and winner of a 1932 Nobel Prize—explained how atomic physics was reshaping modern notions of reality.

There are large areas of experience which cannot be even approximately described with the concepts of classical physics.

In these areas of atomic physics, a great deal of the earlier intuitive physics has gone by the board—not only the applicability of its concepts and laws but the entire notion of reality which underlay the exact sciences until our present-day atomic physics …

If the quantum theory is correct … elemental particles are not real in the same sense as the things in our daily lives—for example, trees or stones—are real; they appear as abstractions derived from observed material which in a literal sense is real. Now, if it is impossible to ascribe existence in the strictest sense to these elemental particles, it is difficult to regard matter as truly real …

We cannot escape the conclusions that our earlier notions of reality are no longer applicable.

Vol. 204, No. 5, pp. 109–113

The Double Helix
January 1968

by James Watson

Fifteen years after James D. Watson (then only twenty-five) and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, Watson wrote an in-depth, and often humorous, account of the experience.

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood. Perhaps in other company he is that way, but I have never had reason so to judge him. It has nothing to do with his present fame. Already he is much talked about, usually with reverence, and someday he may be considered in the category of Rutherford or Bohr. But this was not true when, in the fall of 1951, I came to the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University to join a small group of physicists and chemists working on the three-dimensional structures of proteins. At that time he was thirty-five, yet almost totally unknown. Although some of his closest colleagues realized the value of his quick, penetrating mind and frequently sought his advice, he was often not appreciated, and most people thought he talked too much …

It was [biophysicist Maurice] Wil­kins who had first excited me about X-ray work on DNA. This happened at Naples when a small scientific meeting was held on the structures of the large molecules found in living cells. Then it was the spring of 1951, before I knew of Francis Crick’s existence. Already I was much involved with DNA, since I was in Europe on a postdoctoral fellowship to learn its biochemistry. My interest in DNA had grown out of a desire, first picked up while a senior in college, to learn what the gene was. Later, in graduate school at Indiana University, it was my hope that the gene might be solved without my learning any chemistry. This wish partially arose from laziness since, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I was principally interested in birds and managed to avoid taking any chemistry or physics courses which looked of even medium difficulty. Briefly, the Indiana biochemists encouraged me to learn organic chemistry, but after I used a Bunsen burner to warm up some benzene, I was relieved from further true chemistry. It was safer to turn out an uneducated Ph.D. than to risk another explosion …

From my first day in [biochemist Max Perutz’s lab at Cambridge University] I knew I would not leave Cambridge for a long time. Departing would be idiocy, for I had immediately discovered the fun of talking to Francis Crick. Finding someone in Max’s lab who knew that DNA was more important than proteins was real luck … Our lunch conversations quickly centered on how genes were put together. Within a few days after my arrival, we knew what to do: imitate Linus Pauling [discoverer of the -helix] and beat him at his own game …

The key to Linus’ success was his reliance on the simple laws of structural chemistry. The -helix had not been found by only staring at X-ray pictures; the essential trick, instead, was to ask which atoms like to sit next to each other. In place of pencil and paper, the main working tools were a set of molecular models superficially resembling the toys of preschool children.

We could thus see no reason why we should not solve DNA in the same way. All we had to do was to construct a set of molecular models and begin to play—with luck, the structure would be a helix.

Vol. 221, No. 1, pp. 76–99

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