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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

9 Facts about Silent Spring Author Rachel Carson

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Although she spent most of her career as a marine biologist, Rachel Carson (1907–1964) is remembered mostly for raising the alarm over the dangers of pollution and pesticides. Her book Silent Spring detailed how harmful chemicals like DDT could have unintended consequences; both the work and the public’s reaction to it helped usher in the modern environmental movement. Take a look at a few facts about Carson’s inspiring life.

1. SHE PUBLISHED HER FIRST STORY AT AGE 10.

Carson’s love of nature was no doubt due to early exposure. Her family lived on 65 acres of farmland roughly 14 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She also loved writing: At age 10, Carson wrote a story about a downed fighter pilot, “A Battle in the Clouds,” and submitted it to St. Nicholas, a magazine geared to young writers that had also published pieces from William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her story was accepted and published in 1918.

2. SHE ORIGINALLY WANTED TO MAJOR IN ENGLISH.

Carson pursued formal education with zeal, winning a scholarship to the Pennsylvania College for Women. At the time she began attending, Carson had her sights set on earning an English degree and becoming a teacher and writer. She switched her major to biology—one of only three women at the school to join that department—and later earned her M.A. in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

3. SHE USED THE RADIO TO ADVOCATE FOR THE WORLD’S OCEANS.

In 1935, Carson’s aptitude for communicating science earned her a job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. She continued to write articles for both government and mainstream publications that presented elegant arguments on the need to preserve our natural world, including the oceans. Part of her duties involved writing seven-minute radio scripts for a segment called “Romance Under the Waters.” The following year, she was promoted to junior aquatic biologist, one of only two women of such stature at the bureau. In 1952, having become the editor-in-chief for all of the bureau’s publications, she left the agency to write full-time.

4. SHE WROTE UNDER A GENDER-NEUTRAL BYLINE.

While freelancing for publications like The Baltimore Sun, Carson feared that readers would dismiss her pro-environment message if they knew the writer was a woman. Science then was a male-oriented endeavor. To reduce that chance, she published pieces under the byline “R.L. Carson.”

5. SHE MADE SCIENCE ACCESSIBLE TO A GENERAL AUDIENCE.

Carson was revered as a science writer because she turned the sterile, dull copy common in environmental research into something of interest to a wider readership. In Under the Sea-Wind, her 1941 book on marine life, Carson wrote about fish feeling fear and other animals wearing expressions. Other science writers scoffed, but those creative flourishes helped Carson deliver her work to a broader audience.

6. SHE WAS RELUCTANT TO TAKE ON THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY.

From an early age, Carson had been cognizant of the environmental effects of toxic chemicals. Her farm was near a glue factory that slaughtered horses, and the smell often compelled neighbors to abandon their porches and run indoors. Later, when Carson became a science writer, she felt the urge to warn people about studies indicating DDT could be harmful—but she knew that whoever did so would be making enemies of powerful people. Carson tried to get other writers, including E.B. White, to tackle it. When no one offered, Carson took it on herself.

7. SHE NEVER WANTED A BLANKET BAN ON CHEMICALS.

In the years following her death, Carson was sometimes criticized for helping to foster a growing hysteria about the use of pesticides like DDT. But she wasn’t the first health expert to question their impact on the environment. In 1957, five years before the publication of Silent Spring, the U.S. Forest Service banned DDT from being sprayed around select aquatic areas. Nor was Carson advocating for a complete ban. What she wanted, she said, was to make sure people were informed about the potential hazards.

8. SHE CONCEALED SERIOUS ILLNESSES.

When Carson was working on Silent Spring in the early 1960s, she was suffering from a series of maladies that sapped her strength: viral pneumonia, ulcers, and breast cancer. Knowing she was being critical of the pesticides industry, she kept her health conditions largely a secret in case her adversaries wanted to say she was blaming her problems on chemicals. True to her fears, pro-chemical businesses did lob personal attacks, calling her a communist and a cat-owning spinster.

9. SHE HAD AN ALLY IN JFK.

When Silent Spring was published in 1962, President John F. Kennedy felt it was a crucial wake-up call for the environmental movement. To help offset any pushback from the chemical industry, Kennedy announced that the Department of Agriculture, among other government agencies, would be examining the role pesticides play in human illnesses. He then announced a special advisory board to study the questions Carson posed in the book. When the results of the board’s work were published in 1963, they supported Carson’s belief that the general public should be better informed about the potential hazards of such chemicals. DDT was eventually banned entirely in 1972.

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Here's What Actually Happens When You're Electrocuted
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Benjamin Franklin was a genius, but not so smart when it came to safely handling electricity, according to legend. As SciShow explains in its latest video, varying degrees of electric current passing through the body can result in burns, seizures, cessation of breathing, and even a stopped heart. Our skin is pretty good at resisting electric current, but its protective properties are diminished when it gets wet—so if Franklin actually conducted his famous kite-and-key experiment in the pouring rain, he was essentially flirting with death.

That's right, death: Had Franklin actually been electrocuted, he wouldn't have had only sparks radiating from his body and fried hair. The difference between experiencing an electric shock and an electrocution depends on the amount of current involved, the voltage (the difference in the electrical potential that's driving the current), and your body's resistance to the current. Once the line is crossed, the fallout isn't pretty, which you can thankfully learn about secondhand by watching the video below.

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Big Questions
Does Einstein's Theory of Relativity Imply That Interstellar Space Travel is Impossible?
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Does Einstein's theory of relativity imply that interstellar space travel is impossible?

Paul Mainwood:

The opposite. It makes interstellar travel possible—or at least possible within human lifetimes.

The reason is acceleration. Humans are fairly puny creatures, and we can’t stand much acceleration. Impose much more than 1 g of acceleration onto a human for an extended period of time, and we will experience all kinds of health problems. (Impose much more than 10 g and these health problems will include immediate unconsciousness and a rapid death.)

To travel anywhere significant, we need to accelerate up to your travel speed, and then decelerate again at the other end. If we’re limited to, say, 1.5 g for extended periods, then in a non-relativistic, Newtonian world, this gives us a major problem: Everyone’s going to die before we get there. The only way of getting the time down is to apply stronger accelerations, so we need to send robots, or at least something much tougher than we delicate bags of mostly water.

But relativity helps a lot. As soon as we get anywhere near the speed of light, then the local time on the spaceship dilates, and we can get to places in much less (spaceship) time than it would take in a Newtonian universe. (Or, looking at it from the point of view of someone on the spaceship: they will see the distances contract as they accelerate up to near light-speed—the effect is the same, they will get there quicker.)

Here’s a quick table I knocked together on the assumption that we can’t accelerate any faster than 1.5 g. We accelerate up at that rate for half the journey, and then decelerate at the same rate in the second half to stop just beside wherever we are visiting.

You can see that to get to destinations much beyond 50 light years away, we are receiving massive advantages from relativity. And beyond 1000 light years, it’s only thanks to relativistic effects that we’re getting there within a human lifetime.

Indeed, if we continue the table, we’ll find that we can get across the entire visible universe (47 billion light-years or so) within a human lifetime (28 years or so) by exploiting relativistic effects.

So, by using relativity, it seems we can get anywhere we like!

Well ... not quite.

Two problems.

First, the effect is only available to the travelers. The Earth times will be much much longer. (Rough rule to obtain the Earth-time for a return journey [is to] double the number of light years in the table and add 0.25 to get the time in years). So if they return, they will find many thousand years have elapsed on earth: their families will live and die without them. So, even we did send explorers, we on Earth would never find out what they had discovered. Though perhaps for some explorers, even this would be a positive: “Take a trip to Betelgeuse! For only an 18 year round-trip, you get an interstellar adventure and a bonus: time-travel to 1300 years in the Earth’s future!”

Second, a more immediate and practical problem: The amount of energy it takes to accelerate something up to the relativistic speeds we are using here is—quite literally—astronomical. Taking the journey to the Crab Nebula as an example, we’d need to provide about 7 x 1020 J of kinetic energy per kilogram of spaceship to get up to the top speed we’re using.

That is a lot. But it’s available: the Sun puts out 3X1026 W, so in theory, you’d only need a few seconds of Solar output (plus a Dyson Sphere) to collect enough energy to get a reasonably sized ship up to that speed. This also assumes you can transfer this energy to the ship without increasing its mass: e.g., via a laser anchored to a large planet or star; if our ship needs to carry its chemical or matter/anti-matter fuel and accelerate that too, then you run into the “tyranny of the rocket equation” and we’re lost. Many orders of magnitude more fuel will be needed.

But I’m just going to airily treat all that as an engineering issue (albeit one far beyond anything we can attack with currently imaginable technology). Assuming we can get our spaceships up to those speeds, we can see how relativity helps interstellar travel. Counter-intuitive, but true.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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