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.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

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