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Kurt Vonnegut and the Day Scientists Went on Strike

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When the mechanics of war are set into motion, we tend to tell ourselves there isn't much we can do. This is on a practical level, mind you, not a moral or spiritual one. The overwhelming majority of us lack the technical know-how to fully understand these complicated machines of destruction. Like babies watching a pot of water boil over, we can only sit and coo and cry and mess ourselves because I have no idea how to turn the burner off, do you?

But what if the inventors of all these weapons said, "Enough"? That happened in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, when America's scientists proposed a "research stoppage"—a strike.

The Science Action Coordinating Committee, an M.I.T.-based organization backed by 45 professors there, scheduled the strike for March 4, 1969—timed to protest the development of Sentinel ABM, a nation-wide ballistic missile defense system aimed to protect against Chinese attacks. They argued that the system would intensify the nuclear arms race and waste a disgusting amount of money. The Committee also maintained the broader goal of fighting against the "diversion of American Science to military means" while working to prevent the flow of Defense Department money into private institutions. Their thinking was simple: If you're going to use our research to hurt people, we'll stop researching.

The plan was publicly announced at a February meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in New York. There, a 47-year-old Kurt Vonnegut delivered a speech titled "The Virtuous Physicist." While the novelist had a few well-received books to his name, he was a relative unknown at the time. In their write-up of the meeting, the New York Times merely described him as "a science fiction writer." (The next month, the Times would publish a rave review of his newest novel, Slaughterhouse Five, on the front page of their books section, instantly making Vonnegut a household name.)

"What does a humanistic physicist do?" Vonnegut asked the crowd of scientists, many of whom were wearing "STOP ABM" buttons. "Why, he watches people, listens to them, thinks about them, wishes them and their planet well. He wouldn’t knowingly hurt people. He wouldn’t knowingly help politicians or soldiers hurt people. If he comes across a technique that would obviously hurt people, he keeps it to himself. He knows that a scientist can be an accessory to murder most foul. That’s simple enough, surely."

When asked at a press conference afterwards what he meant by a "virtuous physicist," Vonnegut briskly replied, "One who declines to work on weapons.”

The strike was planned to occur at 28 universities, although it's unclear how comprehensive the research stoppage was. At the University of Washington, some "200 faculty members took part." However, at Harvard, the day was mired by a "good deal of confusion." The Crimson reported that scientists there "balked at the words 'protest' and 'strike,'" and chose to view the day more as a "religious holiday" than a labor dispute. The movement didn't apply to them, they figured, because Harvard didn't conduct classified government research on campus.

The Crimson had a conservative view of the strike's effectiveness: "If the only outcome of today's research stoppage is an increased willingness on the part of scientists to use the word 'protest,' the stoppage will still have been a success."

The Science Action Coordinating Committee didn't last long after the March 4 strike, and records of their existence seem to stop in 1969. Lord knows they were unable to prevent government money from invading private scientific research.

Still, they could claim a small victory. Due to wide-ranging public unrest of which they were a very vocal part, the Nixon administration suspended and then subsequently cancelled the Sentinel ABM defense system. However, it was soon replaced with the Safeguard ABM defense system, a colossal waste of money which was shut down after just 24 hours of operation. America's enemies, it seemed, could bypass Safeguard simply by using more warheads and more missiles.

As a certain science fiction writer would say, "So it goes."

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

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Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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