Back in the days when I was still a practicing physicist, I found myself at the D.C. Naval Research Lab as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow. I would beguile the occasional spare hour visiting the wonderful museums on the Mall, especially the Smithsonian -- getting to touch a real moon rock, admiring the Hope Diamond, and appreciating the replica Lunar Rover, complete with duct-taped dustflaps. Little did I know, wandering the exhibits of the Air and Space Museum, that a rebellion was brewing underfoot.
The story goes like this. In 1991 the American Chemical Society donated 5.3 million dollars to the Smithsonian Institute to fund an exhibit on "Science in American Life." Doesn't sound too hard, does it. And by the way, ACS is not rich. That is a LOT of money for them.
Time passes. Someone in the ACS wonders how things are going, and pays a visit. I suspect they had to be revived with smelling salts. The exhibit being put together could more accurately be titled "EEEEEVIL science in IMPERIALISTIC WARMONGERING american SEAL-CLUBBING life". Much backstage fervent discussion. *My* organization, the American Physical Society, takes point in the public debate, ACS still cherishing the fond belief that it was just a terrible misunderstanding that can be worked out, instead of a deliberate plan.
These deliberations go so well that at last the ACS demands their name be removed from the exhibit that they spent 5.3 MILLION DOLLARS on. (APS jumped ship long before.)
I had the dubious pleasure of accompanying friends to visit this atrocity. My running commentary was caustic in the extreme, and amused them greatly. I doubt the docents were equally amused. What I remember of it (and I am sure shock and horror blocked some idiocies from my memory ....)
- even before you enter the exhibit space, visitors are greeted by life-size cutouts of (allegedly) famous scientists with appropriate quotes. Famous to politicians, that is. I recognized one as a professor at my undergraduate university. I have no knowledge of his position in the research field, and for all I know he is good at what he does. But he's not famous for anything but being one-time Lieutenant Governor of Delaware. (politics!)
-first set-piece is a lovingly constructed diorama featuring two bewhiskered 19th century scientists arguing about who should get the credit for inventing saccharine. (you know, CANCER! Booga booga!) A display shows a photograph of laboratory staff from the time, and carefully points out to the unobservant that there are NO WOMEN OR MINORITIES present. (Unlike every other profession then, where there was complete and total integration and diversity. Right?)
-a little alcove showing the apparatus used to invent nylon. No information about which dodad did what, but they DID make sure to show some pantyhose. Because, of course, that's all nylon has ever been used for to improve our lives. (A man did this one, I'm sure.)
-photos of the WWII process and plant for the first mass-production of penicillin, which saved countless hundreds of lives. I don't recall if they condescended to note this fact or not, but they made damn sure to tell you the workers had to wear ID badges and accept security restrictions. During a war. Oh my.
-an entire huge control panel from a nuclear plant. No information about power generated, or anything that might muddy the issue of SCIENCE BAD! CAUSES CANCER!
-some of the flash-shadow images from Hiroshima. Because you know us scientists just love nuking people for no reason at all. I hope a Bataan Death March survivor doesn't see that section.
-I don't know how this snuck in -- maybe they didn't understand the implications. They showed the data from the first Gummint Change in Policy fueled by a poll. Seems someone had the bright idea way back when of asking white soldiers how they felt about serving with black soldiers -- and they separated the data by *whether or not those white soldiers had worked with black ones*. Surprise! If a soldier had, he minded much less. And this gave us the integrated Army, which can be argued to have had as much of a positive effect on racial equality as the civil rights movement. (I'm not sure if government polls cause cancer, but let's err on the side of caution, OK?)
-Large section on Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring" and DDT. Did I mention Science Causes Cancer?
(the rest is a bit of a blur, due to increasing blood-pressure and adrenaline)
-but just before I left, frothing at the mouth, there was one final blow. Killer Genetically Modified tomatoes. Yes, really.
I wonder if it ever occurred to those idiots, as they chatted on their cellphones to their grandmother about how wonderful her hip replacement was working out and how Granpa's heartvalve surgery was being scheduled and could they fly out to visit someday or at least send some new pictures of the grandkids by email, if science in American life was just a little bit better than what they had shown. Yes, I'm still bitter. And until I see some metaphorical heads on pikes, I will continue that way.