Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1723:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, let's not fight about debunking. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"Look at these two New York Times Obituaries," says my wife. So I do. Each is, in a way, about myth and reality. Microscopist Walter McCrone is dead at 86, and Boston milkman Paul Revere at 85.

Revere was a descendent of the "One if by land, two if by sea" Revere -- successful metalsmith and businessman as well as political figure during the Revolution. But, don't try to learn about his famous ride from Longfellow's familiar poem.

Revere was one of two riders sent from Boston to warn John Adams and John Hancock that the British were on the way. After they did that, they picked up a third rider and set off for Concord, where Colonists had hidden weapons and supplies. British soldiers intercepted all three. The other two escaped and got to Concord. Revere was finally released without his horse. He had to walk back to Lexington Green. There he witnessed the end of the battle.

His descendent fought in WW-II and came home with a bronze star. When people in Boston tried to get him to reenact his forebear's ride, he refused to put on a uniform and ride a horse. He did go as far as driving his milk truck along the route. More important, he also avoided being drawn into the many heated arguments about just what his ancestor had, and had not, done.

Chemist Walter McCrone, in the other obituary, ran a research institute and did a lot of work on checking out historical claims. Some he deemed to be true. Beethoven's medical problems might well've been connected with lead poisoning -- maybe from the health spas he went to. However, McCrone raised hackles when he debunked the Shroud of Turin and Yale University's Vinland Map.

The Shroud first appeared in 1356. The Vatican itself doesn't claim that it's an authentic relic. In fact, not long after it was found, Pope Clement VII said it was just a drawing. In 1979, McCrone found that the image had been formed in tempera paint. And, until small pieces of the Shroud were carefully cleaned and carbon-dated in 1987, debunking was based on chemical results. Then carbon dating showed that plant fibers of the cloth grew over thirteen hundred years after the Crucifixion.

The Vinland Map is another matter: Supposedly drawn by Vikings around 1440, it's a crude "world map" of the time, including Greenland. Carbon dating shows the parchment is the right age, but McCrone's chemical analysis showed the inks to be of a kind used much later. Still, there could be explanations for that. The Vinland Map remains a bone of contention.

And so, while people fight over particulars, we know perfectly well that Paul Revere rode to Lexington, and the Vikings sailed to Greenland. Science will gradually box in the details, and I'm content to wait and see. I like something McCrone said. He called the Shroud of Turin a "fantastic work of art." And so it is. That much is certain and will remain so long after the arguing has ceased.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lewis, P., Walter McCrone, Debunker Of Legends, Is Dead at 86. and Goldman. A. L., Paul Revere, 85, Celebrator Of His Ancestor's Famous Ride. Both in The New York Times Obituaries, Friday, July 26, 2002, pg. C15.

For more on the history of Paul Revere's Ride, see: the Wikipedia article on the subject.

For more on the McCrone Institute and its work, see: http://www.mcri.org/

You might also be interested in the following novel which deals with the analysis of Beethoven's hair: Martin, R., Beethoven's Hair. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.

The day after I recorded this episode, the following notice was posted by the American Chemical Society: The Vinland Map shows its true colors

Longfellow's Paul Revere "And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night"

(lines and image from "Paul Revere's Ride,
The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1902)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.