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
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
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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
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,
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
The Vinland Map shows its true colors
"And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night"
(lines and image from "Paul
The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.