I’m thinking of a word that doesn’t quite exist. It should exist, maybe it does and I don’t know it, but it seems like a necessary word to explain 2012, and the several years before it, maybe every year before it. It’s a word to describe the intense attraction of the end of the world through kitsch. A cultural giddiness produced by Mayan stone and survivalist hoards of toilet paper and beef jerky. Not the kind of end-of-the-world where everything really ends, just where civilization collapses to the point that we’re freed from the demands of daily life … jobs and mortgages and perhaps above all the stress of crowded cities, all evaporated. It would be terrible and it would be wonderful, an Armageddon of convenience, a Schadenfreude of self, taking pleasure in our own great misfortune. What’s a word that means the state of dreading and hoping for the same thing?
Word of the latest End Times has probably reached your ears by now, carried along in the trough of recent news of cannibalism in Miami, Maryland, Louisiana, Connecticut, Sweden and Canada, by the peculiarities of the man who eviscerated himself and threw bits of his intestines at police, by the Brazilian boy who came back to life, briefly, at his own funeral. The causes of these tragedies are all basically unrelated — mental illness, presumed drug abuse, some very shoddy South American diagnostics— still it didn’t take long for popular media to begin constructing the narrative, however tongue-in-cheek, of a looming zombie apocalypse.
Science happens in all kinds of places—even the South. And perhaps because science has met with resistance in the South (in that it sometimes doesn’t get taught), here it manifests in strange ways. It emerges from the culture however it can. Unlike those places where science is a bland and necessary pill, in the South it is more flavorful. It’s not hidden in our food so much as plucked from the field and worked into the recipe.
Case in point.
During the Civil War, a nurse named Sally Tompkins opened a hospital in Richmond to treat the wounded soldiers streaming into the city. Her emphasis on cleanliness ensured that mortality was very low. When Confederate President Jefferson Davis decreed that all military hospitals must be under military control, Tompkins was commissioned as a captain—the first female Army officer in the country. She continued to run the hospital throughout the war, as described by the United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine: “With her medicine chest strapped to her side and her Bible in her hands, she flitted from duty to duty, ever ready to ease pain or relieve a distressed soul.” Out of the thirteen hundred wounded that passed through her hospital, there were only seventy-three deaths, the lowest mortality rate of any military hospital during the war. About her methods she said, “We used nothing but whiskey and turpentine.”
Meanwhile, a hundred years later, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was having cocktails in the bar of New York’s St. Regis Hotel with Lewis Reynolds of the Reynolds tobacco/metals/marshmallow-snack family. They were discussing building an amusement park called Dalíland, which among other things might or might not feature an exhibit wherein a person could revisit his or her mother’s womb. It was going to be set on family land in Florida (where Disney World ended up), and which may or may not have been inspired, at least in part, by Dalí’s vengeful feelings over an aborted animated film project he was working on with Walt Disney in 1945. At some point, Reynolds mentioned that maybe Dalí would like to take a stab at a statue they were thinking of building along Monument Avenue in Richmond. Monument Avenue is a historic street lined with big granite monuments of Civil War luminaries: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, the “Scientist of the Seas.” At the time, in 1966, there was talk of adding Captain Sally Tompkins to the monumentals. It might also be a cool opportunity, Reynolds perhaps thought, to show off the company’s anodized aluminum, which at the time was a popular architectural material for its corrosion-resistance and ability to be produced in any color, and of which one thousand pounds could definitely be made available to illustrate Tompkins’s greatness, Dalí’s brilliance, and aluminum’s versatility for capturing both.
Dalí thought it was a wild idea and sent his adviser and an ocelot or two to Richmond to chat it up with the Richmond elite. Dalí’s idea: A St. George-type theme, with Captain Tompkins fighting a dragon in the form of a microbe. The battle would take place in a giant petri dish perched atop a twenty-foot version of Dalí’s little finger. (The one drawing that exists, above, wasn’t drawn by Dalí, but by Bill Wynne, art director for the ad company representing the Moon Pie Corporation [a subsidiary of Reynolds Metals Co.].)
Richmond hated it. It was a conservative place; what can I say? They didn’t want Dalí’s giant little finger anywhere near Monument Avenue.
And so it was that anodized surrealism never came to the avenue. Now, Captain Sally Tompkins’s image is immortalized in a stained-glass window at a nearby church, medicine kit and Bible at the ready. And Monument Avenue only ever stretched thematically away from The Recent Unpleasantness thirty years later with a statue of tennis-great Arthur Ashe wielding a racket and a book above a bunch of children.
The moral of the story is that the world is a supremely weird place, and that, like it or not, science is behind all of it. In Richmond, medicine, metallurgy, and the creative produce of the mind came together to not-build a great thing: an imaginary monument to someone who became a hero for not killing many people.
Nature abhors a vacuum, you see, and in the South, the space is filled with stories.
The purpose of this column is to explore the science of the South. The first important question to ask is: Is there a distinct “science of the South”? Or is it just an artificial category, a clever way to fit content into a theme? Certainly it’s easy to recognize how art, music, food and fashion are shaped by and reflect a region. But with science, discoveries made soon belong to the world. Is science not sort of happening everywhere?
In a strict sense, yes. There are particles interacting all over; there’s as much physics going on in Boston as in Appalachia. But different places look at that stuff differently, study it more, or less. So it can be said that there’s more science, as in research, going on in some places than others.
Which leads to the first focus of this column: Studying those institutions that study science. The South is full of research in science and technology, from the University of Texas at Austin to Florida’s coastal schools to North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Universities as well as private institutions are always working on something interesting, and I hope to tune into that as much as possible.
The second focus is how scientifically interesting things happen in the South, as a geographic, geologic, botanical, zoological, astronomical region. There are tornadoes and tides and woodpeckers and droughts and fires and things falling out of the sky with a weird intensity that seems nearly intentional. And, of course, there are all the people who affect or are affected by these Southern phenomena.
The third focus is how the culture of the South interacts with its science, its nature, and how those things feed back on one another. Sally and Dalí are kind of emblematic of this, a confluence of forces that just could not happen anywhere else, but that end up reverberating everywhere else. “From the Earth to the Moon Pie” kind of thing.
Plus, the Southern attitude has an effect on the pursuit of truth.
Robert J. Malone of the University of Florida is Executive Director of The History of Science Society. In an essay, he considers hospitality, defined as a host’s “shared interest in a guest’s specialty and who makes resources available for intellectual pursuits,” an important quality in the South’s cultivation of its sciences—from way back in the 18th-century days of itinerant botanists, ornithologists and assorted naturalists. “The southerner,” Malone writes, “like those who work in academia, in research libraries, in museums, and in federal agencies, has long been identified by the tension of isolation (much of it self-imposed) with the longing for society.” The exchange of ideas, that much sweeter for being also a reprieve from solitude, is “about engaging and supporting like-minded individuals in their quest to understand the world around them.”
This exchange of ideas can be as unexpected, startling, and exciting as a sudden wave.
I lived at a monumental intersection. Every day I’d come out my front door and be greeted by Stonewall Jackson’s horse’s ass. (The General faces North, ever vigilant).
I was in an apartment building with a bunch of other twenty-somethings, a real Petri dish of organisms floating around consuming alcohol and sex (or producing sex? the biology eludes me). There was a German grad student studying biology and medicine who lived on the first floor. His name was Dirk. He was a hilarious vision of the latter-day Aryan ideal—tall and blond, a child of good breeding who wore very tight pants and tight bright shirts and danced with young American girls at the worst clubs we could find. He was fascinated by the South, and since we lived in a building right across the street from a palatial Baptist church, he wanted to see what it was all about. Never having gone in either, I took him over there one Sunday and we sat in a tiny chapel, which I thought was strange, and watched a silent sermon which I also thought was strange. There was some kind of interpretive dance going on up at the altar. It occurred to me that we were in a deaf sermon, and so after a while he and I snuck out, having learned something about how science and religion can adapt to one another.
So it seemed convenient—providential?—when some weeks later Dirk and I were sitting in the sand of Virginia Beach and were approached by two college kids, probably from Liberty University up the road, who wished to speak to us about Christianity. I invited them to sit, and they began asking us the big questions—the brave ones about what we believed and why.
Until then I hadn’t thought about it so directly, and the answer hadn’t come so clearly as when I looked out at the waves. It seemed to me, I told them, that if you believe in a God who created everything, wouldn’t a better, clearer indicator of His message be written on the play of stars, the cycle of trees, and the movement of the waves, than what’s written, by man, in a book? Why study God at a remove, subject to serious editing? Why not look at everything else in the universe, I asked them, to find meaning? Nature won’t lie to you if you can approach it honestly and empty. Boy it made good sense to me then, and still does. It became an operating principle for me to find meaning. The pilgrims and I tried to reconcile this, but they were unwilling or unable to allow for great significance outside those messages in that book. After a while they brushed themselves off and headed south, down the beach. The German scientist, for his part, was annoyed that Southern religion involved interrupting a perfectly lovely day at the beach.
“Scientist” as a term was coined in the 1830s, as science (meaning knowledge) was evolving into many different disciplines. Before that it was called natural philosophy, a term roughly suggesting the pursuit of meaning by observing nature. And that’s what this is all about, really. I’m no scientist: I just want to look at the waves. I want to find where Nature is bumping up against Civilization, and how we interact, and what myths we inflate, or burst. What incredible constructs, even those that never were.