Personal anniversaries in 2018

… some in big round numbers. The biggest is 100, commemorating the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 — which has personal meaning for me because my maternal grandfather Irwin Rice died in the pandemic that year (as did my aunt Mildred, then a tiny baby). For comparison: my parents were both 4 years old that year, and my paternal grandfather Melchior Zwicky was 39 (my dad was the baby of the family). I was reminded of all this by the publication last year of a new book on the pandemic, the excellent Pale Rider by Laura Spinney:


The great pandemic. From the NYT Book Review on 12/29/17, “Three Books That Track Diseases, Drugs and the World They Made” by Amanda Schaffer:

Each time the specter of bird flu arises, so too do grim references to the global pandemic that killed tens of millions of people in 1918. And yet Spinney, a novelist and science writer, argues that almost a century later, the Spanish flu is “still emerging from the shadows of the First World War” in our collective memories. She sets out to rectify this, knowing just which medical mysteries and haunting vignettes will give the pandemic full purchase on our imaginations.

Researchers now believe that the 1918 virus originated in birds, but exactly when and where it made the leap to humans remains under debate. Spinney explores three possibilities: In March 1918, a mess cook at the United States Army’s Camp Funston in Kansas contracted the disease, possibly from a nearby farm. Yet more than a year earlier, a flulike illness had ravaged a military camp, close to the Western Front in northern France. And in 1917 an unknown respiratory disease also swept communities in Northern China, which sent workers to assist the allies as part of the Chinese Labor Corps.

Wherever human transmission occurred, as soon as it did the disease spread around the world, accelerated by troop movements, poor nutrition and overcrowding. At the time, no one knew where the flu had come from or why it was so deadly; misinformation abounded as, Spinney writes, “news of the flu was censored in the warring nations, to avoid damaging morale.” The French, British and American publics blamed the Spanish, generating its ubiquitous misnomer (the pandemic had already struck France and the United States before it arrived in Spain in May 1918), the Brazilians accused the Germans, “the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers.”

Spinney describes how various communities tried to make sense of the disease and manage its impact. Some areas instituted public health measures like banning funerals and parades. Others tried mixtures of ritual and desperation, which Spinney describes with a novelist’s eye: In Odessa, Russia, the community held a “black wedding” between beggars to defend against the disease. In Rio de Janeiro, individuals positioned corpses’ feet in their windows so that public agencies would know to remove the bodies.

It’s hard to credit the monstrous disruptions of 1918: the horrors of the Great War, the appalling sequels to the Russian Revolutions of 1917, and then tens of millions dead from the Spanish Flu.

The publisher’s note on the author of Pale Rider:

Laura Spinney is a science journalist and a literary novelist. She has published two novels in English, and her writing on science has appeared in National GeographicNatureThe Economist, and The Telegraph, among others. Her oral history portrait of a European city, Rue Centrale, was published in 2013 in French and English.

Wikipedia identifies Spinney “(born August 1971) [as] a British science journalist and writer, resident in France”.

Solitary life. A much more personal anniversary, also a round number: in September 1998, 20 years ago, when my man Jacques went into a dementia care facility, I entered into a life of living alone.

The end of intimacy. Then after J died in 2003 and I nearly died from necrotizing fasciitis later that year, my experience of sexual intimacy with others withered away, ending entirely in 2007, 11 years ago. (Please don’t write me with advice. The life I live now is not the one I expected, but I’m comfortable with it.)

Outliving my father. Later this year, a bit after my 78th birthday, I will have outlived my father, who was born 3/24/14 and died in April 1992, not long after his 78th birthday. There’s some chance (probaby not very great, given my many health problems) that I will manage to outlive my grandfather Melchior, who was born 4/9/1879 and died in July 1965 at the age of 86. (My Swiss grandmother, Bertha, died in her 60s, while my Pa. Dutch grandmother, Sue, died at the age of 85.)

Another round number: Tom Lehrer is 90. Meanwhile, in the pages of the journal Nature (556, 27-28), on 4/4/18 in “Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire: Andrew Robinson celebrates the high notes in the mathematician’s inimitable musical oeuvre”:

  (#2) Lehrer performing in San Francisco in 1965

In 1959, the mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer — who turns 90 this month — performed what he characteristically called a “completely pointless” scientific song at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (He was a PhD student there at the time.) ‘The Elements’, now one of his most cherished works, sets the names of all the chemical elements then known to the tune of the ‘Major-General’s Song’ from The Pirates of Penzance, the comic opera by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Lehrer’s heroically precise, rapid-fire enunciation of 102 elements (reordered to allow flawless end-rhymes), ends with the much-quoted crack, “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard/And there may be many others but they haven’t been discarvard.” [Video available on the Nature site.]

In the 1960s, Lehrer followed up with more than a dozen astringent, cynical and often pointedly political songs, such as ‘So Long, Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb (A Song for World War III)’. As The New York Times had it, “Mr. Lehrer’s muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” (Lehrer reprinted the quote in his album liner notes.) [My personal favorite is “Alma”, about Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel and her lovers, which you can listen to here, in a 1965 concert performance.]

… Much of Lehrer’s oeuvre — some 50 songs (or 37, by his own ruthless reckoning) composed over nearly three decades — played with tensions at the nexus of science and society. His biggest hit, That Was The Year That Was, covered a gamut of them. This 1965 album gathered together songs Lehrer had written for That Was The Week That Was, the US satirical television show spawned by the BBC original. ‘Who’s Next?’ exposes the dangers of nuclear proliferation. ‘Pollution’ highlights environmental crises building at the time, such as undrinkable water and unbreathable air.

… His musical career began at university, with the spoof sports song ‘Fight Fiercely, Harvard’. In the early 1950s, Lehrer put on a satirical show in the physics department, The Physical Revue (a pun on the name of the US journal then named Physical Review). With co-performers including Norman Ramsey (later a Nobel laureate in physics) and Lewis Branscomb (who would become a presidential science-policy advisor), he performed ditties such as ‘Relativity’, ‘Fugue for Scientists’ and ‘The Slide Rule Song’. It was a training ground for later triumphs.

He began recording in 1953. Although US radio stations refused to play such ‘controversial’ material, his fame spread through word of mouth. In Britain, the royal approval of unexpected fan Princess Margaret and the support of the BBC significantly raised Lehrer’s profile, and he considered abandoning academia. But in 1960, bored by touring, he returned to Harvard, aiming to complete a long-standing mathematics PhD on modes in statistics. Soon, however, he concluded he had nothing original to contribute academically. As he notoriously wrote in ‘Lobachevsky’, a song named after a nineteenth-century Russian mathematician: “Plagiarize!/Let no one else’s work evade your eyes!/… So don’t shade your eyes,/but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize/— only be sure always to call it, please, research.” Lehrer dropped his doctorate and began to teach mathematics — at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in 1962 and, from 1972 until his retirement in 2001, at the University of California, Santa Cruz (along with a class in musical theatre).

I didn’t run across Tom at MIT back in the 60s, but then I made his acquaintance in Santa Cruz, where he was a regular at Christmas parties with friends from UCSC. Rather shy, but wryly funny — but on stage he sparkled, in the remarkable math classes he taught (he sometimes referred to the courses as “math for tenors”) and in his American musical theatre course (the class project was putting together a show, from the ground up, and students fought to get into it).

I’d idly wondered a few weeks ago how Tom was getting on and was delighted to see this tribute to him in Nature. At 90, wow.

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