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Spectacular science in the shadows of New York

New York is a world center of commerce and finance, media and transportation, and many other facets of modern life. It is also a great hub of science, but this seldom transpires when New York is mentioned. Yet science, especially when including technology, inventions, medicine, learning, and related activities, is omnipresent in our lives regardless whether or not we are scientists.

New York has world-renowned universities, a museum of natural history along with a host of other museums, a science academy, historical societies, botanical gardens and zoos, rich libraries, and a hall of science. New York has been home to some of the most outstanding scientists and discoverers of the world. Just considering the Nobel Prize, there may be few countries that could boast so many prize-winners as New York by itself.

The Nobel Prize is, of course, only one of many indicators of success in science and there is no Nobel Prize in many important fields of science. Also, several countries, cities, and institutions may claim any Nobel Prize simultaneously as their own. However, this recognition is so widely known that its mention carries a weighty message about the level of science in any country, city, or institution. Many great American scientists had arrived already being established, or even having earned a Nobel Prize elsewhere. The United States, and New York itself, has attracted scientists escaping life-threatening persecution or scientists merely looking for better work conditions.

However, it would be unfair to ascribe the success of American science primarily to imported talent. Much of the American preeminence stems from developing outstanding researchers and giving them independence at an earlier age than in most other parts of the world. A number of New York high schools provide convincing examples for the success in cultivating home-grown talent. Ten of these high schools have graduated a total of 39 future Nobel laureates.

Part of the Hall of Fame of Great Americans in southern Bronx. On the left, there is the bust of Eli Whitney (by Chester A. Beach, 1926), the inventor of the cotton gin, to separate cotton fibers from their seeds. On the right, from the right, the busts of John James Audubon (by A. Stirling Calder, 1927), naturalist, ornithologist, and painter; Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the forerunner of the telegraph and the Morse code, and painter; Asa Gray (by Chester A. Beach, 1925), botanist and strong supporter of Charles Darwin; James B. Eads (by Charles A. Grafly, 1924), engineer who opened the Mississippi River for ships; Maria Mitchell (by Emma F. Brigham), educator and the first American woman astronomer; and Louis Agassiz (by Anna Hyatt Huntington, 1928), Swiss-born naturalist with interest in ichthyology and geological history. (Photo by the authors and used with permission.)
Part of the Hall of Fame of Great Americans in southern Bronx. On the left, there is the bust of Eli Whitney (by Chester A. Beach, 1926), the inventor of the cotton gin, to separate cotton fibers from their seeds. On the right, from the right, the busts of John James Audubon (by A. Stirling Calder, 1927), naturalist, ornithologist, and painter; Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the forerunner of the telegraph and the Morse code, and painter; Asa Gray (by Chester A. Beach, 1925), botanist and strong supporter of Charles Darwin; James B. Eads (by Charles A. Grafly, 1924), engineer who opened the Mississippi River for ships; Maria Mitchell (by Emma F. Brigham), educator and the first American woman astronomer; and Louis Agassiz (by Anna Hyatt Huntington, 1928), Swiss-born naturalist with interest in ichthyology and geological history. (Photo by the authors and used with permission.)

There are relatively few memorials honoring scientists in public places in New York and some of those that exist may not meet the eye easily. The Hall of Fame of Great Americans is at the northwest corner of the campus of the Bronx Community College. It displays 99 busts of which over 40 honors scientists, educators, inventors, explorers, and others belonging to a broadly interpreted realm of science. The rows of busts are in a beautiful setting and the colonnade is free of charge to visit yet each of the three times we went there in summer and fall 2015, we had the whole venue to ourselves.

New York Discovery
New York has been home to many seminal discoveries in science. The “Genius of Discovery” is an allegorical figure of a winged boy by Gaetano Russo, at the base of the Columbus Memorial on Columbus Circle. (Photo by the authors and used with permission.)

Clinical practice and clinical research are inseparable and Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan is a brilliant example of such unison. The hospital was founded in 1736 and over its history a number of medical innovators and discoverers spent their residency or long stretches of their careers at this hospital. When the Ebola scare reached the United States in fall 2014, a famous medical center in the country failed to provide proper care. In contrast, Bellevue Hospital served as an example of preparedness and performance in handling this deadly disease. The glass and steel exterior of the hospital is hardly distinguishable from many other buildings, but behind it, the unique façade of the old Bellevue is preserved.

Perhaps the single most important discovery in biology in the twentieth century was when Oswald Theodore Avery and his two younger associates determined that deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, is the substance of heredity. The discovery opened the way to the development of today’s personalized medicine, and many of the anticipated discoveries in the coming years will originate from this discovery. There is a commemorative inscription within the gateway of the entrance to The Rockefeller University at the corner of York Avenue and 67th Street. Avery’s grateful friends and colleagues erected it in memory of the bacteriologist who was a member of the Faculty of The Rockefeller Institute (as it was then) between 1913 and 1948. Unfortunately, this gateway is kept locked and the people walking by notice nothing of the commemorative inscription.

Another example of how inconspicuous may be the memorabilia related to science in New York is from the West Village in Manhattan. One of the cornerstones of modern physics was the discovery of the dual—wave/particle— nature of matter. The French physicist Louis de Broglie showed this theoretically in 1923. Because it was counterintuitive, the experimental proof had special significance. It came about at Bell Labs in Manhattan when two physicists, Clinton J. Davisson and Lester H. Germer, shone a beam of electrons (particles) on a crystal and the scattering of electrons yielded a diffraction pattern (characteristic of waves). Bell Labs has since moved to New Jersey, but there is a memorial plaque at the entrance to 55 Bethune Street describing the event. Unfortunately the small plaque, positioned at knee height, is almost impossible to notice.

The Davisson-Germer discovery was a forerunner of further great discoveries of modern physics in New York, many of them by physicists at the Pupin Laboratories of Columbia University. In the post-World War II era, the Pupin Laboratories had an exceptionally high concentration of leading physicists under Isidor I. Rabi’s direction. One of the best known discoveries born at this venue was the laser with innumerable applications in the most diverse areas even in our everyday lives. Just as an example, the laser is used to repair a detached retina and thus help prevent blindness. When the physicists were investigating the simulated emission of light from atoms (the principle of laser) they had never heard of the condition of detached retina nor could they have imagined that one day their discovery in fundamental physics would be used in such health-related applications. In the entrance hall of Pupin Laboratories, there are some modest commemorative plaques honoring the glorious events that had happened within its walls.

Featured image: Brooklyn Bridge by the authors and used with permission.

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