Having been in the organization about a year, I had begun to get some flavor of “the prestigious National Academy of Sciences,” as it is often referred to in newspaper stories. The National Academy of Sciences is an organization, set up by the US government under Lincoln, whose charter gives it the function of advising the federal government when called upon. Every few days some communication arrived from the NAS—a newsletter, a ballot, a journal, etc. In the midst of this pile of more or less junk mail, my eye caught the first part of a letter by Dick Lewontin which started: “Dear Mr. President: One of the few advantages of being a member of the National Academy of Sciences is that it provides one with a life pass to the Theater of the Absurd….”
I was really turned on, knowing now that I had a kindred spirit in the NAS. This helped me to decide to go to the annual meeting. In fact, I usually enjoy professional meetings, if only to meet old and new colleagues. It seemed like a good chance to see just what goes on at a meeting of the “leaders of American Science.” Besides, a trip to Washington would give me a chance to visit the Smithsonian mineral collection.
So I arranged for a friend to take over my Berkeley calculus class and before long found myself admiring the Smithsonian’s minerals.
That Sunday evening, April 25, 1971, was the first NAS event, a concert by the Amadeus String Quartet, just for us, at the elegant new auditorium in the Washington NAS building—all extremely impressive. This also was the first time I saw Philip Handler, the new NAS president.
I must make a little detour about Handler. Before he became president of the NAS, he had been head of the National Science Board, and in that position he had criticized me in the magazine Science. I felt he had slandered me, but that is a long story which I won’t dwell on here. I give this background to warn the reader of my bias on the subject of Mr. Handler. My feelings toward Handler weren’t helped any by reading an article by Paul Ehrlich who quoted Handler as saying:
How remarkable it is that we have a national determination to avoid damage from what emanates from the tailpipes of automobiles—unpleasant but rarely if ever serious in a medical sense [my emphasis]—while we remain apathetic to the fact that last year the front ends of those vehicles killed 56,000 Americans and maimed hundreds of thousands more.
The predicted death or blinding by parathion of dozens of Americans last summer must rest on the consciences of every car owner whose bumper sticker urged a total ban on DDT.
(I later saw these quotes in an article by Handler in the January 15, 1971, issue of Science.)
One has to understand that Ehrlich is one of my heroes, while smog is the aspect…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.