Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Old Worthless

Lawrence Aller:

After school, on the dreary afternoon of November 22, 1928, I went down to the Seattle Public Library to seek some forbidden books, i.e. books on astronomy. There I found the second volume of Russell-Dugan-Stewart Astronomy, with the tantalizing title of "Astrophysics and Stellar Astronomy." I checked it out and read it with great enthusiasm; the text was always fascinating if not always intelligible to a high school sophomore. My elders were annoyed, so I had to read it surreptitiously, at school or at home. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do in life but did not yeet appreciate the obstacles that were to be cast in my way. There was no surer road to ruinm than to have followed the advice of my elders, particularly that of my worthless old man.

In the autumn of 1928, I was living in Seattle with my oldest brother, Leeon. The old man had parked my mother and me there until he deemed me old enough tow ork as a slave laborer on his crackpot mining venture.

Old Worthless had spent his youth in the late nineteenth century amid the dying embers of the Old West, while his elders spun marvelous tales of a frontier golden age that never was. ... His father had had good luck in the California Gold Rush of 1849. The old man thought (or professed to think) he could do the same with identical, archaic 1849 techniques in 1929, in an area that had been exhaustively mnined by such primitive methods many decades before.

The old man's real ambition was to regress to the life-style of the 19th century frontier, complete with log cabin, water hauled in buckets from the river, and minimal comforts, but with the horse replaced reluctantly by a model-T Ford, and with candles replaced by a gasoline lantern. To implement this chimerical scheme he staked out some gold-mining claims at the very nortern edge of California. He had inveigled my brother Louis to assist and from time to time also enticed various gullible people to help him. These assorted n'er do wells, drifters, boobs, and klunkers were not reliable enough. He needed real subservient slave labor: That is where I came in.

The gold-mining enterprise was based on three fallacies: 1. Gold was there and could be extracted by archaic, crude, mid-19th century methods; 2. the place was ours -- actually it was a mining claim for which no valid title was ever held, either by Old Worthless or by anyone else; and 3. it would provide a splendid refuge when the social order collapsed. No religious fanatic believed more fervently in the Second Coming than Old Worthless believed in the imminent collapse of the social order. I was puzzled that I was the only one at "camp" who clearly understood that the whole crackpot enterprise was nothing but backbreaking nonsense, certainly doomed to catastrophic failure. That I was able to escape was little short of a miracle. It came about by a remarkable confluence of circumstances.

Basically, my quarrel with Old Worthless was not really about my studying the despised subject of astronomy; it was about getting an education. Although the old man would not put himself on record as being opposed to an education for me, he was gung ho to see that I did not secure one. After all, who needed a lot of book learning if the complete collapse of the social order was coming any day now?

A grade school friend of mine in San Francisco, James Fidiam, told me about the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) and had loaned me a stack of their leaflets. Especially after getting a glance at Russell's book, I was eager to join up. The opportunity came in 1929 when my brother Paul gave me three dollars for my birthday. I was severely chided for squandering such a previous gift to join that "crazy society in San Francisco," rather than spending it on socks to be worn while wading in icy water with leaky boots tending a sluice line. In one of the first issues of the ASP publications that I received, I saw an article by Donald H Menzel on the interpretation of the spectrum of Jupiter and wrote him about it. The idea I suggested turned out to be quite incorrect, but we struck up a correspondence. ...

Lawrence H. Aller, An Astronomical Rescue, Annu. Rev. Astrophys. 1995. 33: 1-17.

(The Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics includes an autobiographical sketch each year of an eminent astronomer; available online only to subscribers, but worth seeking out if you have an affiliation to an institution that subscribes or access to a library that has the journal.)


usedUNIVERSE said...

love the extinct words sprinkled here and there- great story. (not even a story, though, hmm...)


Helen DeWitt said...

yes - strange to read the life of someone writing so recently whose grandfather made money in the California Gold Rush