February 13, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
February 13, 2012
February 13, 2012
On January 13, 1898, Emile Zola published his celebrated open letter to the President of France, J’Accuse, in which he accused senior officers in the French army of thwarting a revision of the case against Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of selling secrets to the enemy four years before and then serving a life sentence on Devil’s Island. Furthermore, wrote Zola, these officers in the Army High Command had conspired to protect the true traitor, Charles Walsin-Esterhazy.Where Zola led, other eminent writers, scholars, artists and academics were quick to follow. On January 14, the day after the publication of J’Accuse, a petition calling for a revision was published in L’Aurore under the headline “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” — the first mobilisation in modern times of scholars, writers and artists as a force shaping public opinion. It had been drawn up by Zola himself with Emile Duclaux, head of the Institut Pasteur. Duclaux and Lucien Herr, the librarian at the Ecole normale supérieure, circulated the petition among the scientists and scholars at their institutions. The net was extended by younger writers such as Marcel Proust who went around Paris collecting signatures. “I was the first Dreyfusard,” Proust would later claim, “for it was I who went to ask Anatole France for his signature.”The term “intellectual”, already used by the novelist Guy de Maupassant and by the nationalist man of letters Maurice Barrès, was ridiculed by the anti-Dreyfusards. Barrès referred to the signatories of the manifesto as the “demi-intellectuals”, and the literary critic Ferdinand Brunetière questioned the very idea that authors and academics should possess some superior wisdom when it came to the law. “The intervention of a novelist,” he wrote, “even a famous one, in a matter of military justice seems to me as out of place as the intervention, in a question concerning the origins of Romanticism, of a colonel in the police force.” He castigated scientists too for their arrogant assumption that their insights into the working of the material world somehow placed them on the moral high ground.To Brunetière, the Dreyfusard intellectuals’ impugning of the integrity of the French High Command was symptomatic of the wider takeover of France by arrivistes — “Freemasons, Protestants and Jews”. Barrès was even more specific in associating the Dreyfusards with those “foreign” elements in French society — the sons of immigrants like Zola, rootless cosmopolitans, Germanised philosophers, and of course the academics at the Ecole normale where “many students and the most respected masters were Jewish”.Though anti-Semitism was endemic in France in the 1890s, historians still differ on the extent to which Alfred Dreyfus was deemed a traitor because he was a Jew. In the months prior to his arrest, the rabble-rousing anti-Semitic broadsheet La Libre Parole, edited by Edouard Drumont, had campaigned against the admission of Jews into the officer corps of the French army. Most French Jews came from Alsace; their mother-tongue was a Germanic dialect (Dreyfus himself spoke with a German accent); and a number of German Jews had become naturalised Frenchmen: the politician Joseph Reinach, an early supporter of Dreyfus, was the son of a German banker. Other Jewish bankers like the Rothschilds, or merchants like the Ephrussis, were of foreign provenance. To French nationalists, such Jews were not “true Frenchmen from France” and so could not be trusted with the defence of the realm.It was also widely believed by many French Catholics, particularly the lesser clergy, that their Jewish fellow-citizens, heirs to a Talmudic enmity towards the Catholic Church, had combined with the French atheists, Protestants and Freemasons to support the anti-clerical programmes of successive Republican governments — in particular, the assault upon Catholic education. Sceptics such as Barrès and atheists like the young Charles Maurras shared this view. Catholicism was integral to French identity and the army was the last bastion of Catholic France — immune, unlike the politicians, from the corrupting influence of Jewish and Protestant high finance. The campaign to free Dreyfus was therefore perceived both as an attempt by the Jewish “syndicate” to save one of their own, and as a conspiracy to discredit the “holy of holies” of the true France, the Army High Command.The case for a revision rested on a judgment that while the handwriting of the traitor on the compromising document filched from the German embassy may have been similar to that of Dreyfus, it was identical to that of Esterhazy. “Take from the street a passing child,” wrote Zola, “and show him the two samples: ‘It’s the same gentleman who wrote the two.’ He doesn’t need experts — the fact that the two are identical is obvious for all to see!” However, neither the child in the street nor Zola were expert graphologists who, on this question, had taken divergent views. Moreover, successive Ministers of War had insisted that there was other, incontrovertible evidence that proved the guilt of Dreyfus which, for reasons of national security, could not be made public.In the event, it turned out that these ministers were the dupes of French military intelligence. The secret documents that supposedly proved the guilt of Dreyfus were either forged or non-existent. However, this was by no means clear at the time. The issue was whether or not one trusted the Army High Command and here, another passionately held prejudice came into play — by no means comparable to anti-Semitism but equally virulent. “Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi,” Léon Gambetta had said in 1876, and for much of the last three decades of the 19th century anti-clericalism was the unifying ideology on the Left. To the Dreyfusards, the French officer corps was dominated by an aristocratic, Jesuit-educated elite; and the conspiracy against Dreyfus was directed by the former headmaster of a Jesuit crammer, Père du Lac.In reality, only one of the officers at the heart of the Dreyfus Affair had been educated by the Jesuits, and the prime mover, General Mercier, was a bona fide republican with an English and Protestant wife. A Jesuit conspiracy was as much a symptom of paranoia on the republican Left as the belief in a Jewish “syndicate” was on the nationalist Right. Nevertheless, Dreyfus was innocent and the anti-Dreyfusards have been punished for being wrong. As Maurice Barrès foresaw, “If Dreyfus and his friends become historians and write textbooks, we shall be villains in the eyes of posterity.”…
February 13, 2012
It was a dark and stormy night.
Early in 1916, Albert Einstein had just completed his greatest life’s work, a decade-long, intense intellectual struggle to derive a new theory of gravity, which he called the general theory of relativity. This was not just a new theory of gravity, however; it was a new theory of space and time as well. And it was the first scientific theory that could explain not merely how objects move through the universe, but also how the universe itself might evolve.
There was just one hitch, however. When Einstein began to apply his theory to describing the universe as a whole, it became clear that the theory didn’t describe the universe in which we apparently lived.
Now, almost one hundred years later, it is difficult to fully appreciate how much our picture of the universe has changed in the span of a single human lifetime. As far as the scientific community in 1917 was concerned, the universe was static and eternal, and consisted of a single galaxy, our Milky Way, surrounded by a vast, infinite, dark, and empty space. This is, after all, what you would guess by looking up at the night sky with your eyes, or with a small telescope, and at the time there was little reason to suspect otherwise.
In Einstein’s theory, as in Newton’s theory of gravity before it, gravity is a purely attractive force between all objects. This means that it is impossible to have a set of masses located in space at rest forever. Their mutual gravitational attraction will ultimately cause them to collapse inward, in manifest disagreement with an apparently static universe.
The fact that Einstein’s general relativity didn’t appear consistent with the then picture of the universe was a bigger blow to him than you might imagine, for reasons that allow me to dispense with a myth about Einstein and general relativity that has always bothered me. It is commonly assumed that Einstein worked in isolation in a closed room for years, using pure thought and reason, and came up with his beautiful theory, independent of reality (perhaps like some string theorists nowadays!). However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Einstein was always guided deeply by experiments and observations. While he performed many “thought experiments” in his mind and did toil for over a decade, he learned new mathematics and followed many false theoretical leads in the process before he ultimately produced a theory that was indeed mathematically beautiful. The single most important moment in establishing his love affair with general relativity, however, had to do with observation. During the final hectic weeks that he was completing his theory, competing with the German mathematician David Hilbert, he used his equations to calculate the prediction for what otherwise might seem an obscure astrophysical result: a slight precession in the “perihelion” (the point of closest approach) of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun.
Astronomers had long noted that the orbit of Mercury departed slightly from that predicted by Newton. Instead of being a perfect ellipse that returned to itself, the orbit of Mercury precessed (which means that the planet does not return precisely to the same point after one orbit, but the orientation of the ellipse shifts slightly each orbit, ultimately tracing out a kind of spiral-like pattern) by an incredibly small amount: 43 arc seconds (about 1⁄100 of a degree) per century.
When Einstein performed his calculation of the orbit using his theory of general relativity, the number came out just right. As described by an Einstein biographer, Abraham Pais: “This discovery was, I believe, by far the strongest emotional experience in Einstein’s scientific life, perhaps in all his life.” He claimed to have heart palpitations, as if “something had snapped” inside. A month later, when he described his theory to a friend as one of “incomparable beauty,” his pleasure over the mathematical form was indeed manifest, but no palpitations were reported.
The apparent disagreement between general relativity and observation regarding the possibility of a static universe did not last long, however. (Even though it did cause Einstein to introduce a modification to his theory that he later called his biggest blunder. But more about that later.) Everyone (with the exception of certain school boards in the United States) now knows that the universe is not static but is expanding and that the expansion began in an incredibly hot, dense Big Bang approximately 13.72 billion years ago. Equally important, we know that our galaxy is merely one of perhaps 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe. We are like the early terrestrial mapmakers, just beginning to fully map the universe on its largest scales. Little wonder that recent decades have witnessed revolutionary changes in our picture of the universe.
The discovery that the universe is not static, but rather expanding, has profound philosophical and religious significance, because it suggested that our universe had a beginning. A beginning implies creation, and creation stirs emotions. While it took several decades following the discovery in 1929 of our expanding universe for the notion of a Big Bang to achieve independent empirical confirmation, Pope Pius XII heralded it in 1951 as evidence for Genesis. As he put it:
It would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies. Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence, creation took place. We say: “Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!”
The full story is actually a little more interesting. In fact, the first person to propose a Big Bang was a Belgian priest and physicist named Georges Lemaître. Lemaître was a remarkable combination of proficiencies. He started his studies as an engineer, was a decorated artilleryman in World War I, and then switched to mathematics while studying for the priesthood in the early 1920s. He then moved on to cosmology, studying first with the famous British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington before moving on to Harvard and eventually receiving a second doctorate, in physics from MIT.
In 1927, before receiving his second doctorate, Lemaître had actually solved Einstein’s equations for general relativity and demonstrated that the theory predicts a nonstatic universe and in fact suggests that the universe we live in is expanding. The notion seemed so outrageous that Einstein himself colorfully objected with the statement “Your math is correct, but your physics is abominable.”
Nevertheless, Lemaître powered onward, and in 1930 he further proposed that our expanding universe actually began as an infinitesimal point, which he called the “Primeval Atom” and that this beginning represented, in an allusion to Genesis perhaps, a “Day with No Yesterday.”
Thus, the Big Bang, which Pope Pius so heralded, had first been proposed by a priest. One might have thought that Lemaître would have been thrilled with this papal validation, but he had already dispensed in his own mind with the notion that this scientific theory had theological consequences and had ultimately removed a paragraph in the draft of his 1931 paper on the Big Bang remarking on this issue.
Lemaître in fact later voiced his objection to the pope’s 1951 claimed proof of Genesis via the Big Bang (not least because he realized that if his theory was later proved incorrect, then the Roman Catholic claims for Genesis might be contested). By this time, he had been elected to the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy, later becoming its president. As he put it, “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside of any metaphysical or religious question.” The pope never again brought up the topic in public…
February 13, 2012
The plot was conceived over a round of drinks. One afternoon in July 1932, Francis Pasqua, Daniel Kriesberg and Tony Marino sat in Marino’s eponymous speakeasy and raised their glasses, sealing their complicity, figuring the job was already half-finished. How difficult could it be to push Michael Malloy to drink himself to death? Every morning the old man showed up at Marino’s place in the Bronx and requested “Another mornin’s morning, if ya don’t mind” in his muddled brogue; hours later he would pass out on the floor. For a while Marino had let Malloy drink on credit, but he no longer paid his tabs. “Business,” the saloonkeeper confided to Pasqua and Kriesberg, “is bad.”
Pasqua, 24, an undertaker by trade, eyed Malloy’s sloping figure, the glass of whiskey hoisted to his slack mouth. No one knew much about him—not even, it seemed, Malloy himself—other than that he had come from Ireland. He had no friends or family, no definitive date of birth (most guessed him to be about 60), no apparent trade or vocation beyond the occasional odd job sweeping alleys or collecting garbage, happy to be paid in alcohol instead of money. He was, wrote the Daily Mirror, just part of the “flotsam and jetsam in the swift current of underworld speakeasy life, those no-longer-responsible derelicts who stumble through the last days of their lives in a continual haze of ‘Bowery Smoke.’ ”
“Why don’t you take out insurance on Malloy?” Pasqua asked Marino that day, according to another contemporary newspaper report. “I can take care of the rest.”
Marino paused. Pasqua knew he’d pulled off such a scheme once before. The prior year, Marino, 27, had befriended a homeless woman named Mabelle Carson and convinced her to take out a $2,000 life insurance policy, naming him as the beneficiary. One frigid night he force-fed her alcohol, stripped off her clothing, doused the sheets and mattress with ice water, and pushed the bed beneath an open window. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as bronchial pneumonia, and Marino collected the money without incident.
Marino nodded and motioned to Malloy. “He looks all in. He ain’t got much longer to go anyhow. The stuff is gettin’ him.” He and Pasqua glanced over at Daniel Kriesberg. The 29-year-old grocer and father of three would later say he participated for the sake of his family. He nodded, and the gang set into motion a macabre chain of events that would earn Michael Malloy cult immortality by proving him nearly immortal.
Pasqua offered to do the legwork, paying an unnamed acquaintance to accompany him to meetings with insurance agents. This acquaintance called himself Nicholas Mellory and gave his occupation as florist, a detail that one of Pasqua’s colleagues in the funeral business was willing to verify. It took Pasqua five months (and a connection with an unscrupulous agent) to secure three policies—all offering double indemnity—on Nicholas Mellory’s life: two with Prudential Life Insurance Company and one with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Pasqua recruited Joseph Murphy, a bartender at Marino’s, to identify the deceased as Michael Malloy and claim to be his next of kin and beneficiary. If all went as planned, Pasqua and his cohorts would split $3,576 (about $54,000 in today’s dollars) after Michael Malloy died as uneventfully and anonymously as he had lived.
The “Murder Trust,” as the press would call them, now included a few other Marino’s regulars, including petty criminals John McNally and Edward “Tin Ear” Smith (so-called even though his artificial ear was made of wax), “Tough Tony” Bastone and his slavish sidekick, Joseph Maglione. One night in December 1932 they all gathered at the speakeasy to commence the killing of Michael Malloy.
To Malloy’s undisguised delight, Tony Marino granted him an open-ended tab, saying competition from other saloons had forced him to ease the rules. No sooner did Malloy down a shot than Marino refilled his glass. “Malloy had been a hard drinker all his life,” one witness said, “and he drank on and on.” He drank until Marino’s arm tired from holding the bottle. Remarkably, his breathing remained steady; his skin retained its normally ruddy tinge. Finally, he dragged a grungy sleeve across his mouth, thanked his host for the hospitality, and said he’d be back soon. Within 24 hours, he was.
Malloy followed this pattern for three days, pausing only long enough to eat a complimentary sardine sandwich. Marino and his accomplices were at a loss. Maybe, they hoped, Malloy would choke on his own vomit or fall and slam his head. But on the fourth day Malloy stumbled into the bar. “Boy!” he exclaimed, nodding at Marino. “Ain’t I got a thirst?”
Tough Tony grew impatient, suggesting someone simply shoot Malloy in the head, but Murphy recommended a more subtle solution: exchanging Malloy’s whiskey and gin with shots of wood alcohol. Drinks containing just four percent wood alcohol could cause blindness, and by 1929 more than 50,000 people nationwide had died from the effects of impure alcohol. They would serve Malloy not shots tainted with wood alcohol, but wood alcohol straight up.
Marino thought it a brilliant plan, declaring he would “give [Malloy] all of the drink he wants…and let him drink himself to death.” Kriesberg allowed a rare display of enthusiasm. “Yeah,” he added, “feed ’im wood alcohol cocktails and see what happens.” Murphy bought a few ten-cent cans of wood alcohol at a nearby paint shop and carried them back in a brown paper bag. He served Malloy shots of cheap whiskey to get him “feeling good,” and then made the switch.
The gang watched, rapt, as Malloy downed several shots and kept asking for more, displaying no physical symptoms other than those typical of inebriation. “He didn’t know that what he was drinking was wood alcohol,” reported the New York Evening Post, “and what he didn’t know apparently didn’t hurt him. He drank all the wood alcohol he was given and came back for more.”
Night after night the scene repeated itself, with Malloy drinking shots of wood alcohol as fast as Murphy poured them, until the night he crumpled without warning to the floor. The gang fell silent, staring at the jumbled heap by their feet. Pasqua knelt by Malloy’s body, feeling the neck for a pulse, lowering his ear to the mouth. The man’s breath was slow and labored. They decided to wait, watching the sluggish rise and fall of his chest. Any minute now. Finally, there was a long, jagged breath—the death rattle?—but then Malloy began to snore. He awakened some hours later, rubbed his eyes, and said, “Gimme some of th’ old regular, me lad!”
The plot to kill Michael Malloy was becoming cost-prohibitive; the open bar tab, the cans of wood alcohol and the monthly insurance premiums all added up. Marino fretted that his speakeasy would go bankrupt. Tough Tony once again advocated brute force, but Pasqua had another idea. Malloy had a well-known taste for seafood. Why not drop some oysters in denatured alcohol, let them soak for a few days, and serve them while Malloy imbibed? “Alcohol taken during a meal of oysters,” Pasqua was quoted as saying, “will almost invariably cause acute indigestion, for the oysters tend to remain preserved.” As planned, Malloy ate them one by one, savoring each bite, and washed them down with wood alcohol. Marino, Pasqua and the rest played pinochle and waited, but Malloy merely licked his fingers and belched…