A mysterious set of 9,000-year-old bones, unearthed nearly 20 years ago in Washington, is finally going home. Following bitter disputes, five Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest have come together to facilitate the reburial of an individual they know as “Ancient One.” One of the most complete prehistoric human skeletons discovered in North America, “Kennewick Man” also became the most controversial.
Two teenagers searching out a better view of a Columbia River speedboat race in 1996 were the first to spot Kennewick Man’s remains. Since then, the bones have mostly been stored away from public view, carefully preserved in museum storerooms while subject to hotly contested legal battles.
Some anthropologists were eager to scientifically test the bones hoping for clues about who the first Americans were and where they came from. But many Native Americans hesitated to support this scientific scrutiny (including tests which permanently destroy or damage the original bone), arguing it was disrespectful to their ancient ancestor. They wanted him laid to rest.
This high-profile discovery served as an important, if maddening, test case for a significant new law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It aimed to address the problematic history behind museum human remains collections. First it mandated inventories – many museums, in fact, were unaware how large their skeletal collections really were. Then, in certain cases, it called for returning skeletons and mummies to their closest descendant group. Since NAGPRA passed in 1990, the National Park Service estimates over 50,000 sets of human remains have been repatriated in the United States. Read More
This Friday, the University of Massachusetts Amherst will begin hosting its History Communication Summitto explore how “History Communicators, like Science Communicators,…stand up for history against simplification.” As an historian of science, the conference’s timing and topic could barely be more felicitous. Three weeks ago, scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they had confirmed the direct detection of a gravitational wave. The reports of science communicators ranged from sound clips of the “chirp” to ramifications for the future of science, but they all made one point very clear: this experiment finally confirms one of the major predictions of Albert Einstein’s century-old Theory of General Relativity.
While the coverage on what it means to discover gravitational waves is solid, the coverage on what it means to take a century to make this discovery is not. The journal Nature explains that Albert Einstein formulated general relativity in 1915, Joseph Weber claimed a (false) detection in 1969, and Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse indirectly confirmed the waves’ existence in 1974, winning a Nobel Prize in 1993. The popular science site IFLScience zips through the history in one paragraph: “One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein…thought there were invisible ‘gravitational waves’….For decades…they have never been detected…until now.” And The Guardian reports simply that “all of this follows from a prediction of Albert Einstein’s 100 years ago.”
This historian sits, stewing, “How can this history be so naïve and so sparse!” LIGO’s fact sheet notes that it is the most expensive project ever undertaken by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which has invested north of 1 billion USD into LIGO to date. Two pairs of lasers, aimed at mirrors suspended two and a half miles away, help measure changes in distance that are fractions of a percent of a proton’s width. Scientists in fifteen countries collaborate on LIGO. So do tell this perplexed soul, how is it that “all of this follows” from Albert Einstein, who worked nearly alone one hundred years prior? What does it mean that Four Great Men are the history of the gravitational wave, when 950 people work with LIGO now?
Figure 1: Sir Arthur Eddington’s photographic equipment being deployed on a racecourse in Sobral, Brazil. Courtesy of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the Science Museum, London.
Over the summer, I worked on a project with Kathie Gow of the Hatfield Historical Museum and our own Emily Redman. The project, Understanding Medical Care in Early 20th Century Hatfield, was funded by a grant we applied for from Mass Humanities. The grant gave us the opportunity to interpret and analyze the medical collection at the Hatfield Historical Museum. This collection is comprised of over 100 items, many of which are connected with Dr. Charles A. Byrne, who practiced medicine in Hatfield from 1895 to 1933. Included in the collection are a wide variety of items, from medical tools and equipment to scrapbooks, to nursing exams and Dr. Byrne’s patient records. Throughout my work, I learned a lot about medicine and medical care in the first decades of the 20th century and I want to use this post to share a sampling of these.