Fallen Genius

This is a day for thinking about fallen soldiers, and as 11/11/11 marks the end of the First World War, I'll ask a moment of your time for a couple of highly accomplished men - accomplished outside the military, I mean - who lost their lives in that war. Englishmen, worthy ones.

I hope it's still true that every first-year chemistry student learns something about Henry Moseley - at the very least, that his work with X-ray spectroscopy improved our understanding of the periodic table. Mendeleev had arranged the elements by atomic weight, and when their periodic properties did not line up the right way, suggested that the atomic weights had been incorrectly measured - Moseley, as I learned it, showed that atomic number is a physical property independent of atomic weight, corresponding as we now know to the number of protons. What some classes teach, though not all, is that Moseley volunteered for service in the First World War and was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915, as a second lieutenant of engineers. From the article I linked, I see that both his mentor Ernest Rutherford and his mother tried to dissuade him, but he insisted. (It also tells me he tried to leave the Engineers to join the Royal Flying Corps, in what capacity I do not know.) He was killed by a sniper while telephoning for reinforcements.

According to the wiki "[b]ecause of Moseley's death in World War I, the British government instituted a policy of no longer allowing its prominent and promising scientists to enlist for combat duty in the armed forces of the Crown." I'm not sure I approve, but at the hour I'm writing this, I can't articulate why.

Less well known, perhaps, is George Butterworth, a British composer and collector of songs, of the same generation as his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. He destroyed a lot of his own work (because it didn't meet his own standards) and is best known for his arrangements of Houseman's "A Shropshire Lad." Many of these poems deal with death in a thoughtful way, and Butterworth's settings bring them out beautifully. Try one or two -- "Loveliest of Trees"...

Now of my threescore years and ten
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score -
It only leaves me fifty more...
And since to look at things in bloom,
Fifty springs are little room;
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

If it doesn't read like much, hear it sung by a good baritone (as it is at the link I just gave you). Try "The Lads in their Hundreds," and "Is My Team Ploughing?"

Butterworth volunteered, enlisted, was later commissioned and promoted, and was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross for gallantry at the Somme, where he was killed by a sniper in August 1916.

Spare a moment for fallen genius.


Grim said...

Here's a good article on that subject about Edward Thomas.

E Hines said...

I'm not sure I approve, but at the hour I'm writing this, I can't articulate why.

One possibility comes to my mind: the government's denial of a man's inherent right to satisfy his duty in the manner he sees fits seems an abridgment of both his inherent freedom and his associated duty.

In a consensual government, we accept such abridgments, but we do so voluntarily.

But I've always tended to see such things in a black and white way.

Eric Hines

Dad29 said...

One of England's finest poets also died in WWI; he was shot only 3 hours before the Armistice. His poems were later used by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem.

Wilfred Owen.

Grim said...

To move from British to American poets who died in WWI, there is also Sergeant Joyce Kilmer.

Joseph W. said...

Grim and Dad29 - Thank you; those were some beautiful examples. The Wiki on Owen says he was shot a week before the end of the war - though that doesn't diminish the poignancy of his death or the bravery of his service. (I only knew him from having been taught the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" in freshman composition - how typical that I wasn't taught the example of the man who wrote it.)

Eric - I know it's something like that; I tried to articulate it for a while before giving up. I mean, maybe part of being a subject is that you're an asset belonging to the Queen, and she can deploy you where she likes, and treat you like a national art treasure to be locked away safe from air raids. But by letting him sign up, the older dispensation let him pursue his own excellence as a complete man - and there's something to be said for it. Also, cognitive elites without an ethic of service can be extremely dangerous - as the interwar generation in England showed too well.

In my original draft of the post I contrasted these attitudes with those of Schubert. Now he really was a first-rank musical genius -- he might've rivalled Mozart but for syphillis -- and he expressed his view this way: "The State should keep me. I have been put onto this earth for no purpose but to write music." (Or something like that, in German.) 'course I don't agree with him -- I don't trust the State to have the least idea who the real geniuses are or to foster them -- and think this attitude is better stamped out than encouraged.

Dad29 said...

Owen wrote other very good stuff.

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

...The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;/

Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds/

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds...."


"Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!/

We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum./

No soldier's paid to kick against his powers./

We laughed, knowing that better men would come,/

And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags/

He wars on Death--for Life; not men--for flags."

Eric Blair said...

I recently came across these two paintings by the German expressionist painter Franz Marc in an exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum:
Deer in the Forest:

and the Dream:

The images in no way convey the impact of the actual paintings.

Marc was killed at Verdun in 1916.

David Foster said...

Antoine de St-Exupery was a reconnaissance pilot during the German vs French campaign of 1940. It was suggested to him that he should take a job under
Jean Giroudoux in the Ministry of Information, where his prestige and talents would be invaluable. He turned it down, remarking that he did not wish to become one of those intellectuals, kept in reserve on the shelves of the Ministry like pots of jam to be eaten after the War.

St-Ex survived the 1940 campaign, but came to America after the French defeat, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was killed flying a P-38.

Noor Inayat Khan, a woman of Indian descent, came to Britain after the fall of France and was recruited into the underground organization Special Operations Executive. Noor was, among other things, an author of children's books, and her interviewer suggested that she might be doing more good for civilization by staying out of SOE, thereby ensuring her survival of the war, and continuing to write her books. She rejected the suggestion indignantly, went into occupied France, and was eventually captured and killed.


Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure I approve, but at the hour I'm writing this, I can't articulate why."

I understand the purpose of the restriction. After 9/11, my researchers asked me what they should be doing, and I told them to continue with their work. I told them that, after our soldiers came home, somebody need to assure that the soldiers could keep their grandchildren.

My researchers were working on an AIDS vaccine. Since that time, the toll from this awful disease has surpassed the toll of WW II. We met that point years ago. The number has only gotten higher, since then. And yes, they made a vaccine that works as a treatment for existing HIV infection. Who knows? with the help of our FDA, the vaccine might become available before the virus burns itself out.

I would remind you that "they also serve who only stand and wait" -- and repair trucks, and order supplies, and manufacture body armor. And at bottom, they get to choose only so long as the force needs are met by their choices.

Why should scientists be any different?


Texan99 said...

Though my aunts and uncles served in WWII, my father was kept out of service by his superiors, who were more interested in developing the bomb than in supplying another recruit for the front lines. He also had several physical disabilities, but late in the war the military must have gotten desperate enough to start overlooking those. He was called up and actually was on a train to begin his service when his bosses pulled strings again and got him back.

I don't recall his ever mentioning the military in either a positive or a negative light. He was quite clear about the value of his defense work, though. He continued it after the war, spending most summers at Los Alamos while he was a professor. Some scientists doubted the morality of their work on the bomb, but he never did.

Joseph W. said...

Valerie - but would you go further? Would you support a law that said, if one of your researchers wished to enlist, he would not be allowed because of the nature of your work? I don't say your researchers did wrong to stay where they were (neither am I one of those who twits John Wayne with cowardice because he made movies in WWII instead of enlisting to fight; he did what he did best and he added a lot of value). But should they be walled off from it by law?

As I mentioned a comment or two up - I am concrned that any segment of society, and especially any elite segment, should be walled off from military service that way. Even if the vast majority of scientists choose not to serve in uniform, I think it's healthy for them to have a few coworkers who have done that.

There's been a lot of social sorting in the last century - remarked in books like Coming Apart and Bowling Alone - and people who don't mix make myths about each other.

douglas said...

I suppose the answer should be that one should be allowed to sign up, but that signing up only puts you in service of the military, and if they see fit to send you to do associated research at a university instead of Ranger school, you have your orders. Is there really a need to make a law enabling the government to exclude persons from service based on talent?