Monday, February 15, 2016

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

By Jeff Burns

Every good history teacher (and student) knows the old adage is true:  Truth is stranger than fiction. You can’t make this stuff up.  Reading history introduces you to new characters and plots that the greatest novelists and moviemakers couldn’t create without readers and viewers complaining about their implausibility. Are you looking for some stories too good to be true?  Try these. 

Clarence King was one of the most accomplished and famous scientists in America in the late 19th century, the first director of the United States Geological Survey. He also traveled in very exclusive circles:  academics like historian Henry Adams, politicians like Theodore Roosevelt, and historical figures like Secretary of State John Hay.  Among his friends and reporters, he was known as an adventurer, a raconteur, and a lifelong bachelor, who was at home in the field or hobnobbing with the members of high society, a luminary of the Gilded Age.  What none of them knew was that King was Passing Strange (Martha Sandweiss, author).  King pretended to be a black man, married a woman who was born a slave in Georgia, and set up her and their children in a fairly comfortable, if unorthodox, existence, explaining his long absences as work-related. Only as he was dying of tuberculosis did he confess the whole deception to his best friend and his wife.  It is an incredibly fascinating story that ultimately leaves the reader with as many questions as answers.  Sandweiss also educates the reader about the truths and perceptions of race at the time. (NPR story from 2010: )

You might know that Wonder Woman was one of the earliest comic book superheroes, first appearing in 1941, just a few years after Superman and Batman. However, you probably don’t know The Strange History of Wonder Woman (by Jill Lepore).  Not only was Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, the inventor of one of the earliest lie detector tests, but he also lived in a  plural marriage with two women at the same time, fathering children by both.  One of his two wives was the niece of women’s health and birth control activist Margaret Sanger and enjoyed bondage in the bedroom.  See some inspiration for Wonder Woman there?  Wonder Woman is very much the product of the suffrage movement; Marston’s mother and grandmother were dedicated feminists.  Marston’s unorthodox upbringing and family life shaped Wonder Woman into a feminist icon, decades ahead of her time.

If you’ve read other works by Erik Larson, you know that he is a master of conflating seemingly unrelated invents into masterful storytelling.  Thunderstruck  is no different.  The main story is the story of Guglielmo Marconi and his invention of wireless telegraphy, radio.  The secondary story is of a man and his wife in London and her mysterious disappearance.  Either story would make a great novel or movie, but Larson deftly brings them together, making the case that the couple’s story actually proved the feasibility of Marconi’s invention.

Looking for a little more science?  Try Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.  Livio writes about 5 great scientists, Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein, and their work.  However, instead of focusing on their pioneering achievements, he tells the stories of their shortcomings and failures and how these flaws actually advanced science.  Along the way, Livio dispels some commonly held misconceptions.

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