Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Young Men & Fire

60 years ago today, 15 young men floated out of a Montana sky onto rugged ground below. They were there to join another already on the scene of a small forest fire. Within a few short hours, only 3 of those men would not be fatally burned by that same fire. As deserved as the festivities are over the spectacular events of July 1969, it's a pity that so little attention has been paid to this tragedy 20 years earlier.

I was in college when I first read the definitive account of the Mann Gulch fire, Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. Given that I was about at the same age at the time as those smokejumpers, it had a lot of resonance for me. It remains one of my favorite books (along with his other masterpiece, A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories). Someday, I hope to hike the gulch, both to enjoy the beauty and to contemplate the sacrifices there.

It might seem like this doesn't have much to do with science (it certainly has nothing to do with genomics!), but there's more than a little of it in his science. YM&F covers a lot of what was known then and was found later about the science of wildfires and one of it's first students, Harry Gisborne. Maclean himself was never trained as a scientist, but had a keen eye for nature from spending so much time in it. River contains more than a little bit of the science of fish & fishing streams. Maclean himself led the last two survivors of the fire on a visit to the site decades later that turned up critical artifacts from that night. The Mann Gulch tragedy has also become a case study in how organizations respond to extreme stress.

Another great connection between Maclean & science, only barely touched on in Young Men, but treated in expanded form in another article (reprinted in The Norman Maclean Reader). As a young graduate student at the University of Chicago, Maclean had become an acquaintance of the great physicist Albert Michelson, and Maclean in the longer piece writes lyrically about Michelson's lifelong quest to precisely measure the speed of light. It's a gem of scientific journalism.

I'll leave with a quote from Michelson via Maclean, which I love. Michelson was brushing off a compliment from Maclean on the elder man's billiards playing

Billiards, though, is a good game, but billiards is not as good a game as chess. Chess, though, is not as good a game as painting. But painting is not as good a game as physics.

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