In my proposal for what would eventually become Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science, I envisioned a book where “readers encounter perplexing cases, many solved with clues unmasked by scientists and considered closed, and still others baffling puzzles open to speculation.” To me, it was important to show that science is an ever-evolving field, and that new methods and knowledge can change perspectives and conclusions once considered final.
One of the baffling puzzles that I included was the story of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder. It’s a famous case not just because it involved Charles Lindbergh, prominent aviator and public figure, but also because it was one of those cases that swirled with controversy. Although the crime ended with a conviction, questions still linger decades later about the guilt or innocence of the accused, Bruno Hauptmann, and whether justice was really served.
The Lindbergh story is a short entry, intended to be a sidebar rather than a main story. It can be found in Chapter 4: Resolve.
One of the most sensational crimes of the twentieth century was the 1932 kidnapping and murder of twenty-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. Snatched from the second story nursery of the Lindbergh’s New Jersey mansion in the dead of night, the baby’s body was found two months later in a shallow grave. This after a ransom for his safe return had been paid with marked bills. Several of the marked bills were eventually found in the possession of Bruno Hauptmann. Hauptmann was arrested, charged and brought to trial.
No identifiable fingerprints, footprints or tire marks had been found at the scene of the crime. Other than the ransom notes and two sections of a crude homemade wooden ladder that the kidnapper had used to climb to the second floor, there was little physical evidence.
National Forest Service scientist Arthur Koehler was called to examine the ladder. Koehler was a xylotomist, a scientist who studies growth patterns and cellular structures of wood. Koehler painstakingly took the ladder apart, examined each rung and rail, and was able to determine not only the mill where the wood had been processed and the machine that had planed it, but he was also able to show the jury that boards found in Hauptmann’s attic were from the same batch and bore the same pattern of drilled holes as the ladder. Based largely on Koehler’s testimony, Hauptmann was found guilty. Although he maintained that he was innocent to the very end, Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936.
Since then disturbing questions have been raised about the case. Although few dispute the science behind the conviction, some believe that the investigation was shoddy. Reporters and curious onlookers had swarmed the crime scene, leaving tracks, touching the ladder, and contaminating evidence. Sensing the public mood, the police were all too eager to make an arrest, and Hauptmann, a newcomer to the country, was an easy target.
To critics of the case, there are simply too many ifs, maybes and could haves to say without a doubt that Hauptmann was guilty. Questions linger and the debate continues. Was Hauptmann really the murderer? Or did an innocent man die in the electric chair?
Perhaps some day with improved forensic methods, modern science will finally be able to settle the matter.
Not every book idea appeals to publishers. After S is for Scientists: A Discovery Alphabet, I pitched another alphabet book tentatively titled C is for Courage: A Character Alphabet where each letter stood for a positive characteristic such as responsibility, determination, and of course, courage. Each letter was to be accompanied by a 4 line poem, and then a short story (150 words) about a person or group of people who embodied that quality through their actions and decisions at a time of crisis or need. I liked the concept so I developed a proposal with examples, emailed it to my editor, and waited.
We had a lot of back-and-forth discussion, but unfortunately – as often happens – it wasn’t a proper fit. I received a nice rejection letter, then shelved the idea and went on to develop another proposal. This one landed successfully and turned out to beSurviving the Hindenburg.
As for C is for Courage, not all was a loss. In my preliminary research for the rejected book, I discovered the story of Janis Babson. I had never heard of the courageous girl, or her brave deed, but it seems to me that with World Sight Day, the second Thursday of October, rounding the corner, it is fitting that I should share her short story here, exactly as I wrote it for my proposal.
G is for Generosity
Brave and stubborn, generous to the end, Janis’ eyes were a gift that started a giving trend.
One of the viewers of a 1957 television broadcast about corneal eye transplants was Janis Babson, a 7 year old Canadian girl. The program described how eyes donated upon death could be used to restore sight for the blind. Janis was moved by the idea. “Mom, when I die, I want to give my eyes to the eye bank,” she told her mother.
A year later, Janis was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of cancer. Despite treatment, her conditioned worsened. As the illness advanced, Janis reminded her parents of her request. “I want you to do it,” she told them repeatedly. “Did you make the arrangements?”
The young girl’s determination won her parents over. Just hours before her death on May 12, 1961, her father signed the necessary consent forms, fulfilling Janis wishes.
The story of Janis’ gift of sight was published in the June 1963 edition of the Reader’s Digest under the title, The Triumph of Janis Babson. Later, it appeared in a best-selling book by author Lawrence Elliot calledA Little Girl’s Gift.Janis’ story circled the globe, inspiring a wave of organ donations and leaving a legacy of generosity that continues to this day.
This story intrigued me for a number of reasons. While I was writing Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery, it arrived much like treasure sometimes does as an unexpected find, hidden but always there waiting to be found. At the time, the story was new to me. The treasure wasn’t, though. It had been viewed by thousands daily in the The Louvre long before I was born.
The story was just quirky enough to be interesting, just strange enough to engage readers. Or so I hoped.
Two men – one a farmer, the other a French naval officer – found the statue. Now they were locked in a battle for possession. Who would own it and what was its real worth?
Every day thousands of visitors swarm the Louvre, the largest museum in Paris. Many of them come to gaze at a statue of a woman. The statue is in three pieces. Its arms are missing. It is scratched and chipped. It is one of the world’s great treasures.
The statue is famous, yet few know the story of how, had it not been for two men – one a simple farmer, the other a sophisticated French officer – the statue might never have made it to the Louvre. For that story, we need to turn to April 8, 1820 and visit the island of Milos in the Mediterranean to stand in the rubble of an ancient Greek theatre thousands of years old.
Yorgos, a farmer, tugged on the stones along the crumbling old wall. Some were loose and just the right size for the structure Yorgos was building at his home a short distance away. Others were too large or irregularly-shaped to be of much use. Yorgos tossed these aside.
In the ruins, smothered with dirt, Yorgos spotted a promising piece. He dug around it, tearing it loose, dragging it into the open to examine it carefully. The piece was larger than he first thought. Oddly shaped, too, and smoothly polished.
A statue. Beautiful, perhaps, but useless to the farmer.
Twenty paces away, 23 year-old Olivier Voutier toiled in the dirt. The French naval officer’s ship was stationed in the harbour, leaving him with little to do. The day was a fine one, though, to indulge in one of his passions – archaeology. Voutier had heard that there were ruins on the island of Milos, and that on this very spot there had once been an ancient Greek theatre. Perhaps, with a bit of digging, he’d fine something special.
Voutier convinced two sailors to accompany him. Armed with picks and shovels, they chipped at the ruins, dismantling walls and foundations, tearing apart the ruins one stone at a time. In short order, they had unearthed a number of valuable items – a carved foot and two broken statues among others.
From the corner of his eye, Voutier spotted another man nearby. A local farmer, it appeared. Like them, the man had been digging, but now he had stopped and was standing motionless, staring at something he had unearthed. Curious, Voutier wandered over.
Yorgos stared at the carved block for some time. It was a delicate piece and even the uneducated farmer could tell that it was beautiful. But it was of no value to him. It was too large, heavy and lopsided. Best he should leave it.
Yorgos shovelled dirt over the stone, then stopped when Voutier came near. Voutier stooped low, momentarily entranced. What was this? A marble statue? A piece of one, at least. Lying on its side. Partly buried.
Dig some more, Voutier implored. He offered Yorgos money and the farmer readily agreed, dreams of new-found wealth now taking hold. Slowly, with more digging, a statue rose from the dirt. It was the nude upper half of a woman. The statue’s torso was chipped and scraped, its nose broken and arms missing, the carved surface stained from centuries in the dirt.
Even though it was damaged, Voutier sensed that there was something extraordinary about the statue. Its features were delicate and graceful, the lines simple but elegant. Clearly the statue was ancient and the work of a skilled artisan.
But where was the rest of the statue? There had to be more. A base, at the very least.
Voutier offered the farmer more money. Yorgos dug, flinging dirt and rubble aside with even greater zeal. A second piece emerged, and then with a bit more searching, a third one, smaller than the other two.
The three pieces fit together like a puzzle, and the two men set about reconstructing the statue. They piled up the pieces – a base at the bottom, the delicately carved torso on top, and the third smaller piece in between, acting as a sort of wedge keeping the whole thing balanced. They stepped back to take a look, the simple farmer and the sophisticated naval officer did. The statue was larger than life-size, majestic and breath-taking.
The statue rightly belonged to Yorgos. After all, he had been the first to find it. But clearly, Yorgos didn’t want the statue. He wanted money instead, and Voutier knew that for the right price the statue could be bought. He scurried away to find a government official on the island. The statue must be claimed for France, he decided, and only a representative of the French government could do that. Watch the statue, he told Yorgos. I’ll be back.
While Voutier was away, Yorgos dug some more. He found a marble hand holding an apple, a badly mutilated piece of an arm, and two pillars, each with a carved head on top. By the time, Voutier arrived with the government official, Yorgos had reevaluated the treasure. He wanted more for the statue now. Enough, at least, to buy a good donkey.
The French official, a round-shaped man named Louis Brest, hesitated. Should he dish out the money from his own pocket? Was the statue really worth that much? What proof did he have that this statue was a masterpiece? All he had was the word of Voutier, an amateur archaeologist.
Brest refused to close the deal. Not today, he explained. I’ll be back in a few days if I’m interested. Then he left. Discouraged by Brest’s decision, Voutier gave up. He headed back to his ship, determined to forget the whole thing.
But Yorgos didn’t forget. Nor was he discouraged. The statue was worth money, he figured. Even if the French were not interested, others might be. Yorgos lugged the upper half of the statue to a cowshed near his home along with the arm fragments, broken hand, and two pillars. He left the base and middle piece behind. They were not worth as much, he reasoned, and were not as likely to be stolen.
The top half of the statue sat in the cowshed for days, surrounded by manure and straw, and guarded by Yorgos’ mother who sat at the door. Eventually, Brest returned with other French officers. After much dickering, they submitted to Yorgos’ demands, giving him the money he requested. The complete statue, all three sections and the other pieces found nearby, was carefully crated and shipped to France.
The statue arrived in Paris in February 1821. It was presented to Emperor Louis XVIII who immediately named the statue Venus de Milo. In Greek mythology, Venus is the goddess of love. The figure, scholars believe, once adorned a temple on the island of Melos. When the temple was destroyed, devoted worshippers hid the statue in a chamber to protect it.
Today, the Venus de Milo stands in an alcove of the Louvre, its three pieces assembled, the seams between them almost invisible. Resurrected from the dirt by two men – one a simple farmer, the other a sophisticated French officer – it is one of the world’s greatest treasures.
While researching At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times, I discovered the story of Stanislav Petrov and his heroic deed. At the time, his was not a well known story and it took a while to stitch together the details. What struck me then was how a split second decision and an act of defiance by a person who had much to lose if he was wrong, changed the course of world history.
It was a story I was anxious to tell.
If Stanislav Petrov pressed the button there would be no turning back. It would be the start of a third world war – a nuclear holocaust
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov sat in the commander’s chair in the glass walled room of Serpukhov 15, a secret bunker just outside Moscow. It was just past midnight, Monday, September 26, 1983 – the beginning of a new shift for 44 year-old Stanislav.
The room, as always, was a hive of quiet activity. Serpukhov-15 monitored American nuclear missile positions. It was filled with military officers and engineers glued to computer screens spewing information gathered by satellites and radar stations across the Soviet Union. On this night, Stanislav Petrov was the head of its operations.
Tensions were high. The United States and the Soviet Union, the world’s two superpowers, were at a stand-off. Each had a stock-pile of nuclear weapons ready to use with the press of a button. Stanislav’s mission at Serpukhov-15 was clear. He was to monitor American activities, detect any incoming missiles, and if the United States attacked, order an immediate counterattack.
That night, though, all was normal in Serpukhov-15. The computers hummed quietly, their screens a soft glow of reassuring information. There was nothing to worry about. The world was at peace. For the moment.
At 12:14 a.m., Stanislav’s computer screen turned bright red. “An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave,” he said.
The screen showed that an American missile had been launched. It was heading their way.
Stanislav knew what he had to do. In fact, he’d written the procedure manual himself. In the event of a nuclear attack by the United States, he was supposed to press a red button labeled “START”. That would launch nuclear missiles, allowing the Soviet Union to strike before enemy missiles reached the Soviet Union and wiped them out.
All eyes turned to Stanislav. He hesitated. The computer system, he knew, was riddled with flaws. There had been questions about its reliability before. Was this just a false alarm? There was no way to tell.
The computer screen flickered and changed. A second American missile had been launched from the same base, it indicated. Then it showed a third missile, a fourth, a fifth.
Alarms rang. Lights flashed. The “START” button blinked. Stanislav had to act immediately. If the United States had launched missiles, they would arrive in 15 minutes. If Stanislav waited longer, it would be too late to do anything at all.
Still he hesitated. Something didn’t seem right. “I just couldn’t believe that just like that, all of a sudden, someone would hurl five missiles at us. Five missiles wouldn’t wipe us out. The U.S. had not five, but a thousand missiles in battle readiness.”
There was a second reason Stanislav hesitated. It was something that he thought of every time he manned his post. If he pressed the button, there would be no turning back. It would be the start of a third World War, a nuclear holocaust. Could he live with himself knowing that?
Tension mounted. Seconds seemed to stretch into hours. Then Stanislav grabbed the phone and placed an urgent call to his superiors. He knew that with 5 incoming missiles showing on the screen, they would have automatically been alerted to the danger. They’d be reviewing their battle plans, preparing to strike.
“False alarm,” he told them.
But was it really? Stanislav was relying on gut instinct, not hard evidence. “I understood I was taking a big risk,” he said.
Nervous minutes passed. No missiles arrived. There was no nuclear destruction.
The computer system had erred and relief settled over the room, followed by pats on the back, smiles all around, and congratulations to Stanislav for making the right call.
But although he was a hero in the room, Stanislav Petrov had crossed a fine line. He had disobeyed orders and acted on his own. Instead of pushing the button as he was supposed to do, he’d bypassed the rules. An inquiry was launched, and rather than being complimented for his bravery and quick-thinking, the matter was hushed and kept secret.
Exhausted from the stress of the investigation, Stanislav retired from the army and lived in poverty on a small pension, his story largely unknown. When, in 1991, the Soviet Union crumbled and was replaced by a freer, more democratic government, his secret became public.
On May 21, 2004, Stanislav Petrov received a long overdue honour. The San Francisco based Association of World Citizens gave him its World Citizen Award in recognition of the role he played in preventing a global catastrophe. In 2006, a documentary film, The Man Who Saved the World,was released world-wide, drawing even more attention to a hero who, until then, had largely been ignored and forgotten.
With COVID-19 sweeping the world, I’ve been thinking about several stories I had written about medical breakthroughs for Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite. This one in particular seems relevant to our current situation. The discovery by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was big news over a century ago, but its principles are still being touted daily as one of the best courses of action against the spread of the disease.
In 1846, doctors at Vienna’s General Hospital in Austria were faced with a puzzling problem. Why were so many mothers and babies in the maternity ward dying of childbed fever? And why was the death rate in one maternity ward many times higher than in another?
The hospital served many women who were charity cases. These women could not afford costly medical care. In return for medical attention for themselves and their babies, they agreed to be part of the training program for medical students. Surprisingly, the death rate in the training ward was ten times higher than in another ward where doctors rarely visited and babies were delivered by women known as midwives.
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was determined to unravel the mystery of these strange deaths. He observed the wards and patients closely. With the other doctors, he carefully examined the dead bodies in the hope of uncovering some clues.
One day there was an unfortunate accident. One of the doctors cut his finger as he dissected a dead body. Even though the cut was only minor, the doctor soon felt ill. He developed a fever and in a few days died of blood poisoning.
Semmelweis noticed that the doctor’s symptoms were suspiciously like those of the patients who had died of childbed fever. Acting on a hunch, he watched the movements of the doctors and students. An interesting pattern emerged.
Midwives who attended patients in the healthier ward where doctors rarely visited, did not examine bodies in the dissecting room. But doctors and students often went directly from the dissecting room to the other maternity ward with the higher death rate. None of them stopped to wash their hands before going from one room to the other.
All at once pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. Semmelweis realized that doctors and students carried infection from the dead bodies into the maternity ward. He announced a new rule. From now on patients, students and doctors had to wash and disinfect their hands. Just as he suspected, the death rate soon dropped remarkably.
Despite the success of his methods, Ignaz Semmelweis was ridiculed by other doctors. They refused to believe that such a simple procedure could solve the problem. Semmelweis was forced to leave Vienna. His rule was forgotten and again the death rate climbed.
Years later, doctors around the world admitted that Ignaz Semmelweis was right. Today hand washing is recognized as one of the necessary steps in preventing the spread of disease.
When I was an unpublished but eager new writer, I found a subject that eventually evolved into a series of books for young people. As a science teacher, I knew the classic stories of discoveries made by Archimedes, Fleming, Pythagoras and a few other legendary mathematicians and scientists, but I didn’t realize how extensive the story pool was until I stumbled upon a weathered library book titled ‘Stories from Science‘.
In the end, opting to write non-fiction narratives was a wise choice. So too was writing about science, a subject familiar and fascinating to me. Without realizing it, I was learning how to write stories of all kinds, a handy thing when I ventured into true adventure and later novels. I became ‘that guy’ – the guy who wrote science and history for kids. Not a bad moniker for a start-up writer, and perhaps there’s something of a lesson or two in my story for others interesting in writing. My advice? Write about subjects that fascinate you. Tap into your sphere of expertise, knowledge or experience. Establish a line of credibility. Write. Write. Write.
The story of Galileo’s swing chandelier was one of the first I wrote. A brief mention of Galileo’s discovery in ‘Stories from Science‘ sparked my interest. Additional research brought home the details. Eventually, several drafts later, the story became my own. And now it is yours, too.
Rather than listen to a Sunday service in 1581, seventeen-year-old Galileo Galilei studied a chandelier hanging overhead in the huge cathedral at Pisa, Italy.
Air currents flowing through the lofty building moved the chandelier from side to side, back and forth. Sometimes the chandelier moved gently; sometimes it swung in a wide arc. No matter what the size of its swing, it seemed to Galileo that the chandelier kept steady time.
One, two, three beats
There were no clocks or watches in those days. To time the chandelier’s swings, Galileo felt for the pulse in his wrist. He counted the pulse beats. One, two, three beats for one swing. One, two, three beats for another. No matter how wide or narrow the swing, it always took the same number of pulse beats.
Right after the service, Galileo raced home. He suspended a weight from a long string to create a pendulum then he pulled the weight back a short distance, released it, and timed its swing. He tried it again, this time pulling the weight back farther before releasing it. After many tries, Galileo confirmed his suspicions – the time it took to make one swing was always the same whether the swing was wide or narrow.
Galileo tried other experiments with his pendulum. He discovered that the length of string, amount of weight, and other factors all had some predictable relationship to the time of a pendulum’s swing.
Some years later, Galileo extended his research with gravity. Did all objects fall at the same rate? To find out, he adapted the pendulum as a timepiece. First he carved a long, straight groove down the center of a board. When he raised the board slightly at one end and released a ball, it slowly rolled down the groove.
Galileo marked off his grooved board into small divisions of equal length. For a timing device, he rigged up a water-filled container with a small hole in the bottom. By counting water drops, he could keep track of time.
He released one ball at a time from the higher end of the board. As the balls rolled, Galileo timed how long it took them to cross each division of the board. To his surprise, Galileo discovered that the balls didn’t travel down the track at an even rate. Instead, they accelerated – or sped up – as they got farther down the groove. Falling objects, he found, picked up speed as they fell to the earth.
Galileo’s gift to science
In many ways, the swinging chandelier started a revolution in the world of science. With his pendulum investigations, Galileo pioneered the scientific method –the system of carefully controlled experiments and observations that modern scientists use today to prove a natural law beyond a shadow of a doubt