Category Archives: Brain Food

McCabe Lecture at Springfield College

It was my pleasure this past week to deliver the McCabe lecture at Springfield College in Massachusetts. My invitation included, “I know you can talk about anything, but how about climate change?” I appreciated the tip of the hat to my wide-ranging interests, and I agreed that climate change would be an excellent topic to bring to first and second year college students.

As I faced several hundred students who were present for extra credit in various classes, I realized I hadn’t planned an opener. Fortunately inspiration struck and I began by complaining about how cold it had been that morning, which led to the distinction between weather and climate. I pointed out that there were many indicators beyond temperature that flagged a changing climate, which allowed me to present the requisite cute fuzzy mammal photo of the talk. Polar bears are often used to pluck the heartstrings of an audience, but I selected a shot of a white snowshoe hare who was fruitlessly trying to hide in a snow-free wooded environment. Snowshoe hares currently change over to their brown coats about one week after the snow has melted, which increases their chance of falling prey to a predator by 7% each week. As the timing mismatch increases, their continued existence will be threatened.

Although as a scientist I’m trained to lecture, I find that I need the interaction with the audience, so partway through I started asking questions to the group such as why atmospheric CO2 levels rise and fall on an annual cycle. The students did a good job of piecing together the role of plant photosynthesis, and I was amused that it was a faculty member who could not restrain himself from delivering the final answer that because the majority of the Earth’s landmass is in the northern hemisphere, it is the plant cycle on the top of the world that drives the oscillation in global CO2 levels.

Since sea level rise is such an important consequence of climate change, I had found several projections of what higher oceans would look like. I put up a picture of Florida with a meter of sea level rise, and the students took it all in. However, the next slide which showed the projected impact of a six meter sea level rise on the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, got a pronounced response. The conversation level rose abruptly as the students all evaluated the impact on their homes. I took an impromptu survey of the group, and about 20% of the students said that their homes would be under water with that level of sea level rise. Suddenly climate change had become personal.

One of the challenges of giving a talk on climate change is finding a way to send everyone home on a happy note rather than focusing on the doom and gloom. I found my way by focusing on the enormous variety of approaches that Massachusetts is taking to reduce their greenhouse emissions and to produce more resilient communities. As a member state of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, they are pledged to reduce their emissions, and the group has been extremely successful. It was a pleasure to point out that Massachusetts has maintained its participation in the program regardless of the party affiliation of their governor. In 2003, the state required all utility companies to produce 1% of their power from renewable resources, but that level would rise by 1% annually. So for 2018, the renewable power should constitute 15% of the electricity produced in the state. I put up a photo of cars whizzing by a field of solar panels, and the audience correctly identified it as the Mass Pike where the open land in highway ramp clover leafs or adjacent to the highway is being used for solar power.

Springfield itself has numerous initiatives as part of its resilient communities program including opportunities for residents to purchase rain barrels, a program to make it easier to install solar panels on houses, and a nascent bike share program for the Pioneer Valley.

The impacts and challenges of climate change remain extremely daunting, but it gives me hope to look at the bright spots of local, state, and regional efforts to do what we can. It was an honor and delight to share all of that with a group of students who seemed to surprise themselves with their engagement


1 Comment

Filed under Brain Food, Chemistry

The Senate and the President

American Presidents To Present

My Beloved Husband and I have a penchant for contests in which we quiz each other on trivia.  We have exhausted the state capitals, made moderate headway on the country capitals, and I got my butt kicked by my BH on the international radio code (alpha, bravo, Charlie, etc.).  We also enjoy space esoterica such as naming the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions or the naming the wives of the “New Nine” astronauts.  A few months ago, we ate at a diner where the placemats featured pictures of all of the American Presidents, and we immediately seized on a new contest.

My history and political reading of the past year and a half gave me a distinct advantage, but both of us floundered between Andrew Jackson, whose winning slogan was, “John Quincy Adams can write, but I can fight!” and approximately Woodrow Wilson.  It’s a vast wasteland in the middle with only Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as familiar faces.  Even trying to regroup the Presidents by other characteristics such as the “cartoon” presidents: Millard (Mallard) Fillmore, (James) Garfield, and Grover (Cleveland) didn’t help much in reproducing the sequence.  (As I was writing that passage, I called in my BH to consult, and when he tried for “President Deputy Dog,” I knew that he was not going to be a big help.)  So why is this string of Presidents so unmemorable?  The answer is found in the balance of power between the President and the Senate

When our modern government was formed and George Washington was unanimously named as the first President, the players all rather gingerly explored their roles.  Laws originated largely from Congress, and predominantly from the House.  The first six Presidents used their veto power sparingly and then only in cases in which they felt that the new law violated the young Constitution.  George Washington however, submitting a slate of candidates for approval by the Senate for a variety of government positions, learned the hard way that the Senate did not see their role of “advise and consent” to mean automatic acceptance of Washington’s recommendations. One nomination was blocked by a senator who had a personal quarrel with the nominee, prompting Washington to appear before the Senate to question what the problem was.  Much as they respected this man who had been elected unanimously, the Senate felt no obligation to explain their actions.  Thus Washington learned to consult with the Senate before he submitted nominations, and he proceeded to conduct all of his subsequent business with Congress through written correspondence rather than by addressing the group on their own turf.  Both practices remain in place today.

The 1820’s began what came to be known as the Golden Age of the Senate.  It began following the term of Andrew Jackson, (President #7), who forcefully imposed his strong views about the primacy of the President upon Congress.  Thus after his term Congress pushed back hard to re-establish their own power.  The Senate in particular, flexed its authority by no longer deferring to the House to introduce legislation and began to originate its own bills.

As Alexis de Tocqueville described the Senate in 1835, “Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career: the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.” The great triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun were but three of the senators whose fiery and passionate debates hammered out acts such as the Missouri Compromise of 1850, which for a time preserved the Union and delayed the Civil War for decades.

Because the Senate contained a considerable portion of the best political talent, and because of the tensions between North and South making it impossible for the best known candidates to be nominated, the Golden Age of the Senate from the 1820’s through the 1850’s accompanied great weakness in the Presidency.  Men like Zachary Taylor or James Polk were political compromises who did their best to stay out of the legislature’s way and did not make a significant impression upon history.  At least ten of the 62 senators who served in the 1849-1850 Congress had greater impact upon the country than did the Presidents of that era. They included Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, but also William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who later became part of President Lincoln’s team of rivals cabinet as Secretaries of state, treasury, and war respectively.

It was Abraham Lincoln who temporarily shifted more power to the Presidency and away from the Senate.  For example, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued entirely without consulting Congress, who were less than pleased at being left out of the loop.  This power shift was transitory since Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, holds the dubious honor of the first President to be impeached by the House.  On my visit to the National Archives last year, I saw the piece of paper with the hand-written resolution for impeachment; it was carried around for days by a representative who was looking for an opportunity to use it.  Although Johnson narrowly avoided conviction by the Senate, he left the Presidency again greatly weakened.

Thus began a second sequence of Presidents whose names are barely memorable.  Following Ulysses Grant, who was adept at winning a war, but had no idea how to run a country, were men such as Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur.  It was not until Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became President upon the assassination of William McKinley that Congress acquired another worthy opponent in the White House and the inexorable progression toward a strong President would begin.

Having learned this bit of history, I felt that my lack of knowledge of these Presidents was perfectly justified.  Besides, although my English BH knows a greater than average amount about American Presidents, I still knew enough to beat him at the game.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brain Food



The genesis of my blog project came from my previous sabbatical when I spent a year at the University of Tennessee.  I had recently learned about the tradition of hikers on the Appalachian Trail assuming nicknames during their journey, and separately I wanted a way to keep in touch with family and friends who I would no longer be seeing regularly.  Inspired by stories from my BFF (Best Friend Forever) who told me of a friend of hers who had spent a year in Spain and sent back stories of “Senor Barcelona,” I believe, I began a series of emails known as The Adventures of the Tennessee Yankee, which described my experiences and told stories of my life in the land of Rocky Top.

For my 2012-2013 sabbatical, I knew that I wanted to do a similar project, and a number of both personal and professional contacts suggested that a blog would be accessible to a larger audience who might be interested in an insider’s perspective on the government.  “Dr. Pence Goes to Washington” was the result.

When I first started blogging in the fall, I wondered how long it would be before I ran out of topics.  That turned out not to be a problem since at times I had half a dozen ideas noodling around in my mind waiting for me to have bandwidth to process them and write.  I set myself a vague goal of averaging two posts per week, and since this is the 116th post, I more than met that benchmark.  At times the blog seemed to hang over my head as I felt self-imposed pressure to post somewhat regularly, and my workouts certainly suffered this year since mornings were my prime writing time, but I have found the process of writing about my lessons, experiences, and adventures to be incredibly rewarding.

I have particularly identified two traits instilled in me at an early age that influenced my writing this year.  The first is that I come from a family of storytellers.  Events and observations from a day, a walk, or a vacation have always become shaped into stories, and I have realized that I tell stories in my teaching as well.  This blog has largely been about telling stories of working in a Senate office, and living and exploring Washington DC.

The second habit was shaped even earlier.  I was about 18 months old when my father was writing his Ph.D. dissertation, and as was much commented-upon by my grandmothers, I didn’t talk until I was about two.  (Apparently I wasn’t going to amount to much.)  This combination, however, made me an excellent walking companion.  When my father hit a block on his writing, he would invite me to go for a walk with him.  As long as I maintained possession of my yellow blanket, I was perfectly happy, and my silence provided an ideal environment for Dad to organize his thoughts and be able to return to his writing.  I attribute that early influence to finding that the shape of many of my stories has emerged while I walked to the Metro and back.

Stephen King in his book, On Writing, talks about having an Ideal Reader, who becomes the audience for whom an author writes.  Stephen King writes for his wife, Tabby.  I found that my Ideal Reader often shifted as I became aware of different people who were reading my stories.  As I lived my life, I would encounter stories that made me laugh, details that intrigued me, and pictures that impressed me, and invariably, I would think of a person or persons who would enjoy the story, detail, or picture.  So my blogs have been written with a great many people in mind.  Thank you all for being my Ideal Readers.

It took a little while to find my voice as I started writing.  I don’t think I was ever going to write the cutting edge issue blog to which everyone would come to read the latest news.  Indeed, it was of primary importance to me that I not cause any embarrassment or difficulty for my Senator’s office, so I avoided controversial topics.  Because I was thus constrained, I likewise constrained two comments that were made on my blog that I did not allow to be posted.  One was effectively an advertisement for a place I had written about, and the other was a snarky comment about the efforts of an entity I had mentioned.  I’m still happy about adhering to a snark-free blog.

I have been highly amused that although I have avoided including names in my posts, there has been a certain cachet associated with getting mentioned in the blog.  For example, my BFF has kept track of my visitors based on who emerged in my stories.  I’ve been pleased that every person who came to see me shared some kind of unique experience or event that did indeed lead to a story to share with the rest of my audience.

What happens to the blog now that I’ve finished my year in Washington?  I’m still not sure, although I’m certainly open to suggestions.  The first priority has been to transition to living in a house rather than an apartment, to speaking my own mind as a professor instead of supporting and speaking the Senator’s perspective, and to dealing with recalcitrant students rather than recalcitrant Members of Congress.  I do hope that a new set of stories will emerge for me to tell as I explore the ongoing influence of my fellowship, and that I will continue to post.  Until then, I thank everyone for reading, for commenting, and for supporting my grand adventure.

1 Comment

Filed under Brain Food

Fellowship Year Booklist

Many years ago, my father overheard a conversation about how many books it might be possible to read in a single year.  Perhaps 52, one a week?  Intrigued, he began to keep track of the books that he read each year, and the practice spread to the entire family.  I certainly found that by keeping a list, I re-read fewer books, and I actually started reading nonfiction now and then.

My Fellowship year has been strongly influenced by the libraries to which I have had access.  I fell in love with the Senate Library early on, and since their strength is politics in general and the Senate in particular, my reading began to lean in that direction.  Having a minimum of 10 minutes each way on the Metro also encouraged me to read nonfiction, which I find easier to start and stop.  I’ve always been a bit addicted to my fiction, so I learned years ago not to bring those books to work.

I do not necessarily recommend all of these books, and I omitted any re-reads, but for whatever it is worth, below are the 74 books I read during my Fellowship year.  The ones in bold type are nonfiction.  I also keep an annual annotated list, which includes more commentary on recommendations, available on request.


Title Author
Ill Wind Rachel Caine
Widow’s Web Jennifer Estep
Heat Stroke Rachel Caine
Equations of Life Simon Morten
Chill Factor Rachel Caine
The Hallowed Hunt Lois McMaster Bujold
Theories of Flight Simon Morten
Straight from the Heart Ann Richards
Winterfair Gifts Lois McMaster Bujold
A Cold Day for Murder Dana Stabenow
Game Change John Heilemann and Mark Halpern
Discount Armageddon Seanan McGuire
The Girl Who Chased the Moon Sarah Addison Allen
Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
A Relentless Hope Gary E. Nelson
The Mysterious Benedict Society Trenton Lee Stewart
The Big Burn Timothy Egan
Home Safe Elizabeth Berg
Side Jobs Jim Butcher
Shadow Magic Patricia Wrede
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar   Children Ransom Riggs
Cool Days Jim Butcher
Water Follies Robert Glennon
The Rook Daniel O’Malley
Joy for Beginners Erica Bauemeister
Red-Headed Stepchild Jaye Wells
Ladies of Liberty Cokie Roberts
A Veiled Deception Annette Blair
Larceny and Lace Annette Blair
Spellman Files Lisa Lutz
The Gathering Kelley Armstrong
The Calling Kelley Armstrong
The Capitol Inside and Out Jim Berard
Magic Burns Ilona Andrews
Magic Strikes Ilona Andrews
Born to Run Christopher McDougall
Magic Bleeds Ilona Andrews
Frost Burned Patricia Briggs
In Fury Born David Weber
The Road to Cardinal Valley Earlene Fowler
Nine and Counting w/Catherine Whitney
The First Love Cookie Book Lori Wilde
Trading in Danger Elizabeth Moon
Beyond the 100th Meridian Wallace Stegner
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot
True Compass Edward Kennedy
Lean In Sheryl Sandberg
The Widow of Larkspur Inn Lawanna Blackwell
First Along the River Benjamin Kline
Miracle Under the Oaks William K. Stevens
Guardians of Stone Anita Clenney
The Last Great Senator David A. Corbin
The Sustainability Revolution Andres R. Edwards
Marque and Reprisal Elizabeth Moon
What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis
Engaging the Enemy Elizabeth Moon
Command Decision Elizabeth Moon
Victory Conditions Elizabeth Moon
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking Susan Cain
Deadly Sting Jennifer Estep
Deadly Descendant Jenna Black
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power Jon Meacham
Cradle to Cradle Michael Braungart and William McDonough
Falling Free Lois McMaster Bujold
Queen of Shadows Dianne Sylvan
Death’s Rival Faith Hunter
Nature/Walking Emerson/Thoreau
Magic Slays Ilona Andrews
Libriomancer Jim. C. Hines
Women in the Club Michelle Swers
Mandela’s Way Richard Stengel
Mike Mansfield, Majority Leader Francis R. Valeo
Best Staged Plans Claire Cook
Second Nature Michael Pollan



Filed under Brain Food

Best Stories of the Fellowship Year


There have been a number of stories that didn’t find a home in my various blog posts but that were too good not to share, so I’ve been collecting them.  It’s apparent that I’ve been influenced by a lifetime of reading Reader’s Digest because I do find that this post reads like a collection of those stories.  Enjoy!


Introductions.  Two Fellows learned the importance of being well-introduced to a Senator back in October when they started on their assignments.  The Senator, given no clue other than the Fellows names cheerfully welcomed them, “So are you both interns?”  One fellow calmly but assertively set the record straight, holding out her hand and saying, “Hello Senator.  My name is …, I’m one of your new AAAS fellows, and I have a Ph.D. from MIT.”  Have I mentioned that the Fellows are generally not a shy lot?


Forest Fires.  My favorite fire story from the Incident Commander’s Blog of the Royal Gorge Fire in July:

Well, the predicted wind blew and the fire held. And as I promised we raised the containment to 50%. Remember this morning I said that Brenda, our Fire Behavior Specialist said, “today will be a good day to be a fire”. At the end of the day Craig Beckner, Operations Section Chief said, “it might have been a good day to be a fire, but we were better.”


Too Much Information? Our scheduler was having a conversation with one of the other fellows and apparently questions whether or not Walgreens had a presence in DC.  Three of us immediately responded, “There’s one in Cleveland Park,” “There’s one by my house,” and “There’s one by my metro stop.”  She just looked at us and announced that being in our office was like being in the middle of Google.


Terminology.  One morning, the staff in the DC office of one of the Fellows were uncertain if the staff in the state office would be able to call in to the regularly scheduled staff meeting teleconference.  The Chief of Staff explained that there was a protest going on at the state office.  When he asked about the subject of the protest, he was informed the people were pro-immigration.  The saavy DC staffers informed their boss that when you have a pro-issue protest, it’s called a rally.


Only in DC.  One of the LA’s in my office reported being in the midst of a crowd recently and from one side, he heard a voice call out, “Marco!”  There was promptly a reply volunteered from the other side of the group, “Rubio!”  When I told this story to my fellow Fellows, they all went for that response as well.


Never underestimate a Fellow! One of my fellow Fellows had a run in with a staffer in another Senator’s office, who was rather rude to her.  She mentioned the incident to her supervisor, who then mentioned it to the Senator.  The Senator, who is very close to his staff, felt that this behavior was unacceptable, so he made a point of having a conversation with his Senate colleague when they were on the Floor for a vote and explaining that he felt this behavior was unacceptable.  The offending staffer called the Fellow and said, “My boss and your boss seem to think that I hung up on you.”  The Fellow replied, “That’s because you did!”


Elevators, round 1. As an ultra-cool Senate Fellow, I grew accustomed to seeing Senators regularly in the hallway.  I was, however, challenged when I encountered them on elevators.  In the middle of a vote, some of the elevators become Senators-only service, and I was strongly warned about getting on to those elevators during those times.  At one point, I was ready to follow Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas onto an elevator, and at the last moment I realized that it was Senators only service.  I stopped short, and I’m sure that my eyes were like dinner plates as I looked guilty for what I had almost done.  Senator Moran was very kind, smiled, and gestured me to join him on the elevator, and I was most grateful.


Elevators, round 2. My complete failure at being an ultra-cool Senate Fellow happened when I was on an elevator, and it stopped to let on Senator McCain.  I have no idea why I got so flustered, but in my effort to try to keep my cool Fellow persona, I got confused, decided this must be my door, and I got off.  Of course, in the absence of Senator McCain, I realized I had gotten off a floor too early.  So I jogged down the steps to the next floor, only to meet Senator McCain getting off the elevator!  Complete fail on coolness for that day!


When Worlds Collide.  I will emphasize that the following story came to me at least third-hand, so I vouch only for its entertainment value, not for its veracity.  It seems that Jennifer Lopez (also known as J. Lo) decided that she wanted to talk to Senator Reid about immigration.  She proceeded to keep the Senate Majority Leader waiting for 30 minutes, which is rather beyond the pale in the Senate.  Meanwhile, I’m told that Senator Schumer was very interested in meeting the diva and he lurked in Senator Reid’s outer office until the star showed up.  Unfortunately, it became obvious that Senator Schumer was under the impression that he was meeting Beyonce rather than J. Lo and the error was apparent to the observers.  As the balancing side of “when worlds collide,” Ms. Lopez spied a photograph of former Majority Leader Tom Daschle and asked, “Why do you have a picture of Dick Clark in your office?


Interns.  If you choose to ask your Senator or Member of Congress for a tour of the Capitol instead of going through the Capitol Visitors Center, there are advantages and disadvantages.  On the bright side, you don’t end up on a tour with 74 of your closest friends and all of you wearing headsets so you can hear your guide.  On the other hand, your tour is given by interns from the office, and some are definitely better than others.  Here are a few intern gems from other offices that I’ve heard about:

“The mural around the Rotunda was painted by a guy named Constantidi.”  (The correct answer is Constantino Brumidi.)

“This white marble star set into the floor of the Crypt marks the center of DC and divides the city into quadrants.  I think there are four or five of them.”

How many quadrants?

How many quadrants?


Filed under Brain Food, Play, Work

Corpse Flower

The message lit up the Fellows’ email: a corpse flower was expected to bloom at the Botanical Garden.  This news indicated an unprecedented opportunity to nerd out, and we were up to the challenge!

I first became aware of the Titan arum, or more specifically, the Amorphophallus titanum, when one bloomed a few years back at the University of Connecticut.  Judging by the amount of press the plant received, it was obviously a horticultural rock star, but since I wasn’t willing to make the 45 minute drive to see it, I remained unmoved.  The United States Botanical Garden, however, is at the foot of Capital Hill, which put me in much closer proximity to the event.  The unbounded enthusiasm for all things nerdy shared by my fellow Fellows added to my incentive to go visit.

The first reason that the blooming of a Titan arum is a major event is that it is not an annual occurrence. The timing is rather unpredictable and can range from a few years to a few decades.  Cultivating these natives of Sumatra is also not trivial since they require high humidity, stable temperatures, and quite a bit of space. Thus they are usually only found in large botanical gardening facilities.  The U.S. Botanical Garden has fourteen accessions of the titan arum, which I assume means they’ve got 14 plants.

When the plant gets ready to bloom, it starts shooting up from its underground stem called a corm, and it can grow six inches a day.  In technical terms, the Titan arum has the “largest known unbranched inflorescence in the plant kingdom,” which when translated means, “That’s one big honking flower!”  The whole structure is probably over six feet tall, so it’s a very striking plant.

I’m sure you’ve read this far to find out about the corpse reference of the flower.  After it blooms, it does indeed smell of rotting flesh, although the smell is the strongest at night and is almost nonexistent during the day.  I read that the night that our titan arum bloomed, one of the horticulture staff members working during that time said that the smell was so pungent and affected him so much that he wasn’t able to eat dinner until hours after he got home.

Obviously this novel biological event pinged the nerd radars of all the Fellows, even though our group is sorely lacking in biologists.  Our first notice arrived when the Architect of the Capitol, who oversees the Botanical Garden, sent out an email to the folks on that listserve that the titan arum was ready to bloom.  Timing is critical because the flower only lasts about 48 hours and then the whole structure collapses.  There followed considerable email chatter among the fellows about sending forth an expedition to gather data for the group.  A party composed of a veterinarian, a toxicologist, and a fluvial geomorphologist made the pilgrimage over at lunch and brought back the word that although the stalk was shooting up, it was not yet blooming.  Several days passed, and we continued to send Fellows over to scout the progress. Alas the reports all came back the same; it was not yet time.  As the Washington Post and NPR picked up the story, the crowds started increasing as well.  There was a webcam set up that we could watch, but it was not the same as viewing the plant in person.

Finally our agronomist Fellow sent back word that although the plant was not yet blooming, it was displaying a significant baby bump.  Indeed as the world eagerly anticipated the arrival of the new British prince in London, the residents of DC and especially the Fellows equally eagerly anticipated the blooming of our own bright blossom.  The two events coincided almost exactly.

The full bloom-picture from the Botanical Garden's website

The full bloom-picture from the Botanical Garden’s website

I learned the hard way that visiting the new arrival after work was not a good strategy.  By the time I arrived about 6:30 on the peak bloom day, the line wrapped around the block, and I was not willing to stand in line for more than an hour.  Happily, the next day I joined an excursion party of the four Fellows in my building, (a chemist, a toxicologist, a nutritionist, and yet another veterinarian) and we expertly navigated under the Capitol and through the House office buildings to minimize our time in the humidity outside.

She's a beauty

She’s a beauty

Pictures don’t do justice to the size of the plant; I hadn’t realized just how impressive a six or seven foot plant could be. The bloom had closed by the time we arrived, but it had not yet begun to collapse.  I was also just as happy that there was no corpsified smell when we visited.  I was fine with looking at the gigantic flower, but I didn’t feel the need to embrace the experience with all of my senses.  Overall, the flower was really interesting, but I was also enchanted to watch how any scientific event could capture the imagination of my fellow Fellows.  Turning loose the collective curiosity, creativity, and strategic energies of the group was highly entertaining and almost more impressive than the actual titan arum.


1 Comment

Filed under Brain Food, Play

National Archives: Behind the Scenes

At some point in the not-too-distant past, the staff at the National Archives became aware that Congress, the entity who provides the money to fund the Archives, had absolutely no idea what the Archives did.  Thus began a program to educate the Members of Congress and their staffs.  I was fortunate recently to go to a staff tour as the guest of a fellow Fellow who has been on several tours I’ve arranged, thus demonstrating that one good turn deserves another.

The National Archives was created by law in 1934 as the official record keepers of the government.  They hold records for both the legislative and executive branches, including committees.  They have long enjoyed a rivalry with their older sibling, the Library of Congress, which developed more of a copyright function rather than archives.  The Library of Congress no longer accepts the personal papers of Members of Congress with only a few exceptions, the most recent being Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.  The Archives holds both paper and electronic records. There are half a billion paper items and electronic records currently occupy about 77 terrabytes of space.  As an illustration, there were 20 million emails archived from the Clinton White House years.  From the George W. Bush years, that number grew to 200 million.

We started our tour before the tourists were allowed to enter the building, so we got a little time to view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights without a crowd.  The Declaration is faded so much that it is all but unreadable, and we learned that it was a result of 70 years of being hung in a window in the State Department before being transferred to the Library of Congress and eventually to the Archives. The Constitution, which was stored at Fort Knox, fared much better.  We were told that other than fire, light is the worst enemy of old documents.  Even papers that have been through a flood may be freeze-dried and salvaged more easily than those damaged by light.

As it came time for the Archives to open to the public, we were taken to an upper floor to the Legislative Archives Vault.  We all sat around a table, and our two hosts took turns showing us documents and telling us stories.  Each document was contained in a plastic sleeve that was then stored in a sturdy folder.  We were not allowed to touch anything, but the proximity was still inspiring.

We started with the document signed by George Washington nominating the first Supreme Court justices as well as a number of other justices.  All of the nominees were confirmed except for one, who was the subject of a long term grudge by one of the senators.  Washington himself came to the Senate to find out what the problem was, and the senator who had the issue announced something like, “I’ll be damned if I’ll let him be confirmed.”  Thus began the tradition of senatorial courtesy whereby the President runs the nominees by the Senate before it is all made official.

Next we saw the legislative mark-up of the Bill of Rights.  A formal typewritten copy of the language that was passed by the House was sent forward to the Senate, and that document shows the inked changes made when the bill passed the upper chamber, often involving the deletion or rearrangement of amendments.  For example, there was one amendment that stated that there would be one House member for every 50,000 residents.  If that had not been deleted, the House of Representatives would currently have over 6,000 members.   It was fascinating to see how the final document was shaped through the process of moving through Congress.

Bill of Rights Mark-up

Bill of Rights Mark-up

We next saw the 1804 Presidential proclamation to Congress in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand of the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone apparently challenged Jefferson’s authority to purchase that much land in his role as President and said that it was unconstitutional.  Jefferson calmly replied that no, it was extra-constitutional, or outside of the Constitution.  As a related document, we saw a petition from Daniel Boone who held land in Missouri as a grant from the Spanish crown.  With the Louisiana Purchase, Boone lost title to his land, so he petitioned to have it restored.  Boone was apparently one of many people who were hedging their bets by playing both sides of the land sovereignty issue, but Boone was indeed allowed to keep his land.

As you may recall, in 1814, the British arrived in Washington and burned both the White House and the Capitol.  Dolly Madison gets great credit for saving so many of the records from the White House as well as the portrait of George Washington.  Over on Capitol Hill, the Senate got a bit of a jump on the situation, gathered some wagons, and they were able to move many of their documents out of the Capitol before the British arrived.  The House waited a little too long, were unable to find many wagons, and thus they lost more records in the fire.

Because I was with a group of committee staff, we were shown the 1816 resolution creating a set of standing committees for the Senate.  The government had been functioning for long enough that it was becoming clear what committees were important for ongoing business.  In addition to the Committee on Public Lands, now the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, there were also committees on Military Affairs and on Post Roads.  A Committee on Ways and Means was also created in this resolution, but it was quickly renamed the Finance Committee to distinguish it from the House committee.

A larger box contained a giant rolled petition that was about 12” in diameter.  It was kept rolled with a ribbon that had long-since faded to pink, but it was the original governmental red tape; one had to cut through it to get to the actual information.

On stationery from the Executive Mansion (it wasn’t called the White House until much later), we saw the note from President Lincoln appointing Ulysses S. Grant to be Lieutenant General of the Union Army.  Apparently this was a somewhat controversial appointment since Grant was considered to be a bit of a drunk.  When this complaint was aired to President Lincoln, he suggested, “Buy a case of whatever Grant drinks and give it to the rest of my generals!”

The impeachment resolution of President Andrew Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” (also known as, “we’ll figure out what to charge you with later”) was hand-written on a half sheet of paper.  The Congressman who offered the resolution apparently kept the paper in his pocket for some time just waiting for the President to provide an opportunity for the resolution’s use.

Impeachment resolution for Andrew Johnson

Impeachment resolution for Andrew Johnson

Two documents about women’s suffrage offered an interesting contrast.  The first was from the National Women’s Suffrage Association and was signed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, advocating giving women the vote.  A second document, also signed entirely by women, was from the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage.  Among their other objections to the concept was that this path forward would serve as “an official endorsement of nagging as a national policy.”

D-Day was a theme that linked two completely different documents.  The first document was a de-classified map made as Americans were just starting to experiment with the newly developed radar technology.  Two young servicemen on one of the Hawaiian Islands turned on their machine around 7 AM on December 7th, 1941.  They got a huge blip on their map, so they turned off the machine, recalibrated it, and turned it back on.  The blip remained.  They called the base on Oahu, although it took a while to get anyone on the phone.  They were assured that their blip was the American bombers out of San Francisco who were expected to arrive any day, and they were told that they didn’t need to continue the radar tracking.  The two chose to use the blip as a training exercise, and they tracked what turned out to be the Japanese planes until they were lost in the mountains of Oahu en route to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The next document was the speech that President Roosevelt gave to Congress the following day announcing the “Day that will live in infamy,” and requesting that Congress declare war on Japan.  As an interesting piece of trivia, John Dingell was on the floor that day as a page for his father, who was a Member of Congress.  We were reminded that this was the last time that Congress has declared war; all other military engagements have lacked this important part of the process.

"A day that will live in infamy"

“A day that will live in infamy”

The radar map brought up interesting questions of handling information that is sealed for a specified period of time as well as information that is classified.  The computer systems at the Archives have no network access, and electronic documents are transferred via hard drive and sneaker-net rather than electronically.  Archivists are challenged by hardware compatibility and the sheer volume of information.  They also are always concerned about how to store electronic records safely and securely.  As the staff say wistfully, “We’ll always have paper.”  I shared their sense of wonder to see a piece of paper handled by Washington or written by Jefferson.  It was a wonderful experience, and I would certainly be happy to support their budget.


Filed under Brain Food, Play