History: May 15, 1963, President’s council vindicates Rachel Carson, warns of pesticide dangers

May 15, 2009

President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Council (PSAC) studied Rachel Carson’s best-selling book, Silent Spring, checking it for scientific accuracy.  Kennedy read the book himself, but sought expert advice before doing anything.  Meanwhile, DDT manufacturers bankrolled an extensive public relations campaign claiming DDT was safe, and suggesting Carson was less than a careful writer and scientist.

On May 15, 1963, PSAC reported:  Carson was right. Pesticides were being misused, even abused, and some pesticides like DDT presented significant threats to the environment.  “The Use of Pesticides” recommended increased government scrutiny of the safety and efficacy of pesticides, and vindicated Carson’s reporting of science findings.

Library of Congress described the event and its import in America’s Library, “Meet Amazing Americans”:

The Consequences of Silent Spring

Reading Carson’s book changed many people’s ideas about the environment and inspired some to take action. People wrote to their representatives in congress and asked them to do something about the misuse of pesticides. When several senators created a committee to research environmental dangers, they asked Carson to speak to them about pesticides. Carson recommended that the government regulate and reduce pesticide use, and that it ban the most toxic pesticides. She said that a citizen of the United States had the right “to be secure in his own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons.”

President Kennedy understood the importance of Carson’s book. He asked his Science Advisory Committee to research Carson’s claims in Silent Spring. In 1963 the Committee released a report called “The Uses of Pesticides.” It supported Silent Spring. Environmental activists continued to push the government to regulate pesticides. Changes in federal law in 1964 required companies to prove that something did not cause harm before they could sell it. In 1972, activists pushed for and won a ban on DDT, the pesticide that started Carson’s research for Silent Spring. And in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created “in response to the growing public demand for cleaner water, air and land.” Who knows what the world would be like today if Rachel Carson had not written Silent Spring?

Some radicals argue that Rachel Carson’s legacy is tarnished, that she was in error about DDT, and somehow that translates into many deaths as a result of malaria, as if DDT worked against malaria parasites themselves.  With such a strong propaganda campaign of disinformation plaguing us today, we do well to pause and remember that Carson’s work was subjected to intense, careful scrutiny by scientists from the start.  Carson’s reporting was accurate, and her legacy of environmental protection and saving lives should be celebrated.

Teaching Resource: Role play simulation, “Advisory Committee on Pesticides 1963,” (see especially the list of historic and scientific resources available for study and for the simulation, from Douglas Allchin).

Rachel Carson in the ocean in Florida, 1955 - photo, R. G. Schmidt, USFWS

Rachel Carson in the ocean in Florida, 1955 – photo, R. G. Schmidt, USFWS

Updates, January 2013:

More, from 2013:


Oh, this will get some attention at the water cooler

May 15, 2009

Scouting is one of the most vulnerable victims of wedge politics and attempts to polarize voters.  Even among veteran Scouts and Scouters, lines tend to get drawn over what the program should be doing.

Today the New York Times headlines a story, “Scouts Train to Fight Terrorists, and more.

It’s Explorers, a group which has been distanced from Boy Scouts by moving it to BSA’s Learning for Life programs.  These are not traditional Boy Scouts. I suspect that distinction, small as it is, will get blurred quickly.

It will be interesting to watch discussions about Scouts pictured with semi-automatic weapons and bullet-proof vests.

Exploring used to be more closely related to Scouting.  Exploring was for kids 14 years and older.  I belonged to an Explorer Post in Utah that specialized in kayaking (I was more active at the council level at the time), and I had the grand opportunity to work with a large Explorer Post affiliated with AMR Corp. (American Airlines), where some of our Scouts got significant time in aircraft simulators (in the good old days, when such machines had downtime).  It was a great program.

That was then.  Today, 14-21-year-old Scouts can join Venture Crews, which can be co-ed.  The old Exploring program you remember survives today mostly in Venturing.

History: May 15, 1953 and the mysteries of life’s beginnings

May 15, 2009

May 15, 1953, saw the publication in Science of Stanley Miller’s dramatic experiment showing that essential chemicals of life rise spontaneously.

The late Prof. Stanley Miller.  ISSOL photo

The late Prof. Stanley Miller. ISSOL photo

As usual, the real history is better and much more serendipitous than anyone could imagine in a fictional account; here’s an account from the International Astrobiology Society (ISSOL), from their 2003 celebration of the 50th anniversary of Miller’s paper’s publication:

The University of Chicago Chemistry Department seminars were held on Mondays in Kent Hall, an old building where the floors creaked and there was a smell of dust and mildew. Only the most distinguished scientists were invited to speak at this seminar, many had Nobel prizes or were to receive one, and the list included Franck, Urey, Calvin, Seaborg, Eigen, Libby and Taube.

But this day was different because a second year graduate student, Stanley Lloyd Miller, was speaking, and the room was full because the word had spread that something important was to be presented. In addition to the famous scientists and less famous but equally high-powered scientists was an undergraduate, Carl Sagan attending his first chemistry seminar. The topic was the synthesis of important biological compounds, using conditions thought to have existed on the primitive Earth.

Miller reported that by sending repeated electric sparks through a sealed flask containing a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water vapor, he had made some of the amino acids found in proteins. Perhaps, he suggested, this was how organic compounds were made on the ancient Earth before life existed.

While Miller was confident of his results, the rows of famous faces in his audience were, to say the least, intimidating. He was bombarded with questions. Were the analyses done correctly? Could there have been contamination? After the event, Miller thought that the questions had been constructive, but since the results were hard to believe, they had simply wanted to ensure that he had not made some mistake. However, Carl Sagan thought that Miller’s inquisitors seemed to be picky and did not appreciate the significance of the experiment. Even the relevance of Miller’s results to the origin of life were questioned. When someone asked Miller how he could really be sure this kind of process actually took place on the primitive Earth, Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, Miller’s research advisor, immediately interrupted, replying, “If God did not do it this way, then he missed a good bet.” The seminar ended amid the laughter, and the attendees filed out with some making complimentary remarks to Miller. Miller changed clothes, went back to the lab and started a paper chromatography run.

The events leading up to this dramatic seminar began two years earlier in October, 1951 when Urey presented the Chemistry Department seminar on the origin of the Solar system. In addition to the usual high powered scientists, the audience had contained the then first year graduate student, Stanley Miller.

Read “Prebiotic Soup—Revisiting the Miller Experiment” by Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano published in Science300 (2003) 745-726 in full text or as a PDF.

This is an abridged version of the Stanley Miller’s 70th Birthday published in Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 30: 107-112, 2000 by Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano and The Spark of Life – Darwin and the Primeval Soup by Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada, Perseus Books, 2000.

More than 50 years ago scientists demonstrated that basic chemicals of life, thought previously by some to be too complex to arise naturally, could occur in nature spontaneously. Much of the misunderstanding and crank science behind creationism is devoted to hiding these facts.

Lift a glass to Stanley Miller and his experiment today, a toast to learning, a toast to the truth.

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