Friday, February 20, 2015

Pushing NATURE out of World's Fairs

Many excellent historical surveys exist about the century long* rise, apogee and decline of the concept of World's Fairs around the globe - more than enough to give proof to my claim.

(*Matching almost in lock step - by no mere coincidence - the century long rise, apogee and decline of the Era of Modernity, also roughly running between the late 1860s to the late 1960s.)

If you are at all green-minded, you will come away from reading such accounts - from it no matters which author or their mode of attack - with a strong sense of the gradual, persistent pushing out of Mother Nature and her wondrous products from these exhibitions.

Pushed far out to the dark Pale beyond the Fair's artificially illuminated gates - to be replaced by the ever more wondrous synthetic inventions of Man.

Who on earth ever let her (M. Nature) in ???

Sometimes in fact the wonders of Nature were still  found inside the Fair gates, on full display, but the culture of the day (and future historians) totally ignored their presence.

The only reason any of us (under the age of eighty) even knows that Australia's pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair features the highly traditional natural fabric "wool" is because, by way of pointed contrast, the building itself was a latest word in 1930s Streamlined Moderne architecture .

That was a much commented upon first for the highly, highly, conservative official culture of Australia of 1939.

Wool or Nylon, ma'am ?

The 'fabric of the day 'at this Fair is very well known - well remembered ever since by even those of who were never there : totally Man-made synthetic nylon - nylons.

Rather like the ersatz tires and petro that the Nazi war machine literally ran upon, it was made - as DuPont ads were ever wont to say - entirely from bog-common air, water and coal.

No more American - and soon no more human - abject dependency on the Japanese and their tiny primitive (but oh so clever) silk worms.

Soon no more dependency on the Aussies, their sheep and their wool either.

For tasty, cheap, year around fresh artificial lamb chops were - as always, in what we touching like to call scientific journalism - on their way.

Green amidst the concrete

But Mother Nature is herself a bit like her weeds - if she is banished in one place, she just springs up anew in another.

Banished from the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, she turns up in northern Manhattan's concrete upon primeval bedrock of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centre.

There in 700 two litre flasks, Dr Martin Henry Dawson and his tiny four person team nurtured the blue green penicillium to offer up some of its precious yellow drops of the life-granting penicillin juice , all to save the lives of two boys judged ( by other doctors) as 'lives unworthy of much medical care', as medical America prepared itself for Total War.

It was as if Gordon Gekko and Emma Lazarus had exchanged their normal roles.

For history celebrates only the artificial and the synthetic at 1940's Flushing Meadows' green acres while noting only the green growing at 1940's Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Centre's mass of concrete and stone.

Limpet prose

Oh, what a difference a mere 75 years (and perhaps the success of Dawson's natural penicillin and all the other natural antibiotics ?) can make upon the eternally tabula rasa of the scientific mind.

My amused eye caught a story yesterday out of the University of Portsmouth published in one of the Royal Societies journals : it announced the strongest material known was probably not the silk of the humble little spider but rather the teeth of limpet, the ones they use to scrap their microbial food off ocean rocks.

Study lead author, professor Asa Barber, found Nature is an endless source of inspiration for (human) mechanical structures that are strong and enduring because Nature's structures have evolved through century upon countless centuries of ceaseless trial and error advance.

So if World's Fairs still mattered - and currently they don't - perhaps limpet teeth might be the hot exhibit instead of the latest iteration of still tasteless Tang and the never-yet-seen artificial lamb chop ...

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