Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Early Warning

Jeff Masters at Weather Underground unearthed this brief video excerpt from a Bell Laboratory Science series episode in 1958, that includes a mention of the climate crisis consequences of CO2 pollution.

 He gave more historical examples to show that global heating has been a topic of concern for longer than generally realized. This included a specific warning in a 1965 message to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson--when the far-seeing Stewart Udall was still Secretary of Interior (he was appointed by JFK), with responsibility for environmental matters before they got their own cabinet secretary in the Nixon administration. Though as a high school student I knew of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (which I saw on the Best Seller List in 1963), it was Udall's 1963 book, The Quiet Crisis, that began my education on environmental matters. (I still have the paperback copy I first read then.)

 But this video is fascinating in itself. I remember these programs, as I'm sure lots of Baby Boomers do. If we didn't see them on TV, we saw them run from film projectors in school. There were 8 of these specials made in the decade of 1954-64, each on a specific subject. "The Unchained Goddess" about weather was the one that mentioned global heating, in a characteristically dramatic way.

 This was the fourth and last of the specials produced and written by the eminent Hollywood filmmaker Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe etc.) Disillusioned with Hollywood (and/or vice versa) in the Blacklist era, he used his science schooling and filmmaking chops to create these, which included technical as well as narrative innovations that became standard for both documentaries and feature films. Shot in technicolor, several of the films won Emmys in various categories.

 The basic interplay in the film is between a science expert (Dr. Frank C. Baxter, and it's recognizing him that brought these all back to me) and a "fiction writer," played in this episode by actor Richard Carlson, who also directed it. (You'll see just a moment of him in the above one-minute excerpt.)

 But Carlson wasn't just any actor, especially to the young Boomer audience. Many adults were familiar with him as the star of the 1953-56 espionage TV series I Led Three Lives. But he was also the star of such Saturday afternoon epics as It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon.

 Moreover, the characters he played were significant. In most Hollywood films (as in most fiction), scientists were either mad and evil, or blandly evil. Though the first scientist as hero was in H.G. Well's The Time Machine (published 120 years ago in 1895) it took a long time for the movies to catch up. Carlson played several of the early examples of scientists as heroes--even action heroes-- in 1950s science fiction and monster movies.

The combination of FBI man on TV and sci-fi scientist gave him a weird sort of credibility with both adults and children. I'm sure we were captivated as well by color if we saw these in school, as well as by the high level of filmmaking skill and familiar stars. For me they came at an age that I wanted to be a scientist, before the realities of math overcame the romance of the scientist who saves the world, and not incidentally rescues the beautiful girl.

 Imaginative stories that used scientific what-ifs got two basic responses in the 50s--very negative (from embarrassment to angry scoffing) and very positive, because the ideas as well as the action were stimulating. Today, a lot of deniers count on the angry scoffing of what they would like to believe is the science fiction of the climate crisis.

 But we're all facing its reality now. The difference may be that some of us were opened to possibilities of real science speculations in the Bell series and other documentaries by fictional stories in which an international team of scientists convinces leaders of a mortal threat to the planet, and the world unites to overcome the threat. In that regard it turns out they were science fiction, at least so far.

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