July 17, 2019

50 years ago today, The New York Times withdrew its 1920 article "A Severe Strain on Credulity," which mocked Robert Goddard for believing that a rocket could land on the moon.

Here's "A Severe Strain on Credulity" (1920):
As a method of sending a missile to the higher, and even highest, part of the earth's atmospheric envelope, Professor Goddard's multiple-charge rocket is a practicable, and therefore promising device. Such a rocket, too, might carry self-recording instruments, to be released at the limit of its flight, and conceivable parachutes would bring them safely to the ground. It is not obvious, however, that the instruments would return to the point of departure; indeed, it is obvious that they would not, for parachutes drift exactly as balloons do...

That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react -- to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

But there are such things as intentional mistakes or oversights, and, as it happens, Jules Verne, who... deliberately seemed to  make the same mistake that Professor Goddard seems to make. For the Frenchman, having got his travelers toward the moon into the desperate fix of riding a tiny satellite of the satellite, saved them from circling it forever by means of an explosion, rocket fashion, where an explosion would not have had in the slightest degree the effect of releasing them from their dreadful slavery. That was one of Verne's few scientific slips, or else it was a deliberate step aside from scientific accuracy, pardonable enough in him as a romancer, but its like is not so easily explained when made by a savant who isn't writing a novel of adventure.
On July 17, 1969, with the manned moon launch under way, the NYT (lightheartedly) retracted the old statement:
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
The Times is being cute, but there's no apology to Goddard. Wikipedia describes the effect of the NYT mockery:
In 1924, Goddard published an article, "How my speed rocket can propel itself in vacuum", in Popular Science, in which he explained the physics and gave details of the vacuum experiments he had performed to prove the theory. But, no matter how he tried to explain his results, he was not understood by the majority.... Goddard worked alone with just his team of mechanics and machinists for many years....

Before World War II there was a lack of vision and serious interest in the United States concerning the potential of rocketry, especially in Washington. Although the Weather Bureau was interested beginning in 1929 in Goddard's rocket for atmospheric research, the Bureau could not secure governmental funding.... Goddard's liquid-fueled rocket was neglected by his country, according to aerospace historian Eugene Emme, but was noticed and advanced by other nations, especially the Germans. Goddard showed remarkable prescience in 1923 in a letter to the Smithsonian. He knew that the Germans were very interested in rocketry and said he "would not be surprised if the research would become something in the nature of a race," and he wondered how soon the European "theorists" would begin to build rockets. In 1936, the U.S. military attaché in Berlin asked Charles Lindbergh to visit Germany and learn what he could of their progress in aviation. Although the Luftwaffe showed him their factories and were open concerning their growing airpower, they were silent on the subject of rocketry. When Lindbergh told Goddard of this behavior, Goddard said, "Yes, they must have plans for the rocket. When will our own people in Washington listen to reason?"

61 comments:

Lucien said...

Having thus learned its lesson the NYT now countenances unlimited credulity. (Credulous reportage ain’t exactly rocket science.)

tcrosse said...

Journalism is not rocket science.

Swede said...

They've more than made up for it.

Now they tell us men can be women and women can be men.

And men can now have babies. Or abortions. Because it's a man's body and a man's choice.

Original Mike said...

Never forget that the New York Times published that the sun rises in the West and sets in the East.

readering said...

Now about those articles on how the fossil fuel (coal, oil and natural gas) burning processes combine carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO2.

Rob said...

Ninety-nine years later, and the Times is still as smugly arrogant. Some things never change.

Gahrie said...

I hear Goddard wore shirts with scantily clad women on them.

rcocean said...

In the defense of the US Army and Army Air Force. There wasn't much a rocket could have done for us in WW2. The V-1's were too short ranged and the V-2's were too expensive and inaccurate. What we needed in WW2 was more accurate bombs. Small Guided bombs would've worked wonders.

Michael K said...

readering is mystified by learning that carbon and oxygen make CO2.

He/she will be amazed to learn that humans produce a lot of it.

rcocean said...

And the ICBM wasn't a realistic weapon of war until the A-Bomb was invented in 1945.

gspencer said...

NYT has never withdrawn Walter Duranty's complete fabrications aka lies on what Stalin was doing to the Ukrainians.

Nor has the NYT surrounded its Pulitzer based on the lies.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

the Times strains credulity

Leland said...

Wait until they learn plants need CO2 to survive.

rehajm said...

Still free to apologize. Fops.

Heartless Aztec said...

🎶Rocketman....🎶

readering said...

Michael K: check out the pronoun catching on--they.

Phidippus said...

How long do we have to wait for the apology for the centenary celebration of the Russian revolution of 1917, which we were subjected to so recently?

gilbar said...

What we needed in WW2 was more accurate bombs. Small Guided bombs would've worked wonders.
respectfully, what we needed was better engines for the B-29's and the B-29's sooner
Little need for much accuracy when you're burning cities to the ground.

The only reason Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still in existence in August '45 was because they'd told the XX airforce that they had to leave them alone. Fire Bombing; that's the key

cubanbob said...

Gilbar General LeMay was firebombing Japan left and right and they still wouldn't surrender. The Navy was slowly starving them and they still wouldn't surrender. What dropping the A Bomb on them did was give the Emperor an excuse to surrender. One plane, one bomb, one city gone and they were lead to believe the Americans could this at any time of their choosing. Nothing more than squashing a bug and then the Soviets would occupy them. That got their attention. If not for the bomb, we would have invaded Japan at an absolutely horrific price. More Japanese were killed in the fire raids than in the atom bombings but it was the casualness, the indifference of one plane and one bomb that convinced them in the end. It's a good thing the Japanese had no clue that all we had on hand was a couple of the bombs.

The Godfather said...

In WWII the Germans pioneered military rocketry and planned to attack England with V-1s (jet-powered) and V-2s (rocket-powered) starting in late 1943. Had they been able to keep to their schedule, the Allied assault on western France might have been thwarted. But French spies identified the Germans’ development site at Peenemunde and the Allies bombed the Hell out of it, which delayed the German attack for long enough that D-Day was able to proceed as scheduled. I’m reading Lynn Olson’s Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, which covers this. Buy it through the Althouse Amazon portal – you’ll thank me.

Fernandinande said...

and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react

There's an Air In Space Museum

Narr said...

David Clary's "Rocket Man" is a fair appraisal of the man's work, which was important and impressive, only not as important and impressive as Goddard wanted everyone to believe.

Narr
The NYT used to be imp and imp too

zefal said...

They still haven't set the record straight on walter duranty.

Gary Moore on three occasions (That I've seen) mocked the ny times on his I've Got A Secret show. Moore scornfully referred to the folks at ny times "as our betters" (Yep, even then they were nothing but preachy elitists who knew better). One of the times is when IGAS had one of the navy men who flew a boat biplane (one of three) across the Atlantic in the early 1920s. At the time he was interviewed by the ny times he said this accomplishment is nothing and that in "30 years we'll be flying a thousand miles an hour at 50,000 feet." ny times knew better and that this was pure fantasy.

Michael K said...

readering is schooling me on leftist pronouns.

Is "Fuck You "an approved pronoun ?

Fen said...

I'm glad that information brokers like the NYTs stopped being so honest about their mistakes.

Nowadays (hey that's still a word!)... nowadays they use weasel word corrections, placed in fine print on lower left corner of page A16. Or they just say to hell with all that and do a stealth edit.

Being honest about correcting their mistakes made them seem more human, like us, and gave them more credibility.

I remember an experiment where Worker A reported on successfully completing a project. Worker B reported the project failed and admitted it was their fault. Test subjects related more to Worker B and rated him more trustworthy. Even though Worker A never lied.

readering said...

You would have worked in your sentence. When I read the entire post I chuckle.

LordSomber said...

I just finished reading "V-S Day" by Allen Steele.

It's alt-history about the American/German rocket race, but readers would be well served knowing the sense of urgency both Goddard and von Braun had to be experiencing during that era.

Alex said...

Michael K, the correct pronoun to use for readering is "he or she or it," or for short, "horshit."

bagoh20 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bagoh20 said...

The moon landing was the most incredibly unlikely and amazing accomplishment of all time. It is that in fact, but it seems that multiplied times ten today, because we all realize we could never do something that hard now, We simply are not the people we were. We have weakened, softened, and diminished ourselves so much since then, that we are just shadows of those times. One thing overwhelms us today that did not then - the question "what if we fail".

There are, of course, a shitload of other minor self-imposed obstacles and bothersome minor priorities, but fear is what we mostly represent today. We want safety, easy esteem, and we are satisfied with unearned trophies, prizes and praise. True accomplishment? Why bother with all that work, when you get the same without the risk, but we really get nothing, and haven't for a long time? Hey, we got really fancy telephones so we can be tracked 24/7. Great work for half a century.

bagoh20 said...

The media and people I read and respect have only misled me a handful of times in the last decade or two. Except for a couple, those who did are no longer sources for me. Many people continue to walk to a dry well every day, pull up empty buckets, and convince themselves it's full and satisfying, and then return again tomorrow. The sources I trust are only getting better.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Goddard died of natural causes in August of 1945 while working on war weapons -- not rockets, but torpedoes.
Goddard was one of those people who "did not work and play well with others." He was convinced people would steal his ideas. So he would not show scientific visitors -- who could have helped him get lucrative government contracts -- his designs. In demonstrations, he draped his engines, as much as possible, to hide them from view.
Sad.
An honest study of the history of rocketry shows that the Russians were more innovative than the Americans, and that the Americans (that's us) owe a greater debt than we would like to to the Nazi Werner von Braun.

Lewis Wetzel said...

I am not a scientist, but I've been doing technical work for scientists for nearly thirty years. Occasionally you meet a PhD who is secretive and paranoid. They have invented some process or material that has a potentially huge dollar value (or so they believe). They want the bucks. Usually they work on the support side, not the science side. I don't like those guys. They make teamwork difficult, they usually don't last long, they get fired or their contract is not renewed.
If you are employed by a university, your patents belong to them. If you are a contract employee, there is a gray area.
One PhD I remember hacked our email system so that he got a blind copy of every email a team member sent. I won't be too coy, he worked in using actuators to apply stress to mirrors in real time to compensate for atmospheric turbulence.
Another guy was a laser genius who had a paranoid psychotic break.
I think Goddard was one of those guys.

Lewis Wetzel said...

The best(?) story I heard was a bout a young European post-doc hired on contract to analyze some data for us. After a few weeks he stopped showing up for work. This was kind of a big deal because the optics guys had signed off on his visa application.
They needed to find him, but they had no info on him other than his name and his resume. Eventually they found out that he lived in a rented house many miles from the facility. They found his body. He had blown his brains out, and our guys did not even know how to contact his next of kin.
XY chromosome + high IQ is not always the best combination.

Yancey Ward said...

Journalists' understanding of science isn't any better today than it was in 1920- in fact, it is probably worse.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Let me correct you, Yancey ward: "Studies show that Journalists' understanding of science isn't any better today than it was in 1920- in fact, it is probably worse!"

Biff said...

Lewis Wetzel said..."I am not a scientist, but I've been doing technical work for scientists for nearly thirty years. Occasionally you meet a PhD who is secretive and paranoid."

I see a fair amount of secretiveness and paranoia in the life sciences. Despite the rhetoric of openness in science, faculty/labs that are working in "hot" areas of science often engage in fierce rivalries with competitors. The popular perception of "eureka moments" driving science is largely mistaken; most labs in a competitive field are working on broadly similar things, and it often is pretty easy to guess the kinds of experiments a lab is likely to perform next. Faculty often are terrified that another lab will publish similar experiments first, so they can be impressively petty and sometimes even misleading with the preliminary data they share.

While it's true that universities own the patents to work performed in their labs, it's not uncommon these days for universities to license patents to startup companies spun out of faculty labs, and faculty can receive income through that avenue. Nonetheless, I saw this behavior before commercialization and entrepreneurship became common. Getting "scooped" by a rival lab could have a disastrous effect on your prospects for future grants, and one shouldn't discount the power of ego, either. Faculty like being first.

Yancey Ward said...

I stand corrected!

Lewis Wetzel said...

Biology is tricky because even pure research can have medical or ag applications. Astrophysics is more rarified. No one becomes an astrophysicist to make money.

Lewis Wetzel said...

The big crossover between astrophysicists and industry is in detectors, especially IR detectors. The Iranians like to send astrophysics grad students to American universities to work on detector technology. The Russians don't, maybe because they are already on par with us. Not surprising, since the earliest uses of IR detectors was to detect ICBM launches using orbiting satellites. It is very difficult to separate military use of tech of tech from consumer use of tech.

Balfegor said...

Re: cubanbob:

Gilbar General LeMay was firebombing Japan left and right and they still wouldn't surrender. The Navy was slowly starving them and they still wouldn't surrender. What dropping the A Bomb on them did was give the Emperor an excuse to surrender. One plane, one bomb, one city gone and they were lead to believe the Americans could this at any time of their choosing. Nothing more than squashing a bug and then the Soviets would occupy them. That got their attention. If not for the bomb, we would have invaded Japan at an absolutely horrific price.

There were more than a few senior leaders in the army who wanted to go the full Winston Churchill --

“If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground"

But fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Even so, it wasn't entirely certain that the main force of the Army, over in China, would actually surrender, so members of the Imperial House were sent over to the various field commanders (Okamura for the China Area Army, Terauchi for the Southern Expeditionary Army, and Yamada for what was left of the Kwantung Army) to convey the Emperor's commands directly. Since the China Area Army, unlike the other two, still had a million men in arms and was basically undefeated, there was particular concern that they, or a significant chunk of them, would opt to continue the fight.

As it turned out the holdouts were limited to a handful of isolated troops out in the middle of nowhere (originally attached, I think, to Count Terauchi's Southern Expeditionary Army), continuing down to 1974, when the last Taiwanese soldier for the Empire laid down his arms. Somewhat shamefully, the Japanese government didn't pay him a pension.

rhhardin said...

The national debt is still rising under Trump. They don't report that the national debt is the sum of the annual deficits, so you can't stop the national debt from rising without balancing the budget, and balancing the budget isn't on the dem horizon, starting with the pre-K school lunch programs and going through every giveaway program in existence.

Unknown said...

They would have sainted him if he was a colored woman.

Unknown said...

or an Arab

Inkling said...

Don't forget that being a journalist means not having to say you're sorry. None of their mistakes flow from malice or ignorance, just slight and well-intentioned slip-ups.

Stephanie Delmonico said...

The Germans DID have a guided bomb in WW2. It was used fairly effectively against naval targets. That weapon was known as the 'Fritz X'.
The Germans were pretty close to putting the whole package together; Nuclear weapon + delivery system + guidance system.

They even tried to use the guided bombs against aerial targets.

Too little, too late.

CJinPA said...

Perhaps when the Wall fell, and details of Soviet atrocities became indisputable, they could have written a retraction of their reporter Walter Duranty's cover-up of Stalin's murderous ways. Opportunity missed.

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

The science is settled.

Narr said...

11 Sept 1943--USS Savannah (CL) hit by a German guided bomb off of Salerno, Italy--the first such strike.

The Germans were NOT close to developing a usable nuke; rockets and guidance, yes, they were the best at the time.

Narr
"Our German scientists are better than their German scientists!"

rcocean said...

"Respectfully, what we needed was better engines for the B-29's and the B-29's sooner
Little need for much accuracy when you're burning cities to the ground."

The buildup of the B-29s was delayed because we needed to (a) take Guam and Saipan and (B) Build the airbases and transport enough supplies and men to start the bombing of Japan. Those are the reasons we didn't have more than 100 B-29s bombing Japan in December 1944. And it took another 3 months for LeMay to take charge and figure out we should change from high level daylight bombing to night attacks and fire-bombing. The first attack on Tokyo was considered a risky gamble. The Engine problem was just a bug that occurs in every weapon system that was rushed into production in WW2.

rcocean said...

There was a so-called "battle of Kansas" where the Engineers and Military worked round the clock to fix all the major bugs in the B-29 including a temporary fix to Engine overheating problem. IRC, the engines couldn't handle massive overloads. But i could be wrong. I'm just writing from memory.

BTW, the Soviets captured one of our B-29s in 1944/45 and Stalin ordered it copied down to the last screw and bolt. Whether they copied the Engine problems is unknown.

rcocean said...

The build up of the 20th AF in the Marianas was also delayed because the AAF was at the mercy of the Navy for construction and shipping. King and the Navy were skeptical of the whole project and gave it lower priority. OTOH, the AF was skeptical of using B-29's for mining the waters around Japan but that was one of the biggest successes of the war.

Stephanie Delmonico said...

Close is a relative term. They had rockets and they had rudimentary guidance. Heavy water access and a couple years...who knows what they come up with.

The German General Staff had long been targeting 1945 as the year to start their expansion into Lebensraum (i.e. war). They needed to wait that long so as to build up resources that could sustain them through the conflict. Hitler was surprised at how he was able to annex Austria and the Czech Sudetenland so easily. When the Nazis reclaimed the Rhineland in 1935, Hitler thought that a war with France would break out, but nothing happened. So, all this early success emboldened the Fuehrer to advance his timetable by six years.
Had the Nazis been allowed to continue their war preparations for another 6 years without outside interference the resulting war may have ended quite differently.

You may not think that is close. I disagree.
I can live with that.

Caligula said...

And here's the New York Times on the Wright Bros. flight on Dec. 17, 1903:

"NEW YORK: Messrs. Wilbur and Orville Wright, of Ohio, successfully experimented with a flying machine yesterday [Dec. 17] at Kittyhawk, North Carolina. The machine has no balloon attachment and derives its force from propellers worked by a small engine. In the face of a wind blowing twenty-one miles an hour the machine flew three miles at a rate of eight miles an hour and descended at a point selected in advance. The idea of a box kite was followed in the construction of the airship."

Journalists not only are not scientists, but they lack the humility to know what they don't know (and apparently often the willingness to ask someone who does). Do you really think journalists' grasp of science (its methods, use of statistics, anything) is any better now than it was in 1920?

Stephanie Delmonico said...

From my bedroom window I used to see the building where the Enola Gay was built.
That was in Mr. Begley's bailiwick. When I was a kid.

I've flown (passenger) in most of the American WW2 bomber-types, but never a B-29. Closest I ever got was a flight in a C-97 which was based on the B-29. Life as an Air Force brat had some fun perks.

Caligula said...

"BTW, the Soviets captured one of our B-29s in 1944/45 and Stalin ordered it copied down to the last screw and bolt. Whether they copied the Engine problems is unknown."

Apparently Soviets did copy the Wright R-3350 engines as well as the airframe. They created drawings that were in even metric units so they could be fabricated by Soviet industry, which would have produced small differences everywhere. But analysing the metal alloys used in the engine and elsewhere would have been a bigger challenge than getting the dimensions right.

In any case, the engine overheating and engine fires that plagued were gradually eliminated until the R-3350 eventually became reliable enough to use on civilian airliners. So, perhaps the Soviets copied the improvements as well.

TJM said...

The New York Slimes, a left-wing loon viewspaper for left-wing loons. ZERO credibility

Narr said...

OK, SD, ATD. Too many variables.

The Sovs indeed reverse-engineered the B-29, since it was the latest thing and one of the few types not made freely available to the USSR by their many friends in DC.

As for the Soviet A-bomb, Stalin told Beria to get info on the proven techniques the Amis were using--they weren't going to waste time trying to steal the latest ideas.

Narr
Practical guy, Stalin

Scott said...

So, in other words, the science was settled?

Until it wasn't....

Rusty said...

'Fict nicht mit der rocketmench."
When asked by army intelligence where he got his ideas for rockets, von Braun was incredulous."Don't you know? From your Dr. Goddard."

Steven said...

One plane, one bomb, one city gone and they were lead to believe the Americans could this at any time of their choosing.

Of course, what led them to believe that was the now-often-called "unnecessary" bombing of Nagasaki. Internal Japanese documents show that after Hiroshima, the consensus analysis in the Japanese high command was that the US could only produce such a bomb very slowly, and therefore it was as fully endurable as very occasional massive air raids like the one on Tokyo back on March 10 (that raid having been substantially more destructive than Hiroshima, and not having been repeated).

With Nagasaki, the Japanese learned the lesson that the US could bomb at some faster rate, and adjusted their belief of their ability to hold out in a Home Islands fortress accordingly.

And in fact, it was true. Though Nagasaki used up our existing stock, we had a production line going. We were going to average three a month in September and October, increasing to five in November, seven in December, and accelerating in 1946. That's a pounding Japan really couldn't have resisted.