Mar. 14, 2012

Looking at the Sky

by Anne Porter

I never will have time
I never will have time enough
To say
How beautiful it is
The way the moon
Floats in the air
As easily
And lightly as a bird
Although she is a world
Made all of stone.

I never will have time enough
To praise
The way the stars
Hang glittering in the dark
Of steepest heaven
Their dewy sparks
Their brimming drops of light
So fresh so clear
That when you look at them
It quenches thirst.

"Looking at the Sky" by Anne Porter, from Living Things: Collected Poems. © Zoland Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Seventy years ago today, the first human life was saved with penicillin, an antibiotic discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming in 1928.

On this day in 1942, in New Haven, Connecticut, a 33-year-old nurse and mother named Anne Miller lay in the throes of a serious streptococcal infection, running a fever around 107 degrees. The family doctor, John Bumstead, had read the research on the experimental use of penicillin, and suggested it to the family as Anne's last hope. He found out that the Merck Pharmaceutical labs in Rahway, New Jersey, had produced a small sample, and they were eager to give it a field trial, so they shipped him a little bottle — five and a half grams, about a teaspoonful — which represented half of all the penicillin available in the United States at that time.

By the morning of March 14, Anne Miller had been hospitalized for a month. She had been treated with sulfa drugs, blood transfusions, and surgery. She was slipping in and out of consciousness and was only expected to live a few more hours. Dr. Bumstead had the drug in his hands, but had been given no instructions on how to dose or administer it. He and his colleagues made their best guess and gave her the first injection at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Within four hours, her fever had dropped to 99 degrees, and by 4:00 a.m. the following morning, her temperature was back to normal. Mrs. Miller lived for 57 more years, and her medical chart is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Today is the birthday of playwright Horton Foote (books by this author), born Albert Horton Foote Jr. in Wharton, Texas (1916). He's the author of more than 60 plays and screenplays, including a series of nine one-act plays called Orphans' Home Cycle. The cycle is loosely based on Foote's father and other members of the Foote family tree, and the plays are set in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, early in the 20th century. The plays' protagonist is Horace Robedaux; at the beginning of the first play, Horace is 12 years old, and his alcoholic father has just died. His mother has remarried and her new husband doesn't want Horace around, so the boy is, for all intents and purposes, an orphan. The cycle follows Horace's search for a home, his growing up, and his becoming a husband and father himself; in the last play, a 38-year-old Horace finally confronts his mother with her lifetime of neglect.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published on this date in 1939 (books by this author). The story of the Joad family — migrants who left the Dust Bowl to find work on the farms of California — was a critical and commercial success, selling nearly half a million copies during its first year of publication. Steinbeck wrote the book in 100 days, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for it.

It's the birthday of Sylvia Beach (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). She founded an English-language bookstore and lending library on Paris's Left Bank called Shakespeare & Company. It became a central feature of the Parisian literary scene of the 1920s, since it opened just as the "Lost Generation" discovered Paris. It became "the unofficial living room" of the expatriate artists there. Writers used it as a meeting place, a post office, and a place for guidance with their writing. Beach also published books, including the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).

Today is the birthday of Albert Einstein (books by this author), born in Ulm, Germany (1879). He was homeschooled during his early years; when he entered a more formal educational environment, he was a good student, but he was generally disrespectful of his teachers, because he knew more than they did. When he graduated, none of his instructors would give him the letters of recommendation he needed to get a job in academia, so his first job was as a technical assistant for the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. He enjoyed the work and, more importantly, it gave him lots of free time at home to work out his own theories of physics. Since he was outside of the academic scientific community, he wasn't bothered about what other people thought.

In 1905 — a year he called his annus mirabilis — he obtained his doctorate and published four important papers. One of these was on his Special Theory of Relativity, which states that absolute space and absolute time don't exist; they are relative to each other and should be represented as "space-time." The only universal constant is the speed of light, which never changes under any circumstances. Light from a fast-moving object still travels at the same speed as light from a slow-moving object, so the only explanation is that time itself is elastic and moves more slowly relative to the fast-moving object. It was a revolutionary theory, but it still wasn't enough to get him an academic job; he did get a promotion at the patent office, though. He was 26 years old. Four years later, in 1909, he got a job as an adjunct professor of theoretical physics in Zurich; five years after that, he moved to Berlin, and began work on his General Theory of Relativity, which he published in 1916.

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