Oct. 1, 2012


by Ursula Le Guin

What little we have ever understood
is like an offering we make beside the sea.
It is pure worship when pursued
as its own end, to find out. Mystery,
the undiminishable silent flood,
stretches on out from where we pray
round the clear altar flame. The god
accepts the sacrifice and turns away.

"Science" by Ursula K. Le Guin, from Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The first Computed Tomography scan was performed on a patient on this date in 1971. It's also known as a CT scan or sometimes a CAT scan, for Computed Axial Tomography. A CT scan produces images of cross-sections or "slices" of the human body. It makes it possible for doctors to examine the soft tissues of the body, which are difficult to see with traditional X-rays. In 1971, the scanner took about five minutes to capture a single slice, and it took a couple of hours to produce a single image from the raw data. Today's scanners can capture multiple slices and return images, all in under a second.

The first diagnostic scan was performed at Atkinson Morley's Hospital in London, and the first patient was a woman who was suspected of having a tumor in her frontal lobe. The scan — quite blurry by today's standards — revealed what appeared to be a mass. When surgeons opened up the woman's skull, one of them remarked that it looked exactly like the picture. The CT scan had proved its usefulness.

Partial credit for the development of the CT scanner is due the Beatles, according to British radiologist Ben Timmis. That's because the band's recording label, EMI, heavily funded the research of the CT's inventor, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield. Because the Beatles sold so many records and made so much money for EMI, Hounsfield was able to devote four years of full-time work to the development of a commercial CT machine, which was called the EMI-Scanner.

The first-ever World Series game was played on this date in 1903. The Pittsburgh Pirates were playing versus the Boston Americans. Pittsburgh won the first game with a score of seven to three, but in the end, Boston won four games in a row to take the contest five games to three. Because it was an informal and voluntary arrangement between the two clubs, there were no plans to repeat it, and so there was no World Series in 1904. But by 1905, the World Series became formally established by both leagues and became an annual — and compulsory — event.

Today is the birthday of social historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1914). He wasn't a historian by training; he studied law at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. He didn't write about major battles and political events, but about social and intellectual history, and the daily experiences of ordinary people. His personal and professional hero was Edward Gibbon, another amateur historian who had published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the late 18th century. Boorstin was quite proud of his own lack of formal education in history, because he wasn't constricted by rules. His only qualification, he said, was his love of the subject.

When he was appointed Librarian of Congress in 1975, several senators asked him to give up his writing. He refused, but assured them that he wouldn't write "on the job." So he wrote in the evenings, and on weekends, and got up every morning at 4:30 and wrote until he went to the library at 9 a.m. One of his first acts as Librarian of Congress was to demand that the library's imposing bronze doors be left standing wide open. "They said it would create a draft," he recalled later, "and I replied, 'Great — that's just what we need.'"

It's the birthday of novelist Tim O'Brien (books by this author), born in Austin, Minnesota (1946). He grew up in Worthington, Minnesota — the turkey capital of the world — and was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War the summer he graduated from college. He served for four years, during which time he wrote several stories and articles, and when he returned home, he got a job at The Washington Post. He published his first book in 1973; it was a memoir called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. After that, he began to write books that blurred the lines between fiction and memoir. His most famous book, a collection of linked short stories about the war, is The Things They Carried (1990); the stories in it feature a character named Tim O'Brien. In it, he wrote: "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."

From The Things They Carried: "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil."

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