Adventures in Science

By Nikolaas J. van der Merwe
University of Cape Town, South Africa

A Start on the High Seas

By the time I was 22, I had crossed the North and South Atlantic eight times in cargo ships.  These were freighters of the Robin Shipping Line, with romantic names like the Robin Hood and Robin Sherwood;  they plied the oceans between North America and the coast of South and East Africa.  I usually stood the 4 to 8 watch, at sunrise and sunset, when the navigator  (or second mate)  has command of the bridge.  I learned to take star sights with a sextant, make weather observations, and to steer a 16 thousand ton ship by hand.  I was not a merchant mariner, so I was not required to do this.  I had a scholarship from the shipping line for my undergraduate studies at Yale and was just hitching a ride home during the summer vacation.  The navigation techniques I learned are rarely used today, because they have been overtaken by GPS and computers.  The only enduring thing I learned, as I stood watch on the bow of the ship, was how to light a cigarette in a strong wind.  I don’t use that anymore either.

What does this have to do with being a scientist?  Perhaps nothing; perhaps everything.  It has to do with a sense of adventure, with a desire to find out how things work.  If this desire can be pursued in exotic places, so much the better.  I practice archaeological science, also called archaeometry, which involves the application of methods from the natural sciences to archaeological problems.  Since those days at sea, I have done scientific research in 26 countries, on all the continents except Australia and Antarctica.  These two are obviously an oversight on my part and I will have to do something about it.  The adventure continues….

Into the Physics Lab

How does one become a scientist?  Well, you have to take many science courses in high school and college; they are obviously crucial to your training.  When I think back, most of those courses blur into a composite memory of completed requirements, while only a few stand out.  One of these was a year-long physics laboratory course in my sophomore year, called Classical Physical Measurements.  We each had a lab partner and we had to do things like measure the speed of light and the charge on an electron, without supervision.  That sounds simple enough, but we had to use the equipment that was used to measure those quantities for the first time.

The speed of light we measured in a long dark passage in the attic of the physics building, using a candle, several mirrors to bounce the light back and forth, and a rotating gear wheel that ran off a battery.  The attic was badly overheated, which made us miserable, and the passing traffic vibrated the mirrors just enough to throw off their careful alignment.  It took us a month to measure the speed of light.  Next came the charge on an electron, for which we repeated Millikan’s Oil Drop Experiment.  For this purpose, we had a tiny room in the basement, next to the heating plant.  It was very hot, which made us miserable, and we discovered that oil drops floating in an electric field frequently refuse to act according to theory.  In the process, we discovered empirically why Millikan, in his original experiment, had trimmed his data by publishing only the oil drops that behaved well.  This fact was established many years later from his lab notes and is still the subject of discussion in seminars on the ethics of science.

In any case, we managed to make the experiment work.  My lab partner was somebody like Bernie in the Doonesbury cartoon strip, who drinks the potions he makes in chemistry lab and turns into a werewolf.  Bernie and Doonesbury were also students at Yale, of course, like Gary Trudeau, the creator of the cartoon strip.  My lab partner had been fixing radios and TV sets since the age of six and was the chief engineer of the Yale radio station.  He did not actually drink any potions we made, but he dismantled and improved the equipment that had been issued to us by the physics department.  My memory for names is terrible and I cannot remember his non-Doonesbury name.  (I hope he reads this and gets in touch.)  I learned more about electronics from him than the assembled staff of the physics department.  We stayed partners for two years and had a lot of fun.

This is the point I was trying to make:  we had fun.  Science should be fun, otherwise you should not do it.  Scientific researchers rarely make a lot of money, so you must get your satisfaction from the work itself.  While doing those measurements with a candle and mirrors, we thought about Michelson, the physicist who first measured the speed of light in 1926.  What was he thinking of when he designed this rudimentary equipment?  We were sure that he had fun doing it.  The satisfaction of measuring something in nature for the first time ever and figuring out how it works is fundamental to the spirit of adventure in science.

Ethics and the Scientist

I mentioned in passing that Millikan trimmed his data and did not publish the oil drops that did not fit his theory.  He happened to be right, but this is frequently mentioned as an example of bad science.  Had he been wrong, it would have wasted a lot of time while other researchers tried to duplicate his results.  One of my mentors at Yale, the geochemist Karl Turekian, had this to say on the subject:  “Two data points are not enough. You don’t know if you should connect them or draw line between them.  It is better to have just one data point and a damn good idea.” Ideas have to be tested, of course, and scientists have to be able to trust each other.  The drama surrounding the pseudo-discovery of cold fusion managed to make suckers of a lot of very senior scientists, because they believed that other scientists are basically honest.  The vast majority is, but they can also be corrupted by money and ambition.

It is not only politicians who can be corrupted by money, scientists can also be.   I am struck by the changes that have taken place over two or three decades.  Thirty years ago, it was enough to say that scientists should publish their work and share their ideas with colleagues in an open and honest fashion. Today, researchers may be testing drugs for the pharmaceutical industry and may be pressured not to publish the results of drugs that do not work. Two different researchers in the same lab may be consultants in the pay of two different drug companies and may be pressured to keep their work secret from each other.  These are insidious influences at work and they are by no means confined to biochemistry.

Alignments between industrialists, politicians, and some scientists produced the policies of the Bush administration on global warming.  One move in this area involved a ten-year program with lots of research money for scientists to study whether global warming is really taking place.  This appears to have been aimed at delaying the inevitable need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  It will be an ultimate irony if scientists end up having used this money to bury the self-centeredness of American foreign policy by expanding the moral horizon of Americans.  It may well be, however, that the forthcoming decisions of the Chinese about limiting carbon emissions will do so instead.

Politics and the Scientist

One of my mentors was Cyril Stanley Smith of MIT, a major figure in the study of metallurgical history.  He came to Yale to give a talk on this subject at a time when I was doing my Honours research on the radiocarbon dating of iron alloys.  He enthusiastically supplied me with samples of ancient iron-carbon alloys.  I milled them into filings, burned them to extract the carbon, and measured the radioactive carbon-14 to determine their date of manufacture. This he was able to do through his extensive network of contacts in the field of metals.  I am still amazed that the British Iron and Steel Institute provided me with 2kg of Roman nails to grind up and burn.  At the same time I am mindful of the fact that Cyril Stanley Smith developed the metal alloy that was used to make the bomb casing for the atomic weapon that was dropped on Nagasaki.  The alloy made it a particularly nasty, dirty bomb.  I am told that it was this involvement in the use of science for war that caused him to become an historian of metals.

This is perhaps a grim example of a scientist setting off in one direction and ending up taking another path altogether. My own path as a scientist has also taken unpredictable turns, but these have been rather more benign.  The changes of direction have involved the desire to know and understand things, a sense of adventure, and a sense of doing fun things. I did not set out to be an archaeologist when I went to college, but planned to be a nuclear scientist.  Before that, I wanted to be a fighter pilot.  We need some historical background here to get to the point.

I grew up in Riviersonderend (“River without End”), a farming town about two hours drive from Cape Town.  The town had about 200 resident families, only one of which spoke English at home.  The school had just over 100 pupils in all 12 grades and science was rather haphazardly taught.  My father was the woodwork teacher, but he also had to teach history and biology in the high school, which he did by reading the textbooks more quickly than the class.  We spent a lot of time together in the veld, where he taught me such things as how to catch a snake and milk the venom from its fangs with a matchstick. (You can see why I got hung up on matches.)

I took to studying birds and in primary school collected egg specimens of fifty species.  I hasten to add that I learned how to steal an egg from a nest without interrupting the breeding cycle.  I think this is where my interest in science comes from.  We moved to the Eastern Cape, where I attended Brandwag High School in Uitenhage, near Port Elizabeth.  I considered the Eastern Cape a desolate part of South Africa, because they did not seem to have any birds there.  It is only now that I know that I grew up in the area with the highest species diversity of birds in Africa.

Leaving South Africa

The science teaching in high school was a lot more organized than in Riviersonderend, but we still did not get our hands on any of the laboratory equipment.  Various events occurred in high school to divert me from adventurous dreams about flying a Sabre jet.  In the first place, the community I lived in seemed to have the strong expectation that I would become a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church or some other worthy leader of the volk.  I was not enamoured of this prospect.  In my senior year, which was 1957, legislation was introduced in parliament to segregate South African universities by race.  I thought this was a lousy idea.  In the same year, the Soviet Union put the first earth satellite into orbit and the Cold War broke out in a sweat.  I decided to become a nuclear scientist to fight one evil and to leave South Africa to get away from another. I was naive, of course, but what else can one be at the age of seventeen?

In due course, then, I came to measure the speed of light with my lab partner, Bernie the werewolf.  I must confess that I found most of the science and math courses I took in big lecture halls to be difficult and boring.  I soldiered on in the firm belief that things would get better, if I could only get to work with real equipment.  In my junior year, I had an open slot in my program and took a course with the intriguing title “The Archaeology of Nuclear America.”  I thought briefly that this might be about digging up the remains of America after a nuclear war, but it turned out that Nuclear America is the area from Mexico to Peru, where the early civilizations of the Maya and Inca flourished.  I was introduced to the method of radiocarbon dating, which was then in its infancy.  From an idea of Karl Turekian (he of the single data point), I developed an application of radiocarbon dating to determine the age of iron alloys and built the equipment to do so.  The rest is history, as they say.  I became an archaeologist with a specialty in physics and chemistry, a forensic scientist of the distant past.

The point to this story is the sense of discovery and accomplishment I felt at the age of 22 when I built the equipment to burn up 2kg of Roman nails.  Was this of any use to anybody else?  The American taxpayers invested $13,000 in the experiment (things were cheaper then) and a scientist does have a duty to society.  Well, I achieved what I set out to do, which was to develop a dating method for iron alloys.  With the new technology of accelerator mass spectrometry, this is now a useful method that can be carried out with very small samples.  A few years after I finished my doctorate on the subject, the Apollo space program put sensing equipment on the moon to measure the cosmic ray flux there.  This involved thin strips of iron-carbon alloy in which the cosmic rays cause some of the carbon to be converted to radioactive carbon-14, which can then be measured.  To do these measurements, NASA used the technology I had devised.  So yes, I think I paid my dues to society in this case.  This was hardly what I was thinking of when I collected birds’ eggs in primary school, or when I dreamed of the freedom of the skies at the controls of a fighter jet in high school.  We cannot predict where the spirit of adventure will take us, but as scientists we cannot achieve very much without it.

And so, I became an academic and a scientist.  I have had a lot of fun at it, but one thing remains to be said.  My first pay check went into flying lessons.  I became a licensed pilot at age 26 and have been one ever since. Some youthful notions of adventure may never die.

Don’t let them.

(Ed. note: Nick wrote of his flying adventures for our website in 2007, in Flying Stories.)
(Nick may be reached at

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  • Floyd Russell April 24, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    Yurra jong, what a story. Thank Nik.
    Amazing how things turn out. You seem to have followed somewhat per plan, but in a variety of fields within a broadly defined discipline.
    I plan to send this to a grandkid who is all concerned about not having a clear plan for he future.

  • Al Chambers March 27, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Hi Nik,

    So good to see you back on the web site with your feature about the joys of science. Such a good message and written with style and grace. It took me back to thinking about our deliberations earlier in the century about your reflections and solution to the porcupine plague on your property, which ultimately did not run on the web site. Do you still have prickly creatures in the neighborhood. Hope to see you at 50th Reunion.

  • Henry Childs March 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    What a charming reminder that there should be both adventure and fun in our lives, in order to achieve higher goals. Let us hope that time remains to correct any oversight by any of us who were less privileged than Nik, growing up in rural South Africa, where the whole world was in plain view.

  • Bill Stott March 24, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Nik, lovely article. I’m sending it to my stepdaughter, who’s just begun medical school and, alas, isn’t finding medical statistics and calculus for doctors much fun.