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Reviews: Intrepid Museum

Discover Magazine reviews the Intrepid Museum and medical myths

By Polly Shulman and Erik Freeland Saba
Mar 1, 2000 6:00 AMApr 26, 2023 3:06 PM


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The Intrepid Museum

The Intrepid Museum is impressive less for its interactive technology displays (top) than for the ship’s historic role in defense and scientific research. A bathysphere (below) was used to explore the deep ocean.

Have you ever longed to stand at the tactical center of a submarine designed to carry nuclear missiles, your hand mere inches from the switch that launches the goods? Unless you’re the leader of a world power or a remarkably successful terrorist, your only chance may be at New York City’s Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum. For 6 years, Growler, a navy sub launched in 1958, menaced America’s enemies with the threat of an imminent nuclear strike. Now her missile bays hold nothing more terrifying than a baker’s dozen tourists, freshened every quarter hour.

Perhaps for security reasons (lest some fiend hijack Growler downstream to city hall and launch the tourists at the mayor), the tour guide doesn’t specify which of the abundant controls is The Switch. Still, you know it has to be mere inches from your hand, because everything else is: the navigational equipment, the periscopes, the lamp in the captain’s cabin, the game boards painted on the tables in the crew’s mess hall. For months at a time, 88 men rubbed shoulders in a 317-foot-long space that looks for all the world like a boiler room, their only glimpse of the outside world through a periscope.

In comparison, the main body of the museum, Intrepid herself, looks like an airplane hangar. That’s not so surprising—in a sense she is one. First commissioned in 1943, the aircraft carrier brought her nimble cargo of fighter planes, airmen, and sailors through several battles, including five kamikaze attacks. Now she lies in the Hudson River like a horizontal skyscraper, three levels of her 18 decks filled with exhibits about military technology, history, and the science of seafaring and flight. (Fire codes forbid the museum to open more decks.) She and Growler, along with the destroyer Edson, make up the bulk of the museum.

The museum revolution left this one behind. Visitors accustomed to hands-on, high-tech, high-concept science centers may learn more than they want to know about museum design of yesteryear from peering into glass cases of Pearl Harbor memorabilia or reading the cryptic labels on the model battleships. The newest exhibit, Defending Our Future, a supposedly interactive display on tomorrow’s military technologies, is nothing more than a bank of 24 buttons and a ceiling-mounted video screen. Push a button and watch a 60-second clip about, say, the F-18 Hornet or Nimitz-class carriers. Nearby stand half a dozen computer monitors loaded with identical cd-roms. Clicking on “Navy,” “Coast Guard,” and so on gives a similarly terse overview of these branches of the armed forces. The display will probably leave military buffs unsatisfied.

The scientifically curious, too, may long for more than they find. For example, the museum includes a bathysphere—a metal bubble for exploring the ocean’s depths—but you can’t go in it. You can’t go in the fighter planes and copters that line the flight deck, either, or the model Gemini 3 and Aurora 7 spacecraft capsules. (Intrepid picked up astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young when the Gemini capsule splashed down, and Scott Carpenter from the Aurora.)

You can go in another new exhibit, a flight simulator, but you’ll need a strong stomach. The simulator, a vehiclelike room that requires separate admission, shakes the audience members while they watch footage of a simulated Desert Storm strike. Oddly, one of the few bits of genuinely imaginative science education comes along as an afterthought: the flight simulator’s hydraulic power unit in a nearby glass case. Labeled parts—“hydraulic fluid cooling unit,” “air compressor to power doors”—allow enterprising thinkers to puzzle out fundamental questions such as: What makes the thing shake?

The Intrepid’s up-to-the-minute information technology leaves something to desired, but that’s not true of its old-fashioned information technology—the guides. On my visit, a friendly man named Michael, who had recently spent four years in the Navy serving aboard an aircraft carrier, plied me with tales of Intrepid’s battles and her heroes. “You should have been here this morning, though,” he concluded. “We have some volunteers who are vets, former crew members. The stories they tell!” You can keep your cd-roms—I’m going back for those stories.

Space Station

Two-video set, $39.95 plus shipping (available from Oregon Public Broadcasting, 800-440-2651) skyscraper productions. running time: 120 minutes.

One dark night in the wilds of Texas, I spotted a satellite. A tiny point of light, it zipped across the sky in a minute. At that moment, I discovered that I hadn’t truly believed things like outer space and satellites are real. Yes, most people use satellites every day to make phone calls or watch tv, but actually viewing one in orbit anchors what otherwise can seem like reality adrift. Imagine looking up and seeing an object smaller than the moon but shinier than the brightest star. If all goes well, later in this century, that object will be the International Space Station, a collaborative project among many countries. Now, Space Station the video—a two-part documentary about man’s biggest construction project off the globe—makes the fantasy real. The station has been in the news for years, but it can still seem like some ethereal dream project until you see the footage of the pieces already linked together and up in space, orbiting our planet. And it is not just a giant, spinning, empty tin can. As only video can prove, engineers are working on it—in space as well as on Earth.

Viewers will likely be struck by the cultural differences between the American and Russian parts of the program. The film includes scenes of a Russian grandmother hand-sewing the insulation on a piece of the station and peasants selling produce in a rural marketplace around the Russian launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. In contrast, Boeing’s ultramodern meeting rooms in the United States are closer to a Western image of rocket science. Yet, in other footage, the programs can look so much alike that it’s hard to tell when the camera cuts from an assembly room in Russia to one in the United States or Canada.

In a scene in which the solar panels were opened, the immense scale of the undertaking becomes obvious. In another, flights of the Space Station’s astronaut emergency return vehicle offer a sense of adventure. Footage of station modules under construction inspires respect for the difficulties that even the most junior engineer faces. Tasks as simple as drilling a hole become complex chores. The U.S. pieces have to fit with those from Canada, Russia, and elsewhere without the benefit of checking any dimensions before they are merged. It’s like making puzzle pieces that mesh perfectly with ones made by someone on the other side of the Earth.

Danger in unexpected forms seems to be everywhere. In one scene, two men float around a module’s hull, trying to deploy two antennae. Before they’re allowed to jiggle one of the jammed wires, they need to get a long sequence of approvals from the designers of the module, the space-suit manufacturers, and a slew of nasa officials. At last the antenna shoots out triumphantly, fortunately not puncturing the astronaut’s space suit in the process, although a cap that covered the wire whizzes by precariously close to his head.

While they balance breathless action with frank interviews about numerous problems that have plagued the program on all sides, these videos are unlikely to reveal any secrets. And they’re far from exhaustive: They don’t discuss the schedule for the project’s completion, for example, or the contributions of many countries. Still, they do an excellent job of showing the human side of the immense project. Most interestingly, they show what many still imagine to be science fiction as fact. One participant says the space station is like a highway: Having the road there will prove that humans can go anywhere; and once it is built, towns will follow. —Fenella Saunders

The Mysteries Within

A Surgeon Reflects on Medical Myths

Sherwin B. Nuland Simon & Schuster, $24.

Apostles of the hippocratic school of medicine, who practiced in the 5th century B.C., were convinced that the uterus could worm its way through the diaphragm and travel as high as the throat. When dehydrated, it would fling itself at the liver for moisture. Six hundred years later, Greek physician Galen maintained that good health sprang from a balance of four bodily humors: blood, which flows from the heart; yellow bile, leaching from the liver; black bile, disgorged by the spleen and stomach; and cold, wet phlegm coming from the brain. And the 16th-century medical man Paracelsus—born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim—thought that venereal disease could be cured with orchids, so called because the Greek word orchis means “like a testicle” and derives from the plant’s ball-shaped double root.

Sherwin B. Nuland offers these and many other nuggets in his latest book, The Mysteries Within. A surgeon at Yale and the author of How We Die, Nuland recounts the growth of medical knowledge from its deep roots in myth and magical thinking to modern scientific method. He focuses on five different organs—the stomach, the liver, the spleen, the heart, and the uterus—interspersing each chapter with vignettes about his own adventures with these body parts. The result, drawn from sources as diverse as the Iliad, the Talmud, and the Book of Ezekiel, is absorbing, if meandering in places.

Consider, for example, the section on the spleen, which is easily the most entertaining. Nuland calls it the “Organ of Mystery, Organ of Melancholy,” and it’s not hard to see why. Until this century, no one had the slightest notion of its function (it filters out damaged cells and helps fight infection), but that didn’t stop speculation. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, believed that removal of the spleen was the key to fast running, perhaps because an enlarged spleen—a common condition among people living near malarial marshes—impeded comfortable movement. The Talmudists saw the spleen as the source of laughter, which 12th-century physician and poet Judah Halevi attributed to its ability to cleanse the body of black bile, a supposedly gloom-inducing, but entirely imaginary, effluvium. Later, the medical condition known as Spleen became synonymous with sullenness, insomnia, and hypochondria. It acquired so fashionable an aura among 18th-century British aristocrats that it became known as The English Malady.

Not all the beliefs that Nuland describes are worthy of derision. Indeed, he devotes much of the text to demonstrating how medical knowledge grew over time through careful observation of humans and animals. In 1775, for example, the Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani proved that both sperm and eggs are necessary to generate an embryo. He did so by dressing male frogs “in tiny pairs of waxed taffeta trousers,” then mating them with females. Though the dandified frogs eagerly sought sex, “the eggs are never prolific,” wrote Spallanzani, “for want of having been bedewed with semen, which sometimes may be seen inside the breeches in the form of drops.”

For all their strange notions, early physicians such as Galen, Paracelsus, and the 16th-century Belgian Andreas Vesalius—whose meticulous dissections of decaying corpses enabled him to produce the first reliable textbook of anatomy—based at least some of their ideas about the body on what they could see. The same, says Nuland, cannot be said of modern practitioners of some forms of alternative medicine, such as homeopathy. For all our superior attitudes toward the ancients, we are not so free of myth or magic ourselves. —Josie Glausiusz

The Eternal Darkness

A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration Robert D. Ballard with Will Hively Princeton University Press, $29.95.

On June 6, 1930, scientist-explorer Charles William Beebe and engineer Otis Barton clambered into a cramped steel sphere with eight hours’ worth of oxygen. They listened, in pain, as bolts sealed the 400-pound door. When a winch on the barge Ready lowered Beebe and Barton toward a depth of 400 feet, they watched seawater seeped through the door of their chilly chamber. But as they passed a record depth of 525 feet, a luminous view and exotic creatures greeted them, and the bathysphere didn’t implode. The following week, the explorers descended again, this time to 1,426 feet, where the ocean leaned on their vessel with more than 650 pounds per square inch.

Just 30 years later, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard plunged 25 times deeper in the untethered but awkward bathyscaphe Trieste, to the lowest place on Earth: the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 35,800 feet down. After Trieste’s return, teenager Robert Ballard became determined to dive.

While in college, the Navy, and graduate school, he promoted the construction of small submersibles such as the three-person Alvin. Inaugurated in 1964, the undersea vehicle could swim through canyons and pick up rocks, artifacts, and sea life. Alvin could even metaphorically play with fire, dancing around the edges of 662-degree Fahrenheit mineral-spewing heat vents on the seafloor.

But even subs like Alvin have their limits, Ballard discovered. First, they are very expensive because they must support human life. Second, they involve a lot of risk. Ballard himself has been close to death several times in small research submersibles. So, throughout the 1980s, he began developing unmanned, remotely operated vehicles that would allow researchers to maneuver from the safety of surface ships or even dry land. “Now we can cut the ultimate tether—the one that binds our questioning intellect to vulnerable human flesh,” he writes. So what if a beloved robot plunged to the seafloor? “We would have measured the cost in dollars and delays, rather than lives lost and broken hearts.”

Nearly 97 percent of Earth’s inhabitable spaces rest beyond the reach of sunlight, far beneath the ocean’s waves, notes Ballard, who wrote this book with Discover contributing editor Will Hively. Explorers have found a bounty of life on seafloors they thought desolate. What other secrets lurk? “Although we have learned a lot over the last two decades, all expeditions put together have probably investigated less than 1 percent of the seafloor,” writes Ballard. “The exploration of the world’s oceans has just begun....the next generation of deep-sea explorers may actually see, for the first time, more of the Earth’s solid surface than all previous generations combined. They will then at last put our knowledge of this ocean planet on a par with that of Mars and of the far side of the moon.” —Jessica Gorman

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