Twentieth century science and theology had both produced whereabouts that eroded the older confidence of practitioners from both disciplines. This attrition was strengthened by world events as well. After two world wars and the immediate onset of a global nuclear threat it was not surprising that foundations had been shaken. With little certainty left, the world science had helped produce was thrown open to question. That meant that scholars would begin to look at the history of science differently as well. The two films I am going to review today are The Poisoner’s Handbook and Einstein’s Big Idea. One deliberates the Chemical revolution in Forensic science in the 1900’s. The other one is the history behind the creation of E=m. The Poisoners Handbook was first published in February 18, 2010. It contains chapters on chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium.
Using a structure that evokes Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, Blum considers each substance one at a time in the context of cases presented to New York’s chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and to the toxicologist Alexander Gettler, pioneers who conducted their experiments before forensic science was a formally recognized field. Their determination drives much of the story as they confront the problems of limited resources as well as a corrupt system (which, in a fascinating detour, Blum explains had once selected examiners with little consideration for their relevant skills). The study of poison slowly gains credence in the courtroom under their combined expertise, and their findings allow others to condemn or vindicate the accused. In 1918, New York City appointed Charles Norris, Bellevue Hospital’s chief pathologist, as its first scientifically trained medical examiner. The book, is about Norris and Alexander Gettler, the city’s first toxicologist, describes the Jazz Age’s poisoning cases.
Before the two began working in the medical examiner’s office, Blum pointed out in her book, poisoners could get away with murder. The book covers the years from 1915 to 1936, which Blum described as a “coming-of-age” for forensic toxicology. “Under (Norris’s) direction, the New York City medical examiner’s office would become a department that set forensic standards for the rest of the country,” Blum wrote. In year 1922 about 101 people in NY hung themselves, 444 died in car accidents, 237 were shot and 34 were stabbed. Almost 1997 people died of poisoning. April 25th 1922 Jackson and his wife Anny were found dead in their apartment. Thus journey of Norris & Alexander Gettler began. Charles Norris had who studied medicine in Columbia University wanted to develop scientific evidence in criminal justice system. In 1918 Norris opened up an institution where medical examiners would work and they would only be professionals. Even though he made the mayor the mayor his arch enemy for that.
A mysterious case appeared when a woman named Franny Crayton’s brother died of poisoning. After 3 trials Gettler and Norris successfully proved that Franny killed his brother by poisoning him with arsenic in his food. Since 1920 intoxicating liquors were banned by the federal government. But people would still consumer alcohol; even by distilling wood which produces methanol. Also leaded gasoline were manufactured in order to get more mileage and horsepower. But these elements were causing people to go blind, and to coma. Norris and Gettler proved leaded poisons existence in the gasoline but government lifted all restrictions on the sale of leaded gas anyway as the lead exposure was too low to the public. Well-known stories, such as that of the women who painted wristwatches with radium, appear alongside less familiar accounts of unassuming individuals, from the wife who the press likened to Lucrezia Borgia, to the man who killed patients at the Odd Fellows Home.
Macabre as the material is, Blum’s main purpose is neither to examine criminal psychology nor to recreate scenes for titillation. When she describes accidents, murders and the meticulous, messier details involved in performing autopsies, they are intricately tied to the larger arc; it is a sophisticated approach which seeks for the story-behind-the-story. What proves most interesting is often the aftermath. Poisons leave distinctive markers, and tracing the cause of death is as much a study in patience as it is a revelation of strong wills. In a haunting closing note, we later learn how heavily the role of toxicologist weighed on Gettler, who remarked, in reference to the knowledge that lives depended on him, “I keep asking myself, have I done everything right?” The second film is called Einstein’s Big Idea. It was released in August 18, 2005 and directed by Gary Johnstone. The film starts out by describing E=mc^2 by starting with the E as in energy. Energy was first discovered in London, England in 1812.
Before energy was discovered, people just thought that it was random forces acting upon someone or something that created a movement. A young blacksmith, Michael Faraday, strove to get out of the trade of blacksmithing and wanted to become a scientist. One day, one of his master’s customers offered Faraday an invitation to hear a speech from Sir Humphrey Davy about his scientific discoveries. This made Faraday even more eager to become a scientist himself so he made a book from his own discoveries in order to impress Davy and it worked. Davy later got into an accident with one of his experiments so he offered Faraday a job as his laboratory assistant. Faraday came up with the idea of energy when he and many other scientists of the time were trying to figure out why a compass’ needle runs tangent to a wire that has an electric current running through it. Faraday suggested that there is energy, which at first he called a force that runs around the wire which causes the compass to not point the direction of the current.
He later proved this through an experiment which became a huge breakthrough in this time period. Michael Faraday proposed that light is really just an electromagnetic wave, but it took almost 15 years for him to convince the skeptics that this is really true. Professor James Clerk Maxwell had the mathematical skill to back up Faraday’s proposal. James Clarke proved that the speed of light is 670 million miles per hour. Over 100 years before Einstein was even born, Antoine Lavoisier took finding out if there is a connection between all matters on earth in his own hands. He was not a scientist by trade; he was the head of tax enforcement in Paris. Lavoisier came up with the idea that no matter is ever lost and no matter is ever gained through an experiment involving turning water into gas and measuring it and the gas measured to be the same as the initial sample of water.
Emilie du Chatelet proposed that Isaac Newton’s equation for force F=mv was incorrect and that the true equation is F=mv^2. She proved this by teaming up with another scientist that set up a simple experiment that consisted of lead balls landing into clay to show that her equation was correct. This contributed to help develop the equation E=mc^2 Einstein wasn’t exactly the greatest student in college, but he did greatly excel in his physics courses. He was interested in really learning from his science classes, and not just getting a good grade. At this time of his life he became obsessed with the nature of light. The documentary gives some indication of the importance of Einstein’s wife, Mileva Maric, in his work. Maric was a doctoral student at the Zurich Polytechnic whose own scientific career was sacrificed to care for her and Einstein’s child. The extent to which her contributions to Einstein’s thinking in the critical years of his conceptualization of relativity from 1900 to 1905 are difficult to ascertain in retrospect but may have been profound.
In fact, one of the most charming scenes in the documentary is when Einstein tells his young wife in their small apartment of his final conclusion that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Mileva calmly looks at him and asks simply, “Would you like me to check your mathematics?” Einstein’s documentary accentuates the fact that all advances in science are built upon the foundations laid down by others, sometime many years before or in seemingly unrelated fields. For students, it demonstrates the value of studying a broad range of scientific principles, as each learning in one field can inspire greatness in another. Whereas, Gettler and Norris alone in the society and systemic jury had to go through so much to prove their scientific discoveries. They are both very informative. No glittering elixir and no mere staple of the fictional whodunit, poison may well be emblematic of some of the worst aspects of human nature, which, disconcerting though it is to say, creates some of the best documentaries.
“Albert Einstein’s Big Idea Nova HD.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Nov. 2014. Web. 06 May 2015.
“The Poisoner’s Handbook – The Standards for the Rest of The America.”YouTube. YouTube, 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 May 2015.