Amongst Giants

Credit: David Hauver
Credit: David Hauver

Three mice live in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The mice are cast in silica bronze, surfaces textured to catch the light. Each one is the size of a baby’s fist with a sharp nose at one end and a long tail curved into an S at the other, ears perked up to listen to the tide of tourists that push through the exhibits every day of the year except Christmas. The first mouse I found was below a large water-cooled engine designed for bombers in World War I and then used to power early mail planes. A wild field mouse amongst the giant icons of technology — the Wright Brother’s Flyer, World War II bombers, a Lunar Roving Vehicle — artifacts that tell the story of pushing boundaries to venture further and faster from Earth. The mouse a tiny piece of art hinting at the story of the people who work at the museum.

I grew up thinking of myself as an artist: I became a scientist by accident. Now, my art serves research: graphing data to tell a story; drawing microscopic sea creatures to document ancient ecosystems; designing a boat that can be packed and carried to a remote lake and then assembled to support two working adults. As a PhD scientist, I live from grant to grant and struggle to emerge from obscurity so I can have a life with hobbies and family. My academic mentors tell me to focus on work, to not prioritize living with my spouse: If you work hard enough, for long enough, one day you will have jobs in the same place. My peers whisper to each other, “If you leave, you can never come back.” In obscurity, all moments not working are stolen. I begin to steal, to look for clues, the mice a sign. But none of this back story shows up in my scientific publications.

I contact the museum’s blacksmith, Chris Modla, who signs his exhibit work with mice sculptures. We meet on a Friday morning before the museum opens. I admire the planes, spacecrafts, and missiles that dangle above. Modla keeps rotating our positions to place himself to my left. Finally, I realize he is deaf in one ear.

His name is not on the website: he is not a curator. He does not deal directly with artifacts. He is more a mouse, like me. He weaves period ironwork around artifacts, pitted and finished to capture the light and to hold up to the touch of millions of visitors in the second most visited museum in the world, after the Louvre. “Made to last almost forever,” he says again and again, the metals chosen for the way they change over time. He designs interactive levers and bags that visitors slam, grab, and punch to experience the principles of flight. And he constructs and repairs metal and plastic pieces of exhibits: railings, graphic panel supports, fittings, and signs.

Modla is a former naval officer. He competed at pole vaulting in high school and did ballet in college; his posture retains the look of a steel rod running through the center of his body. He still dances; his wife and he compete separately. “Ballroom is a struggle to constantly push yourself to get better each time.” He does international standard waltz, Vienna waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, tango. He tells me that on the dance floor, “we create shapes in space,” as if his swirling feet were charting equations on a blue print.

After the navy, Modla completed a master’s degree in physics at William and Mary. It was while living in Williamsburg, Virginia, a historic town, that he began blacksmithing. He then worked at Westinghouse as a computer programmer, ran his own blacksmithing business, taught high school physics, and finally, he came to the museum where his scientific knowledge and craftsmanship merged.

Modla’s series of disconnected, but interesting, experiences is nothing like my vision of one job I will have forever. And, if I am like my father, never retire from. It is not a career with continual upward movement; but more a career where movement and growth come through change. And his career includes life outside of work. I like the idea that doors will always be open, that my life could include several pursuits not all within the limits of a career.

The second mouse is between the military and civilian split of the Pioneer’s in Flight exhibit where the history of war and flight weave together. Modla points to a sign, Military Aviation, “This picks up the light with all the nooks and crannies.” It stands taller than me, on it, wings flank a star set onto overlapping bronze circles, the metal textured with glacial striations and the dents of a child size hammer.

We go into the dimly lit cave marked “Don’s Air Service.” Orchestra music plays from a black and white Mickey Mouse video. We kneel down in the right corner. The mouse is on the edge of a wood cabinet below a display of model airplanes. It is made from the same mold as the first, but this one is accompanied by two pieces of cheese to mark Modla’s two interns who helped with the exhibit.

Though the museum is about flight, this story cannot be separated from the history of war and our military. This is true for science research in general as many funding sources come with at least some hope of an application to military pursuits. For me, science is the pursuit of knowledge; I don’t want to apply it to commercial or military purposes. But, all my chemistry, physics, and math are tools for the forensics of bombs, dead bodies, and smuggled goods. They are also tools for natural resource extraction; oil and gas, minerals and rock. At an FBI Laboratory interview I toured a garden of mass spectrometers, each labeled Hair, or Fabric, or Lubricants, I was giddy with the beauty of the machines. In University laboratories I use Frankenstein machines with recycled parts and stitched together plumbing. At conferences, I ask former colleagues now in oil and gas how they liked it. “I am well paid,” they pause, a wide smile relaxes their face, “The equipment and machines are amazing. What goes on at Universities is so far behind what we do…”

Modla forges the metal work at his home shop. To shape metal he heats it to close to 2000ºC. At these temperatures the metal, usually wrought iron or steel, becomes plastic and can be manipulated by hammering, bending, or stretching. As metal heats it turns red, at higher temperatures it turns orange, then yellow, and finally, white. Most forging is done when the metal is between yellow and orange.

“I try to keep everything consistent, keep it in period.” Modla points out, again and again, where he used traditional joinery. Welding melts metal together at a joint versus the more traditional joinery of punching a hole and using a rivet, square bolt, or something else that to the layman seems analogous to a nail, to join the pieces. The joinery results in distinct and decorative features.

The public does not see the art in science because what we celebrate of science is end results – statistics and graphs. Concise and sterile, fully cleaned of background or human story. And scientist can seem separate from society -polls show that only twenty percent of Americans count a scientist among their friends. After seventh graders toured the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago, a student wrote, “I realized that scientists aren’t very different from everyone else.”

The This is What a Scientist Looks Like website is “…dedicated to changing the overwhelming stereotype that science is conducted behind closed doors by unapproachable old, white men…” The site displays self-submitted photographs and blurbs about individual’s research and interests in biking, dancing, hiking, knitting, punk rock. The diversity of people and hobbies is charismatic. Fifty percent of PhDs in America are women, but women only make up only twenty-three percent of full professors. And, in my graduate program, if you were not Caucasian, you were probably not American. I appreciate the website’s encouragement, but white men do dominate science. I am confused – how would my career be different if I were a man? If I were not white?

The accident that made me a scientist was working in central Italy the year after high school. Earthquakes had crumbled parts of towns and thousands were living in Red Cross trailer villages. At the Universita per Stranieri I studied Italian with people from all over the world. We exchanged stories of home that were full of landscape: our mountains, our deserts, our ice-covered rivers. I enrolled in geology the next year; hungry to understand the landscapes that shape us and the forces that destroy us. Now, as a research scientist this poetic curiosity is dwarfed by burnout.

Einstein said; “In striving to do scientific work, the chance — even for very gifted persons – to achieve something of real value is very small…” Every discovery we celebrate represents thousands of false starts; incremental contributions; silent leaps of progress; brilliant individuals we do not hear about, and spouses living apart while waiting for a future together. And I am one in a thousand, not the one standing out. But is Einstein right? Are the chances small a scientist will achieve something of real value, or are the chances just small one will be recognized and promoted for their work?

Even when recognized, it is not always a straightforward path. The Smithsonian refused until the 1940s to acknowledge that the Wright Brothers Flyer was the first manned, powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. Instead, they claimed that Samuel Langley flew the Langley Aerodrome nine days before the brothers in Quantico, Virginia. Langley had been a college professor and Secretary of the Smithsonian, in comparison; neither Wright brother had received a high school diploma.

Orville refused to donate his plane to the Smithsonian until they recognized the flight at Kitty Hawk. Instead, it was on display for the British public at the London Science Museum. During World War II it was hidden in an underground vault outside London to protect it from bombing. In the 1940s that the Smithsonian relented and signed a contract that binds them to acknowledge the Wright Brother’s first in flight status. By the time the Flyer arrived at the Smithsonian, both brothers had passed away.

The drama did not end when that contract was signed. In 2013, the state of Connecticut challenged the brother’s place in history by passing a law stating that Gustave Whitehead achieved the first powered flight, not the Wright Brothers. Whitehead attempted flight in Bridgeport, Connecticut more than two years before the Wright Brothers. The claim that Whitehead succeeded is based on old newspaper articles, long-lost photos blown up more than 3000%, and the ability of replicas to fly. Proponents argue that the Smithsonian is again holding tight to a convenient truth, this time bound by contract.

The Wright Brother’s Flyer is now on display in the museum encircled by a metal fence Modla forged. The fence is a replica of the one that surrounded the Wright Brothers’ home in Dayton, Ohio, making for many mixed metaphors. A wall size photo shows the home on Hawthorne Street, the brothers lived here with their father and sister until Wilbur’s death in 1912. The fence is waist height; I touch the top where the black has faded to dull metal from so many clasping hands.

The story, written on the walls asks the question of how Midwestern bicycle shop owners designed a wood and cloth machine that transformed the world. How did revolution come from Wilbur and Orville? Susan Wright, their mother, is the obvious mentor to their mechanical genius. She helped her own father in his carriage shop, and as an adult she designed and built appliances and toys for her household.

We circumnavigate the Flyer trying out the benches; the first is too straight, the second too curved. Modla has me kneel to compare lumbar supports and explains the process of bending hot metal around cold to craft the frame. Large square bolts set into circle washers connect wood beams to the metal frame. When I return later and the museum is full of visitors, I realize the visible wear on the wood slats in the benches is from visitors kneeling to gaze towards the plane. No one sits to read wall mounts.

Modla tells me, “In the East they look at education as a struggle to learn. In the West if we can’t get it quick we are mad, we forget what we learn, there is no struggle.” He goes on, “Studying and learning requires solitude. You have to forgo society to get good, to focus and concentrate. I have endured solitude or else I would have been a jack of all trades and a master of none.”

I know that I don’t want to endure solitude anymore. I speak too many foreign languages shared by too few: the language of chemical molecules, the language of statistics, the language of botanical fossils. Languages spoken in solitude to myself. I don’t want to spend nights alone in the laboratory with screaming machines or weekends working. Is the choice to suffer or accomplish nothing?

“On the third one I got it right!” Modla drops himself down into the final bench and I sit next to him. He smiles the smile of the Cheshire Cat; it fills his face and makes his forehead and the top of his bald head ripple with wrinkles. I notice a bolt conspicuously missing from the bench. It could be anywhere in the world, tucked into a box or drawer. “The visitors steal,” Modla says. He has learned to make things that fiddling hands can’t snap off. Is it plain vandalism or is it individuals wanting to carry history with them as a talisman? Neil Armstrong took pieces of the Flyer to the moon inside his spacesuit pocket, muslin fabric from the left wing and wood from the left propeller.

At first, my stealing of time is small moments – a Saturday morning with sun streaming in the window and I write a fiction story before going into work. The story comes out like the steam rising from my coffee. Then I win a yearlong writing fellowship. I am about to move away for a postdoctoral fellowship. I let myself enjoy the award for a day before I will call to turn it down. Then I give myself week.

In the end, I fly back for long weekends once a month, sometimes calling in sick to work. My story from the Saturday morning is accepted to a literary journal, I pitch a book to a small press and they want to hear more. Chekhov once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress.” I don’t just steal time from my scientific work; I grow toward a different light.

The museum doors below squeak, it is ten and the museum is open. The wave of visitors is audible. They are excited and loud, the high ceilings and open spaces fill with children’s squeals, the patter and stomp of feet, adult voices corralling groups. Like water set loose from a dam, the halls and exhibit fill with people.

We dodge groups of children. Modla stops in front of a model aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. Putting an airport on board a ship was a technological advance of World War I (along with drones and sanitary napkins). Modla’s colleague hid a Chevrolet Corvette on the deck. We search, but don’t find it.

“Is it common to hide things in exhibits?” I ask.

Modla’s smile is wide and open, “It is all part of the fun.” He winks.

It is too dark to see the third mouse; I have to feel with my hand to find it. Above, a mannequin of William Herschel looks through a long telescope. Night sounds click and chirp from a loud speaker. A voice booms out, counting stars in German and English, giving the time. I feel along the fence’s metal swirls until I find the mouse at ankle height. The long tail is curled into an S shape. The face is a sharp point and I can feel the texture that would catch light if there were any. It is a wink to the visitor made to last almost forever, as if to say, new technology was only magic before it was realized. A wink to me, a reminder to have fun.

I cannot yet admit it, but I know that I am leaving science. That I am not yet a giant does not mean I wont be, I am on the right path. But the message keeps coming at me that building knowledge of our planet, the hydrologic cycle, the carbon cycle, that this is not necessary work. I am that person who refuses to get a day job. So perhaps it is less my breaking up with science, and more the science career path breaking up with me in the passive aggressive form of enough support to keep going, but no promise of a sustainable future. I would rather leave with a wink than cross my fingers and wait.


E.A. Farro is a scientist and artist and parent.  She spends as much time outside as possible.  She won a Loft Literary Center, Mentor Series Award in Fiction and is published in The Common, Seneca Review, and Water~Stone Review.


E. A. Farro
E.A. Farro is a scientist and artist and parent. She spends as much time outside as possible. She won a Loft Literary Center, Mentor Series Award in Fiction and is published in The Common, Seneca Review, and Water~Stone Review.

One Reply to “Amongst Giants”

  1. Very nice! A good and subtle reminder to remember that institutions are comprised of individuals as much as scholarship and history.

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