The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe

The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802717191
Publisher: Walker & Company
Publication date: 03/17/2009
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 2.20(d)

About the Author

Chet Raymo is the noted author of An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, Skeptics and True Believers, Natural Prayers, and 365 Starry Nights. His popular weekly column, "Science Musings," appeared in the Boston Globe from 1983 until 2003. A professor emeritus of physics amd astronomy at Stonehill College, he lives in North Easton, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe


Copyright © 2003 Chet Raymo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0802714021

Chapter One

In 1850 the great impresario P. T. Barnum brought to the United States a young coloratura soprano who had already captured the affections of Europe. Her irresistible name was Jenny Lind, and she became America's first pop star. For two years, she entranced audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard with a voice that was said to be divine-although Barnum's hype may have been as much a part of Jenny's success as her talent. In the wake of her visit, and for decades afterward, schools, streets, public buildings, even towns were named for the Swedish Nightingale.

Swedish immigrants comprised a substantial part of the workforce at the Ames Shovel Company of North Easton, Massachusetts, twenty miles south of Boston. In the 1870s the company and the village were at the height of their prosperity; it is said that three-fifths of all the shovels manufactured in the world at that time were made in the Ames factories. New streets were laid out to accommodate the village's growing population. One of these was home to families named Swanson, Lonn, Anderson, and Lindquist. Not surprisingly, this street was christened for the most famous Swede of all.

My walk to work each day starts along Jenny Lind Street; it is the first part of the path. The houses on the street are typical late-nineteenth-century mill-town housing: two-story, front-gabled, timber-frame-and-clapboard construction. Many of the house have modern additions at the sides or back, and perhaps a tacked-on porch, but it takes little imagination to see these structures as they must have looked in the 1870s and 1880s, as they went up one by one according to a standard plan in the mind of a local master carpenter. With my wife, I raised a family of four children in one of these houses, just around the corner from Jenny Lind Street. Even in the second half of the twentieth century it provided comfortable accommodation for the six of us. These sturdy homes must have seemed luxurious to the Ames factory workers who woke in the morning when the village wake-up bell was rung a half hour before dawn, who spent ten to twelve hours a day fabricating shovels at the factory, and who undoubtedly collapsed exhausted into bed not long after the curfew bell was rung at 9 P.M.

For all of the long working hours, nineteenth-century North Easton must have been close to the American immigrant's dream: a one-company village with neatly laid-out streets, uncrowded neighborhoods, leafy trees, handsome parks, and schools, public buildings, and churches donated and maintained by the town's preeminent family, the Ameses. Yankees, Irish, Swedes, and Portuguese lived and worked side by side in apparent harmony; within a few generations they would intermarry and contribute their progeny to the American melting pot. Even at the height of late-nineteenth-century labor unrest in other parts of the country, workers in the North Easton shovel works remained loyal to their company. And the Ameses remained loyal to the town; as the family's political influence and entrepreneurship extended far beyond the borders of the town (to include the governorship of Massachusetts and pushing the first transcontinental railroad across the United States), the village of North Easton remained the focus of their family life and public beneficence. Their gifts to the town are still evident. Three public buildings (and two private structures) were commissioned by the Ameses from the illustrious architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and the stamp of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted is everywhere to be seen. The village is today a place of pilgrimage for students of architecture and landscape design.

When twenty-four-year-old Oliver Ames came to North Easton in 1803, the town already had a nascent industrial character, and Oliver was shrewd enough to see that the potential for development had only been lightly tapped. He had a product that a growing nation needed-it would take a lot of shovels to build the Erie Canal, then the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Later, the Civil War provided an apparently endless market for entrenching tools, and after the war the intercontinental railroad would be built with Ames shovels and Ames leadership. A great family fortune was acquired by forging steel and hardwood into tools for continental conquest, and samples of those shovels today reside in the Tofias Industrial Archives of Stonehill College. There is a shovel shaped for every purpose, and in their collectivity they constitute a kind of history of nineteenth-century America: canals, railroads, water power, mining, steam, agriculture, war, and, as the century matured, the first purely aesthetic works of landscape architecture, such as Olmsted's great city parks (in New York a workforce of 3,600 men moved millions of tons of earth to create Central Park). The Ames shovel was an instrument by which visionary men could shape the landscape to their dreams and desires, but only as much material could be moved at a time as a man could lift. The resulting works were ensured a human scale.

North Easton offered two natural resources which Oliver recognized, and which he and his sons brilliantly exploited: water and gravity. The water flowed in the Queset Brook, a relatively minor stream that one can almost jump across as it tumbles through North Easton village. The brook rises with trickles of springwater in the highlands north and west of town, then gathers into a modest but reliable flow as it passes near the center of the village. In the Queset's mile-long run through the industrial quarter of the village, it drops fifty feet. When a cubic foot of water drops through fifty feet, it surrenders enough energy to run a dozen modern washing machines for the time it takes the water to fall. Keep many cubic feet of water coming in a steady stream, and you have the power to hammer shovel blades from chunks of iron, to edge and polish blades, to turn hardwood logs into handles, to fix handles to blades.

Men with sledges could make shovels with muscle power alone, as they had done for centuries, but not as cheaply, reliably, or in such volume as was possible with water power. The babbling Queset Brook, in its carefree tumble from the resistant granite highlands north of town to the more deeply eroded sedimentary plains to the south, when properly harnessed was an ever-flowing source of wealth. Oliver Ames harnessed it and, with his sons, Oakes and Oliver II, turned water and gravity into a family fortune.

I LOVE THE subtle sounds of my morning walk along Jenny Lind Street. I listen to the amorous suit of a bright red cardinal in a tree by the Catholic church, and the who-gives-a-damn chatter of jays at backyard feeders. Through windows open just a crack, I hear the muffled music of kitchen radios, and mothers shouting to slug-a-bed kids. It would not have been so in the era of the shovel shops. The great water-powered hammers thundered all day long, from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M., presumably obliterating the sounds of nature and domestic life. It is said that the banging could be heard a mile or more away. Students in the grammar school and high school, on high ground in the middle of the village, studied their lessons and practiced their drills to the steady thud, thud, thud of the hammers. The Swedish housewives in their tidy frame houses on Jenny Lind Street performed their morning chores to the booming timpani of shovel making. Not even the Ameses were exempt from the din; the homes of the first two generations of the family were situated hard by the factories. The squeak of turning waterwheels, the bang of hammers, the rasping buzz of saws-this was the aural background of the Industrial Revolution in America. In North Easton, the driving force of this cacophony was the gentle Queset Brook.

Water was sacred in all ancient cultures-every pool and stream was believed to have its resident spirit. Against this overlay of sacred myth, the mundane idea that water could be used as a source of energy was hard won. The first record of a waterwheel harnessed to turn a millstone comes from the Roman world of the first century B.C.E., but the Romans were not in a hurry to exploit waterpower, perhaps because it would throw so many human slaves out of work. Only when Constantine turned the empire toward Christianity in the fourth century C.E. did water mills become commonplace, perhaps because there were fewer slaves to do the work, or perhaps because monotheistic Christians were less troubled than pagans about resident sprites of pools and streams. In general, Christians had few prejudices against technology; after all, didn't God give Adam dominion over the planet and its creatures, commanding him to "subdue the Earth"? Christians may have had their eyes fixed on Heaven, but their feet were firmly planted on terra firma. In the days of Oliver Ames, Christians were not the least reluctant to ask flowing water to drive their mills; for the pious, patriarchal entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, a turning waterwheel squeaked out its owner's prayer: O Lord, increase my bounty that I may serve you.

Not far from the end of the path, in a wooded part of the Stonehill College campus, is an eighteenth-century millstone quarry. Several unfinished millstones remain part of the living rock, rising up from the forest floor like Druidic altars. One large millstone, five feet in diameter, was finished by the quarriers but never moved. Some years ago a group of stalwart students tried to move the stone to the central campus quad, unsuccessfully. The millstone would have made a fitting centerpiece for the campus, which is a former Ames family estate. The stone, which I calculate to be about three tons, was almost certainly meant to be turned by the modest Queset Brook, a superb testimony to the power of water when gravity causes it to flow downhill.

What gravity is and why it is, no one knows. Albert Einstein spent most of his life trying to figure it out, but the secret eluded him. It is simply a fact that everything in the universe with mass pulls on everything else. If it weren't for the initial outward impetus of the Big Bang, gravity would have caused the entire universe to collapse into a heap. (Indeed, someday the cosmic collapse may happen, if and when the initial impetus is expended, although the best evidence suggests that the expansion will go on forever.) According to present theories, the universe began about 15 billion years ago as an explosion from an infinitely small, infinitely hot seed of pure energy. As the primeval fireball expanded and cooled, matter-hydrogen and helium-condensed from radiation. The first stars and galaxies were born as gravity pulled the hydrogen and helium gas together into massive spheres and eddies. As stars burn, they fuse hydrogen nuclei into helium and then into heavier elements, and when stars die explosively, they scatter those heavy elements into space. After many generations of exploding stars had seeded the universe with carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron, our own Earth and Sun were squeezed into existence by gravity.

When atomic nuclei fuse at the core of a star, some of their mass is turned into pure energy, according to Einstein's famous equation, E = mc² (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared). Every second at the Sun's center, 660 million tons of hydrogen are fused into 655 million tons of helium, and the missing 5 million tons of matter ultimately appears at the Sun's surface as heat and light radiated into space. A tiny fraction of the Sun's energy falls upon the Earth's oceans and evaporates water molecules into the air. It takes about 1,000 calories of energy for the Sun to evaporate a thimbleful of water from the sea; each thimbleful of water in the atmosphere represents 1,000 calories of stored solar energy. The Sun does the heavy lifting on Earth, heaving tens of thousands of cubic miles of water up out of the seas and into the atmosphere each year. Most of this water precipitates back into the oceans, but some of it falls on land as rain or snow, from whence it makes its way downhill to the sea in a great recirculation called the water cycle. Around and around the water has cycled for 4 billion years, since the oceans were born, in trickle or torrent, eroding and shaping the land, bringing fresh water to land plants and animals, providing terrestrial habitats for life.

North Easton's Queset Brook is a tiny conduit in this unceasing flow. Young Oliver Ames looked at the Queset Brook and saw God's solar-powered engine, providential energy waiting to be tapped. He built dams to the north and west of the village to impound water during times when the factory was idle or when rain swelled the streams beyond the capacity of the mills to use the excess. Water behind a dam is like money in the bank. It can be made to turn a wheel; it can pound and grind and drill.

Today, North Easton's shovel shops are silent, and the Sun-lifted energy of the Queset Brook is expended as a pleasing babble only, as the stream tumbles untroubled from pond to pond. Standing beside the brook, one finds it hard to imagine how these placid waters ever supplied the force that made the factories go. But occasionally the babbling thimblefuls of water, when gathered in prodigious numbers, do shout and roar. This happened on February 12, 1886, when heavy rain on frozen ground filled the Long Pond Dam north of the village to overflowing. Ames Company agents worked heroically to shore up the dam against the gathering flood, but eventually water breached the barrier and rushed downstream through the village, washing out a section of railway track. More serious damage was narrowly averted.

Not so in the Great Flood of March 18, 1968, when there were no company personnel around to mind the clams or tend repairs. All morning and afternoon the sky gushed water, six inches of rain in a few hours. At 5:30 P.M., without warning, the dam at Flyaway Pond west of town gave way with a sudden roar, and 350,000 tons of water were released onto the village. Trees and automobiles were swept away. Houses were battered. Massive stone walls tumbled. It was a sudden, vivid indication of the Sun-stored energy that a century earlier had banged out the majority of the world's shovels.

WHEN HENRY DAVID THOREAU and his brother John took their famous boating trip along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in the summer of 1839, they too witnessed a demonstration of the power of water and gravity. The Concord River takes a more or less level course through flat meadows; its reedy banks were then (and remain today) home to a rich proliferation of wildlife.


Excerpted from THE PATH by CHET RAYMO Copyright © 2003 by Chet Raymo
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


For nearly forty years, Chet Raymo has walked a one-mile path from his house in North Easton, Massachusetts, to the Stonehill College campus where he has taught physics and astronomy. The woods, meadows, and stream he passes are as familiar to him as his own backyard, yet each day he finds something new. "Every pebble and wildflower has a story to tell," Raymo says.

In The Path, Raymo chronicles the universe he has found by closely observing every detail of his route. He connects the local to the global, the microscopic to the galactic, with a scientists's curiosity, a historian's respect for the past, a child's capacity for wonder. With each step, the landscape he traverses becomes richer and more multidimensional, opening door after door into astromnomy, geology, biology, history, and literaure.

"The flake of granite in the path was once at the core of towering mountains pushed up across New England when continents collided," he writes. "The purple loosestrife beside the stream emigrated from Europe in the 1800s as a garden ornamental, then went wantonly native in a land of wild frontiers. The light from the star Arcturus I see reflected in the brook beneath the bridge at night has been traveling across space for forty years before entering my eye. I have attended to all of these stories and tried to hear what the landscape has to say .... I have attended, too, to language. How did the wood anemone and Sheep Pasture get their names? What does the queset of Queset Brook signify in the language of Native Americans? Scratch a name in a landscape, and history bubbles up like a spring."

The path also reveals the stories of nineteenth-centuryindustrialists who transformed natural resources into power, and turn-of-the-century landscape architects, such as Frederick Law Olmsted, who championed an ideal of nature tamed by conscious intent. In its transformations over the centuries, Raymo writes, the path "encapsulates in many surprising ways the history of our nation and of our fickle love affair with the natural world."

Recognizing that his path is commonplace, and that we all have such routes in our lives, Raymo urges us to walk attentively, stopping often to watch and listen with care. His wisdom and insights inspire us to turn local paths-- whether through cities, suburbs, or rural areas-- into doorways to greater understanding of nature and history.

Chet Raymo is the noted author of An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, Skeptics and True Believers, Natural Prayers, and 365 Starry Nights. His column, "Science Musings," appears weekly in the Boston Globe. A professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College, he lives in North Easton, Massachusetts.

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