Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for June, 2013

The reclusive pioneer of Civil War photography studies

Today I was excited to see a front-page Washington Post story on William Frassanito, whom I first heard about when I was doing last year’s Optics & Photonics News article on photography in the American Civil War (available to OSA members — sorry).

At that time, I heard that Frassanito had been writing about Civil War photography since the 1970s and he was the pioneer in figuring out what the photographs tell us about the actual events that had taken place. Mostly, before then, historians had just treated the photographs as “window dressing” and didn’t care about them as important documents in their own right. Frassanito was the first to establish that Alexander Gardner had staged some shots, and he located the “split rock” that appeared in many of those photographs, so that the Park Service was able to correct the record that it presents to visitors.

While I was working on the story, I was told that Frassanito was pretty hard to get hold of, and I was fighting off a head cold too, so I didn’t spend a lot of time tracking him down. Plus, I try not to make phone calls to sources during the hours that Frassanito (according to the Post article) is actually awake, unless I’ve arranged an appointment beforehand via email with a scientist in a radically different time zone. And Frassanito doesn’t use email. But, hey, he’s got a Facebook page!

So I’ve signed up to follow his Facebook page, and if I ever decide to write anything more about Civil War photography, I’ll know where to track “Frazz” down.

Footnote unrelated to photography: This New York Post writer apparently believes that hardly anyone’s ever heard of Gen. George Meade, who “saved a nation.” Really? Ever driven through Maryland and seen signs for Fort Meade? Guess not.

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An anniversary to note

It’s a bit late in the day for me to be mentioning this (sorry, I had other things to do), but today is the 30th anniversary of Sally Ride’s historic flight. (Which, of course, follows by two days the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s flight.)

At the time, Ride was the center of a huge media circus, with practically everything about her life up for scrutiny. But the thing that struck me was that, as an undergraduate, Ride was both an English and a physics major. It’s hard to imagine two undergrad majors that are more dissimilar than those two, although I will admit that some of the quantitative courses probably serve as “core distribution requirements” for the liberal arts major, and vice versa.

Over the past three decades, I’ve come to know many other STEM-educated people who have interests and skills in the arts and humanities. From the physics professor who once told me that she’d go crazy if she couldn’t play classical piano on a regular basis, to the astronomer who has become a landscape photographer in his retirement, to the Ph.D.’d electrical engineer who translates fantasy stories into her native Turkish, to the pediatric oncologist who plays a mean fiddle … all are human beings who use both sides of their brain to great joy.

With all the fuss nowadays about encouraging/urging/coercing young people to go into STEM careers, I think it’s important to point out to the young that studying something quantitative does not preclude your finding joy in the liberal or fine arts. From my own experience, though, I’d heartily recommend studying the STEM stuff when you’re young and picking up the humanities as you go along through life. I did it in the reverse order and have the scars to show for it.

I’ll end this little musing with a link to Mashable’s list of 10 badass quotes from Sally Ride. Ride on, and remember: The title of “first woman to walk on the Moon” is still up for grabs.