by John N. Howard
In this month's History of OSA column in OPN, OSA's former executive director Jarus Quinn shares his reminiscences about the summer he spent cleaning out the lab of Robert W. Wood--and the explosive surprise he found when he used water clean out a bottle filled with sodium. Robert Wood was the famous and eccentric physicist who discovered resonance radiation and greatly expanded our understanding of ultraviolet light.
There were so many rememberances of R.W. Wood that the Hopkins types who had known him used to have dinner together at OSA or American Physical Society meetings just to relate some of their cherished anecdotes. I was not a Hopkins graduate (only an Ohio Stater), but even I attended at least one of those hilarious evenings. Many of those anecdotes were authenic, first-hand recollections of those who had known or worked with Wood; but most of the classic anecdotes came from the book Doctor Wood by William Seabrook.
Around 1908, Wood had bought a summer place in East Hampton, on Long Island; and Seabrook was a neighbor who had many interviews with Wood in the 1930s and 1940. His book was published in 1941 by Harcourt, Brace. So many of the classic anecdotes are from Seabrook (such as Wood tossing a bit of sodium into a puddle while he pretended to spit, thus awing some onlookers with the explosive results--a tale that Quinn also recounts in his OPN piece.)
Seabrook also gives an account of a visit Wood made to Lord Rayleigh's home in Essex in 1904--which will be featured in the October History of OSA column in OPN. I have read his book several times, and now I need to read it again, to refresh my own memory of Wood's exploits! Wood enjoyed publicity, and he was often mentioned in the Baltimore Sun. H.L. Mencken called Wood the "Wild Man of Baltimore" (a spoof on the Wild Man of Borneo exhibited by Phineas T. Barnum).
Optics History, Physics History, Profiles