This is the first installment in a series of Adafruit posts that will touch on the scientific efforts, achievements and trivia of past Presidents of the United States. The idea for this wee feature came from an episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk podcast, which featured Jimmy Carter as his guest. During their conversation, this little gem popped up:
Carter: In my freshman year in college, I was the laboratory assistant for the person who taught astronomy.
Tyson: So, you had an early sort of cosmic baptism?
Carter: Well, I did, and I was in the Navy, too. I learned how to navigate just from the stars and planets.
Tyson: How would you say your knowledge of math or science in college and high school has influenced your politics? …Your ability to think about world problems?
Carter: Well, I was an engineer, and I was a nuclear physicist. I was put in charge of building the second atomic submarine. So, I studied advanced physics. Of course, when I went into politics, being an engineer, I planned things.
Tyson: You think differently from a lawyer or a doctor or something like that. And most of Congress are lawyers, right?
Carter: Unfortunately, yeah.
Tyson: So, you’re really different.
Carter: We need more engineers and farmers…
(You can see the full and unedited version of the above conversation here)
This got me thinking a little about where different presidents have stood over the years and in what direction they have tried to take us. In addition to providing the inspiration for the feature, Carter’s life and administration actually makes for a pretty great first subject. I’m excited to begin with our 39th president, or “Mr Jimmy,” as he’s referred to in his hometown of Plains, Georgia.
Arguably best known as a human-rights president, Carter of course faced many challenges during his time in office – inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis were just two major problems his administration tackled. But the focus here is on the scientific, so while this is by no means an exhaustive analysis, here we take a look at a few times Jimmy Carter grappled with the sciences.
- Jimmy Carter took an interest in science fairly early in life. Though accused of “padding his resume,” it’s established that he studied engineering at Georgia Southwestern Junior College and Georgia Technology Institute before receiving a Bachelor of Science degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946. He also later did some graduate work in nuclear physics and reactor technology at New York’s Union College.
- In December 1952, while serving in the Navy, then-Lieutenant James E. Carter, Jr., was assigned to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, where he lead a containment team into the damaged Chalk River Laboratories nuclear reactor. In his 1975 campaign biography Why Not the Best?, Carter estimated that he had “absorbed a year’s maximum allowance of radiation in one minute and twenty-nine seconds.” It’s worth noting that the yearly maximum dose of radiation in 1952 was about a thousand times higher than it is today. Of course, this was far from the last time that nuclear power would be a major concern for the future president…
- In June 1979, still more than a decade from the end of the Cold War, Carter (having swapped “Lieutenant” for “Commander-in-Chief”) succeeded in signing the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) treaty with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Though criticized from all sides and never officially ratified by the Senate, this effort to slow the nuclear arms race was adhered to by the United States until November 1986.
- Energy was a main focus of Carter’s administration. Legislation such as the Emergency Natural Gas Act and the Department of Energy Organization Act were both signed during his first year in office, but it’s the 1978 National Energy Act (NEA) that is perhaps best remembered. Appealing to Congress and the American people directly, Carter sought to reduce reliance on foreign oils, increase conservation efforts and promote fuel efficiency and the use of renewable energies. Though Carter did not receive the support he wanted, a modified bill did eventually pass. Though imperfect, the NEA was a step forward, and Carter would have other conservation, energy and environmental legislative victories throughout the remainder of his term. Senator Gaylord Nelson, one of the founders of Earth Day, once remarked that “Carter was the greatest environmental president the country ever had.”
- In 1979, Carter became the first U.S. president to install solar panels on the White House. Though President Reagan would order the 32 panels be removed in 1981 and Carter himself would later admit they were largely “symbolic,” the president was attempting to set an example at home for Americans. Plus, his energy saving cardigan is still a really sweet part of Presidential history. And thankfully, the solar story doesn’t end there. In February 2017, Carter leased his land to SolAmerica for the installation of 3,852 solar panels, which will fulfill more than 50% of the power needs of his Georgia hometown.
- Jimmy Carter claims he saw a UFO! In 1973, he filed a report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) stating that he had seen an Unidentified Flying Object in late 1969. This wasn’t the only gift Carter gave to fans of the unknown, though. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter are also quite open about their belief that they lived in a haunted house. Carter tells both stories in his memoir A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.
- Despite some missteps and misgivings, Carter was a relatively space-friendly
president. He approved construction of four Space Shuttle orbiters (plus “structural spares”) as well as development of the Hubble Telescope. Carter had a particular enthusiasm for planetary exploration and the potential discovery of other civilizations.
- It’s not a Washington secret that Jimmy Carter is a religious man; his progressive evangelical, born-again Southern Baptist faith is well documented. He twice worked as a missionary, and even to this day he serves as a deacon and teaches Sunday school. But Carter has always been firm in his beliefs that church and state should remain separate and that science and religion are not necessarily competitors. In his 2005 book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, Carter writes:
It seems obvious to me, in its totality, the bible represented God’s spiritual message, but that the ancient authors of Holy Scriptures were not experts on geology, biology or cosmology, and were not blessed with the use of electron microscopes, carbon-dating techniques, or the Hubble telescope. I’ve never been bothered by verses in the Bible stating that the earth is flat or has four corners, that the stars can fall on the earth like figs from a tree, or that the world was created in six calendar days as we know them…There is no place for religion in the science classroom.
- It’s quite well known that Carter received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his considerable efforts to further diplomacy and human rights, but the former peanut farmer has received a plethora of other awards and honors in his political and civilian lives. These include Conservationist of the Year from the National Wildlife Foundation, the Ansel Adams Conservation Award from the Wilderness Society and an honorary Doctorate of Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition to these accomplishments, the elder statesman was also immortalized as the namesake of both a submarine (U.S.S. Jimmy Carter) and a species of fish (Etheostoma jimmycarter).
- “The Man from Plains” had a relatively short political career, elected to two terms in the Georgia state senate, one term as Georgia’s governor and one term as President of the United States. Carter, however, has had the longest post-presidency in history, and it is one he has put to good use. In addition to authoring a huge number of books, working with Habitat for Humanity and participating in numerous diplomatic missions, his very own Carter Center has accomplished some incredible things. In the fight against Guinea Worm Disease (or Dracunculiasis), for example, the Center sent scientists into infected areas, educating locals and volunteers on the causes of the disease and training them on necessary preventative measures. The number of Guinea Worm cases has dropped from 3.5 million worldwide in 1986 to an estimated three individual cases today. It is possible this disease could soon be entirely eradicated. This is just one of the Center’s health programs.
Though we’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes Jimmy Carter such a fascinating and polarizing figure, I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this look at his approach to the sciences as a civilian, student, naval officer, politician and humanitarian. We’ll be back soon with a second installment of Political Science, but for now, here’s a meme I made: