Spring 2013

The Science of Things That Aren’t So

Irving Langmuir and the symptoms of pathological science

George Pendle

It all started with a fly, more or less: the deer botfly, a small bumblebee-like member of a large family of parasitic flies that deposits its tiny larvae in or around a deer’s nose. From there the larvae crawl through the nasal passages until they find somewhere snug to call home—the soft palate, the root of the tongue, the throat—where they proceed to grow into maggots of not inconsiderable size, occasionally asphyxiating their host by the sheer weight of their numbers. The larvae, and their revolting behavior, had been noted since the time of Aristotle, but up until the twentieth century, an adult deer botfly had never been caught.

The reason for this was their remarkable speed. In 1917, Charles Townsend, a respected entomologist who had famously discovered the Peruvian “ghost gnat,” gave the fullest description yet of the habits of the deer botfly. On a trip to Mexico, he reported seeing insects passing over his head with “incredible swiftness.” “The only impression left by them on the eye,” wrote Townsend, “was that of a blur or streak of orange.” Townsend could only see the flies clearly when they suddenly appeared on a nearby rock. But in the blink of an eye they would disappear again. Such was their speed that Townsend suggested “the only practicable way of securing them in the open is to shoot them with .22 caliber cartridges loaded with dust shot or fine sand.”

So fleeting and infrequent were Townsend’s sightings that it was not until 1926 that he finally felt confident enough to publish his conclusions. They would be worth the nine-year wait: Townsend announced that after careful study he had estimated that deer botflies “attain a speed upward of 400 yards per second” or more than 818 miles per hour, nearly three times the speed of the quickest airplane of the age and faster than the speed of sound.

Townsend’s paper was a sensation, and not just in the retiring world of entomology. It was, after all, the golden age of aviation. Air races and barnstorming shows were entrancing the nation, and Charles Lindbergh was just months away from making the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. While aircraft designers had long looked towards birds for inspiration, they now hurried to learn the tricks of the insect world. When an adult deer botfly was caught shortly thereafter—a collector accidentally “swished his net in the air and there was the fly”—there was a rush to view it in the flesh.

Tweedy entomologists suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with leather-jacketed aviators and being besieged by reporters looking for quotes. They ascended to the spotlight like old hands. “These preposterous flies,” declared the chief of the US Bureau of Entomology, “appear to have the most perfect motor apparatus among all living things. … If we can find out the secret of the extraordinary efficiency of the flying strength of the deer flies, then we shall truly be able to say that we have conquered the air.” Not to be outdone, the director of the American Museum of Natural History declared the deer botfly “the

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