When John Perlin is wielding a shovel, you don’t want to get anywhere between him and the hole. Perlin, now in the foothills of his early seventies, is not your run-of-the-mill big-brain autodidact. Back in the early 1980s, Perlin synthesized and distilled 5,000 years of human history into one single tome, A Forest Journey, which examined the rise and fall of human civilizations based on their exploitation of timber and forests. It got Perlin on Harvard’s top 100 books. He’s also published two of the most definitive histories of solar energy ever written. Not bad for a cranky, bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you curmudgeon who knows firsthand what it’s like to live under a camper shell in someone else’s Isla Vista backyard.
Before long, Perlin found himself sharing the stage at international symposia with ExxonMobil execs, schooling them on the last days of fossil fuels with his customary John the Baptist bluntness. Along the way, Perlin — now recovering from a mountain bike accident that crushed an ankle — palled around town with the late Walter Kohn, UCSB’s Nobel Prize–winning physicist; together, the two of them could out-filibuster the entire U.S. Senate. Upon their advance, bus drivers, barbers, and other captive audiences fled for their lives. And with good cause.
In stark contrast to his previous work, Perlin’s latest effort — the life and times of Eunice Foote — is almost a historical miniature, requiring only three years of John’s doggedly obsessive — or as he puts it, “crazy John Perlin” — research. Foote is easily one of the great, untold stories of both American science and feminism, and until the last few years, she barely rated a footnote in most scholarly journals. No explanation is needed; she was a woman.
If Perlin has anything to say on the subject, Foote will soon get her rightful due as the first scientist to define the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. More remarkably, she did so more than 160 years ago — back in 1856 — at a time when women were barred from almost all institutes of scientific learning. Next Thursday afternoon, Perlin will share the stage at UCSB’s McCune Conference Room with a gathering of accomplished science types — including Al Gore’s daughter Sarah Maiani — to discuss Foote’s life. Having received an inspired telephonic preview this week, I wish them luck. Perlin’s enthusiasm is intoxicating.
Perlin’s research illustrates how history is way too interesting to be left to historians. Foote, it turns out, was not just an accomplished scientist but an important player in the early women’s movement. Foote grew up in upstate New York, then the last stop on the Underground Railroad taking runaway slaves to Canada and freedom. This was the epicenter for insurrectionists of all stripes: abolitionists, feminists, mystics, and teetotalers. It’s where “bloomers” were popularized as practical clothes for women in defiance of corsets and other fashion accessories designed to hobble and enshackle their wearers. In 1848, Foote would sign the Magna Carta of the women’s movement, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. She was one of just five signatories who got the declaration published. By whom? By famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who just happened to run a printing press down the road. Foote lived next door to pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Foote’s husband, Elisha Foote, it turned out, learned his law from Cady Stanton’s father. Foote’s son-in-law would later introduce the constitutional amendment banning slavery. It was that kind of space.
Before that, Foote attended Troy Female Seminary, whose students were invited to attend a nearby science college started by a character named Amos Eaton. He was a convicted con man who’d been sentenced to life in prison, but was released after four years so he could pursue his life calling as an evangelist of scientific education. Apparently he hadn’t been told women couldn’t be scientists, so Foote was able to learn the nuts and bolts of chemistry and experimental techniques at his school.
Back then, scientists were keenly interested in atmospheric conditions that may have sparked the earth’s transformation from what scientists call “the age of fish” into “the age of plants” and the massive die-off of species that attended this shift. Foote was not the first to ponder the role played by changing temperatures. She was the first, however, to isolate the component gases that make up the atmosphere, thus discovering which one got the hottest in sunlight. It was, she found, carbon dioxide. The punch line, of course, is that she proved that the more CO2 that’s pumped into the atmosphere, the hotter it gets.
Foote’s work was presented to a national gathering of American scientists in New York City in 1856. She, being a woman, was not allowed to read it herself. A male surrogate had to read it in her place. Three weeks later, her work won a short but enthusiastic review in the pages of Scientific American. It also got posted in the pages of the American Journal of Science, edited by John Tyndall. Three years later, Tyndall would publish an article of his own about atmospheric heating and carbon dioxide. Tyndall would boast his work was utterly original and unprecedented. But passages of Tyndall’s article, Perlin charged, were lifted verbatim from Foote’s paper. “It was a crime of science,” Perlin contended. “Tyndall claimed no one had done this work before. He was a great omitter. In fact, it turns out, he was a serial omitter.”
What relevance this has today, when climate change and women’s rights remain excruciatingly front and center, I’ll leave it to you to determine. Certain echoes, however, are impossible to ignore. Having John Perlin on the phone sure helps remind us.