Digging Deep

For some stories, the roots go way back, even to childhood

Roosevelt in 1893, at the age of 11
Roosevelt in 1893, at the age of 11 Wikimedia Commons

Researching Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1937 attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court ( "Showdown on the Court"), historian William E. Leuchtenburg encountered a note handwritten to a Southern U.S. Senator. It read: "If you don't come across with the money, I'm going to tell your wife everything." He declines to say which Southern senator, but stay tuned. Sounds like a story to me.

Leuchtenburg got hooked on politics and FDR—he is the author of ten books, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940—when he was 9 years old. The year was 1932 and his parents let him stay up to listen to the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago that year, on the radio. After innumerable speeches, Leuchtenburg remembers, "I finally went to bed, but got up at 6:30 a.m. to tally the first two roll calls before the convention abruptly recessed. Not until the next day did I find out that during a second night while I was asleep, the Democrats had nominated FDR."

The first time Michael Balter visited the archaeological site known as Catalhoyuk, in Turkey—where hunter-gatherers 9,500 years ago settled as a community—he traveled from Paris, only to discover that the dig's director, Ian Hodder, was away. But a month later, he caught up with Hodder in Cambridge, England, and spent the better part of a weekend talking with him about his research over lunches, dinners and leisurely coffees—"rather than the hour or two that I probably would have had in Turkey."

That was in 1998. Balter's access to Hodder led Balter to return to Catalhoyuk every year since, and led as well to Balter's book about Catalhoyuk, The Goddess and the Bull, recently published by The Free Press. Though written expressly for Smithsonian, Balter's article ("The Seeds of Civilization") draws on the wealth of material he reported for his book.

Before Carl Zimmer began working on "Life on Mars?", he says he had "a naive assumption that once you find a fossil or some other evidence of life, it's pretty easy to recognize it. After all, we don’t have any trouble telling a tree from a rock." But at the level of microbes and molecules, Zimmer discovered, it's a different story. "What I love about scientists," says Zimmer, "is that this sort of ambiguity doesn't make them walk away in despair. They just throw themselves at the problem even more. Andrew Steele, whom I visited during my research, seems to work 50 hours a day on new devices for detecting signs of life, and when he's not building them, he's testing them out on some remote island. But I can understand why someone could get so deep into this work. After all, what would be more awesome, more life-changing, than to find indisputable signs of life on Mars?"