Today is the 135th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein. I am sure there will be quite a bit about him in the media, given how, with his mathematical formulas, he changed our view of the world.
It is possible to conjecture, however, that certain work he did during the summer he vacationed on the East End in 1939 triggered a remarkable half-century of science—including the splitting of the atom, the designing and making of a vehicle that was driven on the moon, the creation of the most advanced military aircraft in the world, explorations into genetics and DNA, even scientific explorations into the causes of animal diseases.
Such activity might have gone on anywhere in America at that time. But it did not. Long Island—particularly eastern Long Island—was the center for leading-edge scientific development in the country and the world. And at the time, there was little else here other than farming and fishing.
It was not known that Einstein had written his famous letter to FDR until after the Second World War ended in 1945. After that, however, it became quite famous. The smartest man on the planet, on vacation on eastern Long Island, was urging the President to form a laboratory and create an atomic bomb to beat the Germans who were trying to beat us to it. This was something that Roosevelt had been told about. But it wasn’t until Einstein urged him on, describing the possible destruction of cities, that Roosevelt created a secret facility to get this done, not here on the East End, but in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Germans surrendered in May of 1945. We dropped the atomic bomb on Japan that August, and one month later, they surrendered, too.
Shortly after the war ended, efforts to find more uses for atomic energy, including making a bigger bomb and learning more about splitting atoms, resulted in the building of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Yaphank, Long Island in 1947, on the site of a former army training base. The largest machine able to split atoms was built there. Called the Cyclotron, what it did became famous. Photos and articles about it were in textbooks used in high schools all around the country. Here was where efforts were underway to find out the very origins of the universe. Right through until the 1960s, the Cyclotron was where you went to study the universe in this way. But then larger atom-splitting machines were built elsewhere, and the reputation of Brookhaven faded. At the present time, the largest is at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.
Also during this time, the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, with one base in Bethpage and another in Riverhead, was building bigger, better and faster military aircraft for the Navy. Leroy Grumman had begun building warplanes in the garage next to his home on Long Island at the beginning of the Second World War. His Wildcat fighter planes and Hellcat planes fought and defeated the Japanese Zeros, which had before that time ruled the Pacific. Grumman built the F9F Panther fighter jets during the Korean War for the American aircraft carriers. And in the early 1970s, they began to produce the F-14 fighter jet, the fastest, most sophisticated and most powerful fighter plane in the world, unchallenged for the next 20 years.
In 1962, the government asked Grumman to produce a vehicle that could be used to walk on the moon. Grumman built it. When, in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got out of their spaceship on the moon to become the first people to set foot on another celestial body, it was a Grumman lunar module that got them there.
During this same era, James Watson, a prize-winning scientist and co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, became director of a laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor that had earlier been studying chromosomes and penicillin. He changed the name of the place in 1968 to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, expanded the work it was doing to include medical research, particularly cancer research, and made important breakthroughs all through the last half of the 20th century.
Further east, a laboratory to study animal diseases had been established on Plum Island, just off the tip of Orient Point. Since 1954, it has done work to find vaccines and medicines to treat mad cow disease and other animal illnesses.
All during this time, local residents could see Grumman jet fighters undergoing tests overhead, and they could read about the activities at Brookhaven Lab, Cold Spring Harbor and Plum Island. Meanwhile, the government, seeing that these many high-tech facilities were exposed out on the East End to enemy attack, built great fortifications out at Montauk, Westhampton and Wading River to provide radar warnings, fighter planes and Atlas guided missiles to any approaching force. The enemy at that time was the old Soviet Union.
It was a strange thing, living here during that era. Here was some of the most highly technical work in science getting done by experts in various fields. The land was otherwise peaceful, stunning and rural, with great potato fields and ponds and woods and beaches. It was not unexpected, I think, to also find here a great art colony featuring some of the greatest painters in the world. The hamlet of Springs from about 1950 to 1990 was, along with New York and Paris, one of the centers of the world for Abstract Expressionist painting.
Today, much of this is gone. The missiles have been taken out and dismantled. The Air Force base in Westhampton, which was filled with warplanes during much of this period, now is a commercial airport and a home base for a government air rescue team.
Grumman is gone entirely, merged with Northrop and moved to Virginia. Its facilities in Riverhead today are used as an industrial park. Only the Grumman merry-go-round, built for the families of its employees on a picnic ground in Calverton, remains. It is now the centerpiece at the waterfront for the Village of Greenport.
The Brookhaven National Lab still is here, but much reduced in importance from its heyday. Also, it has had to cope with many industrial chemicals that earlier experiments done there left in the soil. Currently it still conducts experiments on the early days of the Big Bang, but its place as the leader of the pack is gone.
As for the Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, it is winding down its operation in anticipation of a possible move to a new laboratory in Kansas.
Maybe it’s that times have changed so much. I think if another Einstein came along, we’d have our paparazzi follow him around to see if he does anything to embarrass himself or otherwise makes him newsworthy.