Commentary: Science and politics

Sep 4, 2012

Everybody knows the old saying that prophets are never  appreciated in their own countries. We take the familiar for granted.

That’s certainly the case in Michigan. This is one of the more beautiful states in the union, something we sometimes forget. We also have some of the nation’s most fascinating people, some of whom aren’t always on the media radar screen.

I was powerfully reminded of that this glorious Labor Day weekend, when I was invited to a unique barbecue and birthday party, which took place under a tent off a semi-rural side road in Oakland County. There were three hundred people there.

And once I arrived, I realized that if a meteor wiped out the party, my name probably wouldn’t even make the newspaper. Next to me on one side was Senator Carl Levin, who delayed his trip to the Democratic National Convention to be here.

On the other side was Bob King, head of the United Auto Workers Union. Harley Shaiken, the internationally known expert on unions and the global economy was across from me.

But there were far more international scientists, especially physicists, present. Some had flown from as far away as Tokyo to be there. Seated next to me later was a modest-looking gentleman. “What do you do, sir?” I asked. “Oh, I used to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” he said.

They all came to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of a man who has a world-wide reputation as one of the scientific geniuses of our age, Stan Ovshinsky, who holds more than four hundred patents, perhaps the most famous of which is for the nickel-metal-hydride battery.  As Senator Levin noted, Ovshinsky has spent his life in a quest to eliminate our civilization’s dependence on fossil fuels.

In remarks he meant to place in the Congressional Record, Levin said, “Stan Ovshinsky spent his life giving us a vision of what the world could be.”  “He never attended college,” our senior senator noted, “but incredibly, that didn’t stop him.”

These days, Ovshinsky’s walls are lined with honorary doctorates, as well as tributes from some of science’s all-time superstars, like Edward Teller and I.I. Rabi, as well as one from a man who visited his lab, President George W. Bush.

The last few years have been difficult for the inventor. His beloved wife and partner Iris drowned in a freak accident six years ago. The company he founded, Energy Conversion Devices, was taken over by outsiders, who ran it into bankruptcy.

He’s also been suffering physical problems. But he is still doing science, and said, “I get up every morning excited about what I can do. The world is unfair, we all know it. Our reaction should not be to accept it, but to change it.”

“Stan is a brilliant scientist with a deep commitment to social justice,“ Harley Shaiken said.

Years ago, I asked Ovshinsky who his biggest hero was, thinking it might be Einstein. Not even close. It was Eugene V. Debs, the American socialist leader.

Harley also reminded me of something another of the scientist’s heroes, Norman Thomas, used to say. “I’m not fighting for lost causes. Just for causes that haven’t yet been won.”

A world that produces men like these can’t be all bad.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.