Harlow Shapley (left), Arthur Edwin Kennelly (center), and Loring Beal Andrews (right), in front of the W1XAL transmitter during the inaugural Ursigram broadcast February 1, 1937. Andrews wrote the article on sunspots that appeared in the 1936 Smithsonian Annual Report. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 90-105, Image No. SIA2009-3261.

The World Is Yours: Smithsonian Annual Report of Scientific Progress

Listen to reenactments of two articles that were published in the 1936 Smithsonian Annual Report as broadcast during The World Is Yours episode “Smithsonian Annual Report of Scientific Progress.”

Next Monday, the Smithsonian will celebrate its 174th anniversary. In honor of that day, I thought we could take a listen to a The World Is Yours episode on the Smithsonian’s Annual Report on Scientific Progress. Every year, the Smithsonian selects articles and reports from scientific journals around the world to highlight in its annual report. This episode of The World Is Yours, which originally aired on November 7, 1937, contains dramatizations of five of the articles from the 1936 annual report.

Of the articles selected for the show, the one on the Northern Lights and the science behind them caught my attention.

Listen here for a clip about the Northern Lights.

[Narrator] For years man has sought the secrets of the upper atmosphere. What composes the stratosphere? What causes strange phenomena we see in the sky? What of the strange glowing, shifting banners of the polar sky we call the northern lights? What are they? Why are they? In the new Smithsonian yearbook of science, Dr. A.S. Eve explains some interesting facts about the Northern Lights.

[Woman] Dr. Eve, just what are the northern lights? How are they formed anyway?

[Dr. A.S. Eve] Perhaps I can best explain by telling you about artificial auroras that you see every day, or at least every night.

[Woman] Artificial auroras?

{Dr. Eve] Certainly. Every Main Street is an aurora.

[Woman] Wait, you don’t mean neon signs?

[Dr. Eve] Exactly.

[Woman] Oh, you’re joking!

[Dr. Eve] No, I was never more serious. Do you know how a neon sign works?

[Woman] No, I haven’t the slightest idea. How do they work?

[Dr. Eve] Neon signs are glass tubes filled with neon gas, a very rare element at low pressure. An electrical charge shot through the tube causes the glass to glow.

[Woman] Oh, but Dr. Eve, what has an eye-blinding red sign on Main Street got to do with the beautiful soft Northern Lights? Now really.

[Dr. Eve] Just this. The Northern Lights are caused by practically the same action.

[Woman] You mean electricity shooting through a gas?

[Dr. Eve] That’s right. You see the sun gives off electrons which shoot through space. Some of them come within the magnetic pull of the Earth. Reaching our Earth, they’re attracted to the strongest magnetic fields on Earth, the North and South poles.

[Woman] Oh, then what happens?

[Dr. Eve] Well, the speed of these electrons causes them to crash into the molecules of the atmosphere and knock electrons from them forming ions, that is, positively charged molecules. Then when the ions and electrons combined, radiation results causing the glow that we see and the colors of the Northern Lights tell us just what gases are present in the upper air just as the color of the lights on Main Street tell us what kinds of gases are in the glass tubes. The spectrum of the aurora shows us that most of the upper air is made up of nitrogen. Pinkish-white signs on Main Street use helium gas. The spectrum shows no helium or hydrogen in the upper atmosphere illuminated above the north magnetic pole.


[Narrator] The study of the Northern Lights is bound up with almost every type of physical phenomena that occurs. The same things that affect our life, electricity, radiation, weather, all of those and many more combine to bring us the wonders of the Northern Lights. Who knows what other secrets the Northern Lights hold within themselves. Science searches for the answer.

The full article written by Dr. A.S. Eve can be found on Page 145 of the 1936 Annual Report, available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Observations taken from 9 p.m. August 3th to 2 a.m. August 9, 1872 in Holt County, Missouri, of an a

Another article I found interesting was “Significance of Shell Structure in Diatoms” by Paul S. Conger. While the author discussed the various unconventional uses of diatoms because of their sturdy structure, the dramatization in the radio broadcast focused on how these microscopic bits of algae were used to detect fraud in the molasses trade.

Listen here for a clip about how diatoms were used to prove that ship captains were pouring seawater into molasses to increase the volume of their shipments.

[Narrator] The most important discoveries of the laws, methods, and progress of nature, have always sprung from the smallest objects which he contains. That’s what the renowned biologist Lamarck said. That is the advice Paul S. Conger, biologist, has taken to heart. In the Smithsonian yearbook, Mr. Conger said

[Paul S. Conger] A large group of small plants have been living for more than 30 million years in glass houses, literally building around themselves walls of glass. And frequently elaborating these walls in beautifully sculptured designs. Because these are the diatoms of which there are more than 10,000 kinds. They’re all single-cell or colonial plants.

[Narrator] What good are diatoms? What can they be used for? Perhaps the story told by Mr. Conger in the Smithsonian annual will demonstrate their usefulness. Shortly after the World War, a very troubling and baffling condition arose in the alcohol industry. An important raw material for the production of alcohol is molasses. Molasses is shipped from the sugar refineries in Cuba to Wilmington, Delaware. Strong suspicion arose that nefarious practice was growing up in the molasses trade. The directors of a company met one day to find out what could be done about it.

[Man 1] Gentlemen, gentlemen. I’m convinced that we’re being cheated in our molasses shipments. I’ve heard rumors that the captains of these boats are having seawater poured in with the molasses to increase the volume of their load. It’s playing havoc with our business.

[Man 2] Isn’t there anyway to stop it?

[Man 1] Not unless we can prove that they’re doing it. And how we’re going to do that, I don’t know.

[Man 3] Can’t we have the molasses weighed before it leaves Cuba, and then again when it arrives here?

[Man 1] It’s too troublesome and too expensive. We must find some chemical that is present in seawater and not in molasses. If we do that, we can tell just when seawater has been added to the molasses by testing it chemically.

[Man 2] That should be simple.

[Man 1] Perhaps. And perhaps not. I’m already in touch with some chemists. If there’s an answer to this problem. They’ll find it.


[Chemist] Well, Mary, I’m just about ready to give up. That alcohol concert hired me to find an answer to their problem and I’ve failed.

[Mary] You’ve been working on it three years, and still no answer.

[Chemist] Every element found in seawater is found in molasses too. Every method and every chemical test I’ve tried has proved useless.

[Billy] Dad! Do you have any time to help me with my homework?

[Chemist] No, no, not now Billy. A little later.

[Mary] Your father’s tired, Billy.

[Billy] Gosh, this is tough work. We’re studying diatoms in school and I can’t make head ner tail of diatoms.

[Mary] Diatoms? What are they Billy?

[Billy] Oh, I don’t know. They find the darn things everywhere.

[Mary] Well, you just wait until Dad isn’t so busy, then he’ll help you with ‘em.

[Billy] Eh, I can’t see what they study diatoms for anyway.

[Chemist] Mary! Oh, great Scott, why didn’t I think of it before.

[Mary] What?

[Chemist] Diatoms! That’s the answer!

[Mary] What do you mean?

[Chemist] Diatoms are found in seawater!


[Man 1] But are you sure of this?

[Chemist] Oh, beyond a shadow of doubt. There are thousands of those little dreams in the seawater I tested and none in the molasses.

[Man 1] There’s a shipment of molasses coming in tonight. We’ll soon find out if the captain of the ship has been cheating us.

In case you are curious, the other topics selected for this episode were sunspots, core samples from the bottom of the ocean, and vampire bats!

Three men in suits standing behind a microphone and in front of a wall of speakers and meters.

Check back for highlights from another episode of The World Is Yours next month!

Black-and-white photograph of a man wearing a hat and coat sitting in a chair.

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