Friday, June 13, 2008

Tarzan of Science


I had occasion today to check the Biographical File of one Jack Andrew De Ment (or DeMent, depending on what you read), onetime Portland prodigy and pioneer in fluorescence research. Included in the file was this fantastic article from the August 8, 1943, issue of the Oregonian, which describes DeMent not only as a "Tarzan of Science," but also as a "knee-pants savant." Boy, they just don't write news like they used to.

In 1943, DeMent was a tender 23-year-old, but he already had "a listing in the 'Biographical Directory of American Men of Science' of the same length as Einstein's"--according to the news article. The young scientist had formulated two of the basic laws of fluorescence, written or co-written five books, become a fellow in the Chemical Society of London, and co-developed a technique for "invisible tatooing"--tattoos visible only under x-ray.

DeMent graduated from Franklin High School and attended Reed College from 1938-1941 (leaving before completing a degree). In 1955, he became a diplomate of the American Board of Bio-Analysts (nuclear physics) and received an honorary doctorate from Western States College. He was a research assistant here at the University of Oregon Medical School from 1948 to 1966. He went on to found the De Ment Labs in Portland and was president of something called the PolyPhoton Corporation. He was associate editor for many years of The Mineralogist, the official publication of the Oregon Agate and Mineral Society. He served as a reviewer for the National Science Foundation in 1979 and 1980.

But, most interestingly of all (to me), is that he personally witnessed the first A-tests on Bikini atoll as a consultant to the U.S. Secretary of War. Unlike Oppenheimer, DeMent seems to have been inspired by this experience--not to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, but to weaponize rain. Yes, RAIN. The plan, apparently, was to seed clouds with hygroscopic salts laced with radioactive particles. The salts would cause rain droplets to form, delivering the radioactive material in "a deadly rain that can cripple or kill whole populations," according to a 1953 news article. Luckily for us, weaponized rain has yet to join the arsenals of the world's armies.

DeMent's fame seems to have faded, a bit like the flash from a nuclear bomb. At his death in 1992, the Oregonian ran a four line obituary which noted only day of death, surviving family, age, and the fact that "Due to the weather, no service was held, only family memorial."

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