A Laureate’s Lake
Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir drew inspiration from the lake he loved and worked to protect
A relative of Irving Langmuir’s once remarked that the Nobel Laureate suffered from “Lake George-itis,” a highly contagious disease which he himself helped to spread. The malady, if it is one, must be congenital as well as catching. Roger Summerhayes, Langmuir’s grandson, appears to have inherited it. Although he and his wife Kate live and work on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, they return each summer to the camp on Crown Island that Langmuir purchased in 1930. Life has changed little there since Langmuir’s day. There are no telephones. Access to Bolton Landing depends upon “Wendy,” the 1937 Chris Craft that once belonged to Roger’s parents. Friends and family still gather on the porch at a table built by Langmuir himself. A hospitable man, Langmuir wanted a table large enough to accommodate his houseguests. It is, in fact, so large that it is almost never moved. Around it have sat people like Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist; John Apperson, the lake’s most famous preservationist and Langmuir’s colleague at General Electric, who introduced the scientist to Lake George in 1910; and the Summerhayes family, Langmuir’s Schenectady neighbors who discovered that Crown Island was for sale and who suggested to Langmuir that they purchase it together. Eight years later, the children of the two families, Harry Summerhayes, Jr. and Barbara Langmuir, were married. In 1956, a year before the death of Irving Langmuir, their son, Roger, was born. Now, some forty years later, Roger Summerhayes is the director of “Langmuir’s World,” a highly praised documentary that reconstructs the life of Irving Langmuir.
“Film making is like malaria,” says Roger.”You never fully recover. I seem to have to make a film once every eight or ten years.” Afer earning his Master’s degree from Stanford University and completing a full-length feature film, Roger returned to teaching. He had majored in chemistry as an undergraduate at Union College, and later taught science in the Fiji Islands while serving in the Peace Corps. Today, he teaches chemistry and physics at a private day school on St. Croix. “I would never want to make films for a living,” says Roger. Nevertheless, he did want to make a film about his grandfather, who despite the fact that he won the Nobel Prize in 1932 for his work in chemistry, is comparatively unknown today.
“Possibly because he was one of the most prolific inventors in history, Langmuir’s name is not associated with any one thing,” Roger explains. But as he makes abundantly clear in his film, Langmuir’s name ought to be associated with many things. His refinements of Edison’s lightbulb continue to save consumers billions of dollars a day. His invention of a sonar to detect the distance and direction of submarines and of a smoke generator to screen the movements of battleships and troops, protected the lives of American soldiers and sailors in both World Wars. And his cloud seeding experiments, which won him a ‘Time’ magazine cover in 1950, led directly to the pioneering work on acid rain conducted by his protégés, Vincent Schaefer, Bernard Vonnegut, Duncan Blanchard and Ray Falconer, as well as to the snow-making machines that keep Adirondack ski resorts open in dry winters.
The raw material for “Langmuir’s World” lay in the eighteen hours worth of 16-millimeter film that Langmuir shot between 1925 and 1955, and which Roger inherited from his parents. “Langmuir was a good cinematographer,” says Roger. “He had a good eye and, more important, a steady hand.” The footage includes images of George Reis’ ‘El Lagarto’ bounding past Crown Island in the 1933 Gold Cup race, which Roger and Kate have donated to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake; saw logs piled on the docks in Bolton Landing, ready to be rafted to the mills at the northern end of the lake; and Langmuir’s extended family and friends on Lake George, boating, swimming, skate sailing, and appropriately enough given Langmuir’s friendship with Apperson, rip rapping.
An award from the foundation established in honor of the teacher and astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, enabled Roger to transfer the film to video, much of which accompanies the film’s narration. Additional funding permitted Roger to film interviews with Langmuir’s colleagues and relatives. Gradually, says Summerhayes, the interviews became the focus of the film, for the simple reason that the personality of Langmuir emerged most clearly from the accounts and memories of those who felt the full force of it.
Of Scots origins, descended from a brother of John Knox, the severe founder of Scotch Protestantism, Langmuir himself was the least dour of men. “He once said, ‘Everything I have done, I have done for the fun of it,’” Roger tells us, “And ‘Everything’ included science.” For Langmuir, having fun meant being free to exercise his curiosity, and curiosity led him to unprecedented discoveries. Rather than continuing to teach in a university, which he discovered left him little time or opportunity to explore his own interests, Langmuir joined General Electric in Schenectady, at the time the only industrial laboratory in the nation engaged in basic research. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote publicity for the Research Laboratory when Langmuir worked there, told Roger, “It was a successful experiment of the sort I love. It let people do whatever they damned pleased…”
When Langmuir arrived at the Laboratory, the director, Willis R. Whitney, told him to look around and see if there was anything he would like to “play with.” Whitney would often ask him, “Are you having any fun today?” One day, after three years of apparently unproductive research, Langmuir answered, “I’m having a lot of fun, but I really don’t know what good this is to the General Electric Company.” Whitney replied. “That’s not your worry. That’s mine.”
Langmuir elevated “having fun” to the staus of a scientific method, which he called serendipity, or the art of profiting from the unexpected. “We didn’t head for an objective,” Vincent Schaefer, his long-time assistant recalled. Instead, “We blundered along … a serendipitous event occurred … and you had something more important than what you started toward.”
Langmuir did not distinguish between work and play. His visits to Lake George, therefore, were never vacations. The lake was a laboratory in which he could observe nature directly. The experiments in surface chemistry, for which he won the Nobel Prize, were begun on Lake George, where he studied the behavior of oil films on water. Moreover, living on the lake allowed him to indulge what his nephew, David Langmuir, calls his “tremendous interest in the weather.”
“He’d get excited about simple things,” remembered Duncan Blanchard, one of the GE scientists interviewed by Summerhayes. Langmuir wanted to understand the mechanisms of familiar phenomena. Thunderstorms, clouds, ripples on water, bubbles in ice, the temperature fluctuations of air and water, the texture of snow, were all objects to be investigated. Discovering intelligible principles in the complex interaction of wind and water, his studies still assist the work of oceanographers and limnologists, including the scientists at RPI’s Darrin Freshwater Institute in Bolton Landing. Langmuir’s largest unpublished work, now in the Library of Congress, is a study of Lake George. He made over two thousand recordings of temperatures at different depths and at a variety of locations in every season. Vincent Schaefer says, “It probably represents the finest collection of such field observations in existence.”
Irving Langmuir, says Roger Summerhayes, was John Apperson’s “partner in crime.” In fact, as Apperson’s friend Bill White recalled, on at least one occasion Langmuir saved Apperson’s job at General Electric. Apperson had taken upon himself the task of evicting people who had appropriated state-owned lands for their own use as summer camps. One of those he evicted turned out to be a high-ranking GE executive, who threatened to have Apperson fired. Langmuir went to the President of GE and said, “If Apperson goes, I go.” Both stayed. Langmuir’s reputation as a scientist lent credibility to the often controversial campaigns to protect Lake George. As the writer of a letter to the ‘Lake George Mirror’ put it, sarcastically but succinctly, “Is Dr. Irving Langmuir, Nobel Prize winner, electrical engineer, and owner of Island and Lake Shore property, distinguished for folly?”
In 1939, Langmuir and Apperson saved Dome Island. Apperson had noticed white flags flying from the trees, demarcating building sites. He immediately went to Langmuir to solicit his help. Together they purchased the island themselves for $5,000. Langmuir later sold his interests in the island to Apperson. But a few years before his death he became chairman of a campaign to raise $20,000 to be used to preserve Dome Island as “a living museum of primeval America.” The campaign was successful; Apperson donated the island to the Nature Conservancy, and the funds that Langmuir raised were the basis of a trust fund that is still used to maintain the island in its natural state.
Apperson and Langmuir were the two individuals most responsible for convincing the state of New York to purchase large portions of the eastern shore of the lake. They then launched a campaign to extend the boundaries of the Adirondack Park so that those lands would become part of the forest preserve and thus kept forever wild. Langmuir even lent his Bell and Howell camera to Paul Schaefer, the Adirondack preservationist who was also Vincent’s brother, so that Schaefer could make the films that were used in the public campaigns to protect the shores of Lake George.
Apperson and Langmuir also deserve some credit for the current laws governing the control of Lake George water levels. High waters, washing the soil off the roots of trees along the shores of the islands, and killing the trees, had been “a headache since 1887,” a Lake George Association official said in 1943. In 1909, Apperson began rapping the shores of Dollar Island to prevent erosion. He and Langmuir became convinced that the dam at the outlet of the lake, which was used to generate power for the mills at Ticonderoga, was causing the lake to rise and fall above and below its natural levels, and was thus responsible for the erosion of the islands. Lake George, they declared, should not be a mill-pond. Since many of the islands suffering from erosion were owned by the state, Langmuir believed that New York should sue the owners of the dam for destroying parts of the forest preserve. He urged the Lake George Association to pass a resolution calling upon the state to initiate such a lawsuit, which, had it been successful, would have forced the dam to be demolished. The LGA demurred, preferring instead to support the establishment of a state legislative committee to investigate the causes of the fluctuating water levels. Nevertheless, the Attorney General did commence a lawsuit, and Langmuir established another organization to support it. In the end, the suit was dismissed. But the courts ruled that the state had the authority to regulate water levels on Lake George, and legislation was passed that ensures that the dam is operated in such a way that water levels do not vary drastically from year to year. The attention that Apperson and Langmuir attracted to the issue helped bring about that legislation. Langmuir himself might regard it as inadequate. But he would be gratified to know that his family continues to rip rap Crown Island, guaranteeing that that island, at least, will be protected from erosion.
Asked what he hoped to accomplish by this film, Roger Summerhayes replied, “I hope to do Langmuir justice.” That he has, and that is no small achievement. The film lives up to its title. “Langmuir’s World” is a comprehensive portrait of a many-sided man. It will acquaint contemporary students with the genius of Irving Langmuir, and show them how science as he practiced it can illuminate the world around us. Science teachers will surely be grateful. Those of us who care about Lake George have even more reasons to be grateful. We prize Lake George, not only for its extraordinary beauty, but for the extraordinary people who have been attracted to its beauty and who have fought to preserve it. “Langmuir’s World” gives us one more reason to take pride in Lake George.
DVDs of “Langmuir’s World” can be ordered through langmuirsworld.net