Paul Hornig Dies At 92? Sorry Donald F. Hornig, In America The Packers Trump The A-Bomb

OPINION

By Mo Mozuch on January 24, 2013 10:40 AM EST

Paul Hornig Dies at 92
Hornig, LBJ and a dog. Not necessarily in that order. (Photo: LBJ Presidential Library)

"Did you mean Paul Hornung?"

This is what Google asked me when I searched the name "Paul Hornig" to research an article about the death of Manhattan Project member and former Brown University president Donald F Hornig. See, Donald F Hornig died yesterday at a nursing home in Providence, RI. So, why is "Paul Hornig Dies At 92" trending online?

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Because in America, football trumps science.

Paul Hornung is a former pro football player who played for the Green Bay Packers from 1957-1966. Known as an athletic and versatile halfback, he is one of only three Heisman trophy winners to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a member of the first ever Super Bowl championship team, and seems like a friendly guy who spends his retired years talking about horse races.

"Paul Hornig dies at 92" is the unfortunate Internet mash-up of the NFL legend and the brilliant scientist who passed away.

So why does "Paul Hornig dies at 92" happen? It's a matter of collective conscience. Trending phrases and keywords are driven, in part, by the old-school phenomenon known as "word of mouth." Some guy horfing down a Pop-Tart before work overhears on the news "blah blah blah Hornig dies at 92" and he perks up and says "Did the TV just say Paul Hornig dies at 92? What a shame, he was a great player." Then he tells two friends, and they tell two friends and so on. This is unofficially known as the Faberge Effect, and was brilliantly demonstrated by social scientist Wayne Campbell.

So now, people looking for some news are seeing "Paul Hornig Dies at 92" and some of them are thinking that a Packer is dead, while others are thinking "Isn't he a scientist?" Unfortunately, there is no "Paul Hornig Dies at 92" story, but it's worth remembering the man who actually died, Donald F. Horning, since he was part of what is arguably the most bada** science project of all time.

Cool Donald F. Hornig fact: he "babysat" the A-bomb.

Donald Hornig was recruited to work on the famous Manhattan Project (the team that built the first atomic bomb, in case you're on a science site and somehow know nothing about science) after finishing grad school in 1944. He was the youngest guy working on the project and part of the team that developed the firing mechanism for the bomb. And by "firing mechanism," we mean he had to design a device so precise that it would produce an explosion that would cause nuclear fuel to reach critical mass and trigger a nuclear explosion.

So how did Donald F. Hornig come to babysit the first atomic bomb, thereby starting his journey on a lifelong path that would end with him being memorialized on the Internet as "Paul Hornig Dies at 92"?

Peer pressure.

Robert Oppenheimer (he of the greatest quote ever) was the head of the project and was worried someone might sabotage the bomb the day before it was tested. So he did what anyone running a project does and decided to give the crappiest job to the youngest person in the office. In the 21st century, this person is known as "the intern." Donald F. Hornig told the story in a 1995 interview.

"On the Sunday before the test, shortly before 9 p.m., Oppenheimer decided someone should be in the tower to baby-sit the bomb because of the possibility of sabotage. Maybe because I was the youngest, I got the job. In the darkness, amid heavy rain, lightning, and strong winds, I climbed the ladder to the top of the 100-foot tower," he said. "Pulling out a paperback and sitting under a 60-watt bulb, I read to keep my mind off the lightning and the bomb. I stopped frequently to count the seconds between the sound of a thunder clap and the lightning flash, and tried not to think of what might happen if the tower got a direct hit and the gadget went off. At least I would never know about it."

 *Italics added to emphasize the casualness with which he referred to sitting in a metal tower with a nuclear bomb during a thunderstorm*

After successfully completing the worst sleepover in history, Donald F. Hornig parlayed his clout as a member of one of the biggest and most game-changing science projects ever into a career at Brown University before moving on to teach at Princeton. After teaching Ivy league-level science, Hornig went on to be a science adviser to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. He went back to Brown in 1970 and served as president of the university for six years. He spent the remainder of his career at the Harvard School of Public Health.

At no point in his life did he change his name to "Paul," so every time you see the phrase "Paul Hornig Dies at 92" today, you can feel a little bit smarter. Maybe not Donald F. Hornig smart, but close.

After all, how smart is a guy REALLY if he sits next to an A-bomb during a thunderstorm ...

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