All the gnus that’s fit to print

Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955) was an American physicist and inventor whose patents and theoretical work explored optics and, in particular, the physics of ultraviolet radiation. But he had a more frivolous side to his character.

After Edward Lear (1812-88) and before Ogden Nash (1902-71), Wood was writing and illustrating nonsense verse. In 1907 he published How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers, followed the year after by Animal Analogues. In 1915 The Man Who Rocked the Earth came out, a science fiction story co-written with Arthur Cheney Train, and in 1916 a sequel, called The Moon Maker. Arthur Train (1875-1945) was an American lawyer known for his novels of courtroom intrigue and the creation of the fictional lawyer Mr Ephraim Tutt.

Born in Concord, Massachusetts, Wood (photo left) attended The Roxbury Latin School with the intention of becoming a priest. But he decided to study optics instead when he witnessed a glowing aurora one night and believed the effect to be caused by “invisible rays”. In his attempt to discover these rays, Wood studied and earned numerous degrees from Harvard, MIT and the University of Chicago. He taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin and from 1901 until his death became a full-time professor of optical physics at Johns Hopkins University. He wrote many articles on spectroscopy, phosphorescence and diffraction and is today best known for his work on ultraviolet light.

Wood has several inventions to his credit, including a method of thawing street mains by passing an electric current through them, the frosted glass light bulb, the Vienna method of detecting forged documents using ultraviolet light. After 1920, Wood made important contributions to the fields of ultrasound and biophysics by studying the biological and physiological effects of high-frequency sound waves.

How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers and other wood-cuts is a short book for children, setting an animal, insect, fish or plant alongside another (but not necessarily of the same genus). Wood offers a humorous verse playing on words and their aural associations (e.g. storks and stalks, flocks and phlox). They are a reminder that children (and perhaps adults too) learn best when fun is involved. Here is an example called “The Gnu. The Newt.”

“The Gnu, conspicuously wears
His coat of gnumerous bristling hairs,
While, we see, the modest Newt
Of such a coat is destitute.
(I’m only telling this to you,
And it is strictly ‘entre gnu’).
In point of fact the Newt is nude,
And therefore he does not obtrude,
But hides in some secluded gnook,
Beneath the surface of the brook.
It’s almost more than he can bear,
To issue slyly from his lair,
And snatch a hasty breath of air,
His need of which is absolute,
Because, you see, he is a pneu-t.”

And just in case the reader misses the pun, a footnote explains: “This word, of air is emblematic, Greek, ‘pneumos’ – air – compare Pneumatic.”

According to Who’s Who on the Moon: A Biographical Dictionary of Lunar Nomenclature by E. E. Cocks. & J. C. Cocks (1995), a crater on the far side of the Moon is named after Wood.


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