Archive for May, 2013

Innovation Award Goes To WWII Spy

Posted by on Saturday, 25 May, 2013

Frederick Mayer











I’m back to my bloggin’ ways again and there’s lots to write about of course. All kinds of stuff is happening in medicine including key developments in  cancer, alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. Eric Weinstein (no credentials link here because he’s a rogue academic who left physics years ago) is pushing a  theory that COULD  be THE physics  theory of the 21st century.  It will take months to dig through it all and figure out what’s most important and what you might be looking for from MISTER SASB.

In the meantime, I’m kicking things off with an article about a heroic  feat of innovation.

Fred Mayer, the guy shown above, is a citizen of West Virginia. If you’ve heard of him, it’s because you’re something of a World War II buff.  I know about Fred because I happen to know one of his  kids who is pretty special in her own right.

Fred? He helped save the world.

Back in the day.

And I’m dedicating this volume of Science Ain’t So Bad to him. Because he and his extraordinary team, though they were not scientists themselves, helped keep science what it is today – an impertinent, irreverent enterprise that dares to question orthodoxy.  If he hadn’t outsmarted a bunch of Nazi officers, Einstein’s “Jewish” theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and a lot of the other stuff that’s part of your phones, televisions, and heart pacemakers – as well as our understanding of the world, itself – might still be suppressed by a bunch of goons.

Here’s what he did. Listen carefully please because this is a little different from my usual stuff about consumer technology or particle physics. There’s a story here.   If I need an excuse for the tale – and I don’t think I do – I’ll go with: if people like Frederick Mayer didn’t exist, science would have been ruined by a dark ideology.

But I don’t need an excuse. Do I?

Fred Mayer was  an American serviceman in 1945. He was a funny guy with a quick smile, dark hair, and tons of confidence.

And he had a bone to pick with the Nazis who had  forced his family to flee Germany.  He saw Nazism as a perversion of the German spirit. He needed to get into this fight and he managed to get the attention of the OSS which let him join its ranks.

I want to get back into Germany he said.

Forget it, they said. you’ll just muck things up.

Come on, he said. I speak the language better than the morons in the German officer corps. I can sweet talk my way into their confidence. Give me a chance here. Okay?

And exactly how would you do that, son?

Just watch me, he said.

Eventually, after numerous screw ups, Mayer and his handpicked team got themselves squirreled away in a village in occupied territory where Fred was able to get hold of a uniform from a conveniently dead German officer. Making it up as he went along, Fred established himself among other German officers (just as he said he would) and gained their confidence. Night after night, his radio man sent coded messages to the allies about arms shipments, troop movements, etc, etc. Fred (as an electrician this time) even  smuggled himself into a highly secure factory that was building bombers .

When he requested authorization to lead an uprising in Innsbruck, the OSS turned him down. He was too valuable as a spy to get himself shot up.

Mr. Mayer kept sending stuff to the allies until he got captured. Even after they tortured the crap out of him, Mayer had the presence of mind (hence our innovation award) to unnerve his captors. The nutty thing? He eventually talked them into surrendering and giving up Innsbruck. To HIM!!!

Thus the Science Ain’t So Bad Innovation Award goes to Frederick Mayer who saved many, many lives.

Whether he actually shortened the war by six months, as some have claimed, is for the historians to sort out. But one thing is clear. We in science, and the community as a whole, owe a real debt to to this man. Senator Rockefeller thinks so too. Mayer deserves high praise and official recognition for what he accomplished. Shouldn’t he get the Medal of Honor? What do you think?


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image credits: permission from C Mayer