Gravity exercise: What starts up in N.H. must go down to Mass.
By DAVID BROOKS, Telegraph Staff
Wednesday, June 20, 2001
Eating crow isn’t the most pleasant of activities but I’m happy to do it today, correcting a three-year-old error. I was wrong in a 1998 story when I said one of the most unusual organizations ever to flourish in the Granite State had withered away.
It’s not dead – it just went to Massachusetts.
I refer to the Gravity Research Foundation, brainchild of the late business tycoon Roger Babson. Babson is most commonly remembered today for having founded Babson College, but he had another driving ambition: Find a way to block gravity. For 25 years, this drive took form in the town of New Boston, where Babson came in the earlier days of the Cold War because he decided it was far enough away from big cities to survive nuclear war. (Babson even put up a sign declaring New Boston to be the safest town in North America if World War III came, but town fathers eventually toned it down to say just that New Boston was a safe place.)
The Gravity Research Foundation is largely forgotten today, although it is the subject of perhaps the state’s oddest historical marker. Sitting in a traffic island in the center of New Boston, the granite slab celebrates the foundation’s “active research for antigravity and a partial gravity insulator.”
Babson, rich from his business acumen and famous for writing a newspaper column on investing and finance, knew the region because his mother had lived in nearby Francestown. He showed up in 1948 and bought a whole bunch of buildings, to the irritation of some area residents, and then created the foundation to spur research into ways to fight gravity.
That sounds like cloud-cuckoo-land stuff, but Babson was serious, and so was the foundation, even if local folks didn’t always think so. Only a few people actually worked in New Boston and the organization was always fairly isolated from the community, even when it occupied what is now the Molly Stark Tavern on Route 13.
Initially the foundation had two main jobs: It held weeklong conferences each summer – attendees included Clarence Birdseye of frozen-food fame and Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the helicopter – and, most importantly, sponsored essays by researchers.
You might think an antigravity essay contest would only attract cranks, and there was certainly a crank-ish air to the group at times. New Boston old-timers tell of foundation conferences at which people sat in chairs with their heads higher than their feet, to counterbalance gravity.
Then again, Babson’s motivation wasn’t entirely scientific. In a book called “Gravity – Our Enemy No. 1,” he indicated that his desire dated from the childhood drowning of his oldest sister in a river in Gloucester, Mass. “She was unable to fight gravity, which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom,” he wrote.
Over the years, however, the conferences faded away, and the foundation switched its emphasis from trying to block gravity to understanding its nature. The essay contest became a source of prestige (and money) for legitimate researchers.
For years, the winning essays have concerned the nature of physical space and been at a very high level. Stephen Hawking, British physicist extraordinaire, won five times for papers on gravity and black holes, and you can’t get much higher than that.
The Gravity Research Foundation faded in New Boston after Babson died in 1967 and left a few years later. I couldn’t find a new address despite some effort, so I concluded that it had passed away.
Then, last month, a graduate student in physics from Cornell University named Steve Drasco, who had found my old story on the Web, e-mailed me because he had seen references to the Gravity Research Foundation at the bottom of some current research papers and wanted to find out more.
Embarrassed, I hunted around and found that the foundation does, indeed, still operate. It is run in Wellesley, Mass., by George Rideout Jr., son of the foundation’s original director. Using money from what Rideout called a “modest trust fund” established by Babson, the foundation continues to hand out annual essay awards with a top prize of $3,500. “The Gravity Research Foundation is neither ‘anti-gravity’ nor ‘pro-gravity,’ ” Rideout wrote in an e-mail. “Our goal is learn as much as possible about gravity. Applications, if any, of the knowledge will emerge in due course.”
Soliciting papers from within the physics community, it has had winners in recent years from Europe, the United States and Asia, including well-known names such as California astrophysicist George Smoot.
This year’s winners were from Los Alamos Laboratory and the University of California-Berkeley for a paper called “The Cosmological Constant Problem in Brane-Worlds and Gravitational Lorentz Violations.” That might sound crank-ish to the uninitiated, but it’s deep in the heart of modern physics.
It’s a shame, from this Granite Stater’s point of view at least, that the foundation isn’t still located in a small New Hampshire town. But it’s nice to know, at least, that this child of curiosity is still around.
For information on the Gravity Research Foundation, call (781) 431-1582 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Brooks’ science column appears Wednesdays in The Telegraph.
Posted by permission of the editor of The TelegraphCopyright © 2001