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with Alfred Loomis, discussed below in The Last Amateur Scientist and the Palace of Science: Alfred Lee Loomis.
A member of a prominent New England clan, Wood was the son of a physician well-known for his work in Hawai’i. From childhood on, Wood had an intense interest in all sorts of scientific phenomena, which he must have found a relief from the rule-bound schooling he mostly had to endure. He was flunked out twice from the Roxbury Latin School (Boston, MA) before being admitted to Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) where he earned a bach- elor’s degree in chemistry in 1891 despite poor marks in languages and mathematics. After a brief stint in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, where he became most interested in the physics of optics, Wood moved, in 1892, to the University of Chicago (Chicago, IL). Wood eventu- ally completed his doctoral dissertation, but the academic rules had changed and he was never officially awarded his PhD. He then worked for Heinrich Rubens in Berlin on infrared optics. Wood returned to the United States as an instructor at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) where his career blossomed quickly. In 1901, Wood was appointed full professor of experimental physics at Johns Hopkins University after a physics professor had died unexpectedly young (Dieke, 1956).
Wood was an inveterate prankster. As a student, his landlady was, in his opinion, rather too interested in his comings and goings. So on a rainy day with muddy streets, he took his shoes off and created “a trail of footprints in his room start- ing at the window, up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall. The reactions of the landlady are not recorded” (Dieke, 1956, p. 333). He apparently had no mercy on land- ladies because in Paris, his proprietor kept a pet tortoise in the garden. Wood bought a series of tortoises of various sizes and exchanged them every few days in order of increasing size, making it appear that the tortoise was growing at an amazing rate. When the landlady told Wood about this, he suggested that she should go to the press. At this point, Wood reexchanged the tortoises in decreasing size, reversing the process!
Even as professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, there are stories of his entertaining the crowds at football games during halftime by a display of boomerang throwing. Wood developed a bit of a reputation in Baltimore where he was known to cough loudly, sputter, and spit into puddles on the streets of Baltimore while surreptitiously dropping in a
small piece of sodium metal. The resulting ball of flame must have truly spooked those passing nearby!
While at Johns Hopkins University, Wood and his family would spend the summers on an old farm on Long Island, NY, where he apparently introduced the Hawaiian surfboard to the Long Island beaches (Dieke, 1956). Out of his own pocket, Wood set up an improvised laboratory in an old barn, the crown jewel of which was a 40-foot grating spectrograph, probably the largest then in existence and certainly capable of better results than anyone had ever seen before. The light guides were constructed from sewer pipe. During the long months between summers when the instrument was not used, the optical path would become cluttered with spider webs.
“Wood’s method of cleaning the tube has become a classic. He put the family cat in one end and closed the end so that the cat, in order to escape, had to run through the whole length of the tube, ridding it very effectively of all spider webs” (Dieke,
1956, p. 330).
An interesting spin-off from Wood’s summer home on Long Island came from friendship with a neighbor, the famous Flo- renz Ziegfeld, producer of the most spectacular stage shows on Broadway that swarmed with chorus girls in resplen- dent costumes. Wood was well aware that many substances fluoresce brightly under ultraviolet light, and the possibility of interesting stage effects was not lost on him, especially because he had invented the ultraviolet (UV) filter still used today for producing “black light.” Many of Wood’s ideas on lighting tricks with UV found their way to Ziegfeld’s stage (Dieke, 1956).
Wood was a man of many skills and hobbies. He was a prolific author, especially for his time, publishing some 300 scientific papers and the classic textbook on physical optics (Wood, 1911). He also wrote fiction, coauthoring two science fiction novels with Arthur C. Train (a well-known writer of court- room thrillers): The Man Who Rocked the Earth in 1915 and its sequel The Moon Maker in 1916; the former was rather notable for describing an atomic detonation 30 years before the first atomic bomb. Wood also authored and illustrated children’s books including How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers (1907).
This irrepressible practical joker was to become the world’s dominant research scientist in optics and spectroscopy and a pioneer of infrared (IR) and UV photography. Wood was a fellow of most of the world’s major academies and winner of
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