Freethought of the Day

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There are 2 entries for this date: James D. Watson and Harry Houdini
James D. Watson

James D. Watson

On this date in 1928, James D. Watson was born in Chicago. Watson, who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) at age 25, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His bird-watching hobby prompted his interest in genetics. He earned his B.Sc. degree in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1947, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1950. He worked with Wilkins and Frances Crick at Cavendish Laboratory in England in 1951-1953, when they discovered the structure of DNA. Watson became a member of the Harvard Biology Department in 1956, then a full professor in 1961. His book The Double Helix, which was published in 1968, became a bestseller. Watson was appointed director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island in 1968, and became its president in 1994. As director of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the NIH in 1989, Watson launched the worldwide campaign to map and sequence the human genome. Watson is an outspoken unbeliever who considers that human progress has been shackled by the idea of divine fate, and that human beings should do their utmost to improve the future. In a Youngstown State University speech, Watson said, "The biggest advantage to believing in God is you don't have to understand anything, no physics, no biology. I wanted to understand" (The Vindicator, Dec. 2, 2003).

“Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely. Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be ours. . . . 

[As a young man ] I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists that supported Franco. I stopped going on Sunday mornings and watched the birds with my father instead.”

—Dr. James Watson, London Telegraph, March 22, 2003

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini

On this date in 1874, Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary. In 1878, his family emigrated to America. The family first settled in Appleton, Wis. before relocating to New York City in 1887. Harry Houdini chose his stage name because he admired the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Houdini began his magic career in 1891, initially performing traditional magic tricks but later focusing almost exclusively on escape acts. In 1894, Houdini married his wife Bess, a fellow performer. Houdini toured Europe beginning in 1900, and became well-known for an act where local police would restrain him in handcuffs which Houdini would then escape. Houdini toured America with variations of this act and other escape routines, including escaping from a straitjacket, and the famous Chinese Water Torture Cell, where Houdini would escape from a water-filled cell where he was hanging by his ankles. He served as the president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death

Although many magicians of the time claimed to have supernatural powers, or to be helped by spirits, Houdini never made any such claim. In the 1920s, Houdini began to focus on debunking psychics and mediums, using his training in magic to expose their so-called “supernatural” powers. He was able to replicate mediums’ effects, as well as observe tricks that had fooled scientists and academics. Houdini was part of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize for successful proof of supernatural abilities; this prize was never collected. Houdini died in 1926 of peritonitis and appendicitis, aggravated by punches to the stomach. (Houdini famously was asked by J. Gordon Whitehead if he could sustain punches to the stomach; after Houdini’s affirmative response, Whitehead immediately punched the magician, who was not prepared for the blows.) He was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, but his gravesite pays homage to his career in magic rather than his Jewish heritage; in fact, a bust of Houdini was placed at the grave in 1927, although a “graven image” is not allowed according to Jewish law. D. 1926.

“How have so-called psychics been able to mystify representative scientists such as Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, William James, and the French physiologist, Charles Richet — men of supposedly straight-thinking, analytical minds? To say nothing of such eminent writers as the sincere, though deluded, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

“I believe the kernel of the matter is that scientists, philosophers, and psychologists live in circles where honesty is taken for granted. It is inconceivable to them that such gross deception could be practiced. They fail to realize that they're working hand in glove with members of one of the most unclean professions in the world.”

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? "Freethought of the Day" is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

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