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Chemical Eye on Lincoln Blogs
by Preston MacDougall


February 25, 2007
Sunday AM

If money really could talk, I presume one of the first things it would say is "What does E Pluribus Unum mean? After all, Latin was a "dead language" long before anybody started whispering their heart's desires to amphibious pennies.

To a pocket translator, it means "From many, one." But what does it mean to you? Or, to get to the point, what does it mean to us?

Every great President has forged this motto into a timeless message that best served the needs of the country at the time. JFK did it in a grammatically awkward way, when he memorably prepositioned his message with "Ask not what".

jpg Lincoln Memorial

Preston McDougall at the Lincoln Memorial
Photo courtesy Preston McDougall

For my money, though, Lincoln's second inaugural address echoes most loudly during this time of national division and international strife. You know the best part of it - by heart - even if you haven't seen it carved in marble on the North wall of the Lincoln Memorial. I'll bet a Franklin that most Americans would give me back a "with charity for all" if I gave them a "With malice toward none".

Just before Presidents' Day this year, I was visiting the Lincoln Memorial while the U.S. House of Representatives was debating the Iraq war. Coincidentally, the last time I had visited Lincoln was also around Presidents' Day, but back in 2002 and with my two sons.

Using a souvenir postcard from the Mall, lad Byron penned his impression thusly:

Though I am well-versed in many a native son,
have studied past troubles though which you've nobly gone,
Your soul I have now found,
that faced a threat profound,
and boldly stared down dissolution's dreaded maw
neath your steady Captain's stern, majestic jaw.

This time, from Lincoln's feet, I headed to the Capitol where a Congressional staffer took me on a tour of the rotunda. Next, we took our seats in the Justinian section of the House gallery while the Iraq debate was still hearing representational voices. I heard two, one from either side.

Speaking for the resolution, a Congressman from Mississippi simply read the names, ranks, ages, and hometowns of fatalities just from his delta district. I didn't count, but he used up all his allotted time.

We had come in during a speech against the resolution. Near the end, I heard the warning "A country cannot be half-free." It didn't make any sense, and I just shook my head, but for a different reason than I would later. I also don't know where the Congressman was from - somewhere between Nonsequiturville and Pander City.

Even though it wouldn't logically buttress his argument, perhaps he meant to quote Lincoln by saying "A house divided against itself cannot stand." If so, he wouldn't have been the only speaker against the resolution to misquote Lincoln.

Rep. Don Young, from Alaska, believed Lincoln had said that Congressmen who undermine military morale during a war "should be arrested, exiled or hanged." A little bit of malice there, I would say. Bloggers have since discovered that Lincoln said no such thing. It was only made to appear so by a copy-editing mistake at Insight magazine (the same one that reported Barack Obama was educated at a Madrassa school). At least that is the most charitable explanation.

I'm not sure when Mr. Young made his speech, but it must have been long before I revisited Lincoln. Otherwise I am sure his large marble ears wouldn't have been white, but more like the pink color of the Tennessee marble that his visitors are standing on.

Below its Curie temperature- named after Mr. Curie, not Mrs. - a permanent magnet has North and South poles. If you break it into pieces, each of the pieces will still have North and South poles. Positives can be separated from negatives, but there has never been a North without a South. Theoretical physicists still debate whether it is even possible.

We do know that if you heat a magnetic material (such as many compounds of iron or cobalt) past its Curie point, it will suddenly lose its overall magnetism. This happens when the alignment of the atoms responsible for the magnetism becomes disordered. The atoms themselves are still magnetic, but for what purpose?

The thermodynamics is complicated, and the physics is mysterious. But hopefully the political meaning of this chemical metaphor is clear, even if you're from Nonsequiturville or Pander City.


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Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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