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Roger Babson: The Man Who Tried To Fight Gravity

Throughout history humans have learnt to live with gravity despite its innumerable inconveniences, accepting it as a physical fact of the universe. But not Roger Babson. A successful American businessman and economist, Babson was not a man to be pushed around.

Roger Babson was born in 1875 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He attended the MIT and soon after earning an engineering degree, founded a security analysis and investment management company. Within a decade Babson had become a multimillionaire. Through a number of profitable investments, Babson multiplied his fortune and went on to became a leading economists of his time. He has authored more than 40 books on economic and social problems, and hundreds of magazine articles and newspaper columns. The Babson College he founded in Wellesley is one of the most prestigious entrepreneurship college in the United States.

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Babson attributed his success in the investment business to the principles he learned from Sir Isaac Newton's law of gravitation, as well as his law of action and reaction. It was his belief that Newton’s laws governed not only the motion of all heavenly and earthly bodies but the dynamics of the stock market as well. “What goes up will come down” he said, and “the stock market will fall by its own weight,” he once predicted. The prophecy fulfilled within a month when the stock market came crashing down in October 1929. Babson was one of the few people to predict the crash and the subsequent economic depression.

Babson’s obsession with gravity began from early childhood. In an essay titled Gravity - Our Enemy Number One, Babson recollects the drowning of his sister—an accident he squarely blames on gravity. “She was unable to fight gravity which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom. There she smothered and died from lack of oxygen,” Babson wrote.

“Gradually I found that ‘old man Gravity’ is not only directly responsible for millions of deaths each year, but also for millions of accidents,” the essay read. “Broken hips and other broken bones as well as numerous circulatory, intestinal and other internal troubles are directly due to the people's inability to counteract Gravity at a critical moment.”

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His grudge with the fundamental force of the universe took a passionate turn when he lost his grandson in 1947, also by drowning. Within a year, Roger Babson founded the Gravity Research Foundation to explore ideas by which the force of gravity can be controlled and even defeated. At that time, the Theory of Gravity was largely a neglected area of research, and Babson wanted to stimulate interest in the study of gravity. In order to do so the Foundation organized essay competitions on the subject of gravity research. Monetary awards were given for the best ideas submitted.

Babson made his intentions clear when he announced that he was looking for suggestions for anti-gravity devices, for partial insulators, reflectors, or for some substance that could reflect or absorb gravity. The response from the scientific community was lukewarm. So Babson’s close associate, George M. Rideout, advised Babson to reword his statements so that it appeared that the Foundation was not trying to fight gravity but rather understand it. Since then the Gravity Research Foundation has been rewarding essays by scientific researchers on the subject of gravitation to this day. The annual essay competition has drawn some of the brightest minds of the century including Stephen Hawking, who won in 1971, mathematician Roger Penrose, who won in 1975, and astrophysicist and Nobel laureate George Smoot, who won in 1993. At least five participant later went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

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Stone monument donated to University of Tampa by the Gravity Research Foundation. Photo credit: Walter/Flickr

In the 1960s, the Gravity Research Foundation gave grants and stone monoliths to 13 colleges and universities across the US. The monuments are inscribed with a variety of similar sayings, such as “It is to remind students of the blessings forthcoming when a semi-insulator is discovered in order to harness gravity as a free power and reduce airplane accidents” and “It is to remind students of the blessings forthcoming when science determines what gravity is, how it works, and how it may be controlled.”

Because the Foundation stipulated that the grants be used only for anti-gravity research, the money went unused for decades because many institutions couldn’t figure out how to spend them. Eventually, many of them ended up using the grant money for other endeavors that Roger Babson would not have approved, such as building extensions to existing halls.

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Anti gravity tone monument donated to Tufts University by the Gravity Research Foundation. Photo credit: Jacob Barss-Bailey/Flickr

The Tufts University in Medford, however, put the grants to good use—it went towards the funding of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology where “members investigate a wide range of topics in theoretical physics and cosmology.”

"Nobody really expected that Tufts cosmologists would work on antigravity, but strangely enough—they do,” wrote Alexander Valenkin, director of the institute. “Much of the research at the institute is focused on false vacuum and its repulsive gravity, which certainly qualifies as antigravity. So I think Mr. Babson could not have found better use for the money."

Today, when a graduate student earns his doctorate at the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, he undergoes a small ceremony in front of the stone monument the Gravity Research Foundation donated to the university. The graduate kneels down and his thesis advisor drops an apple on the student's head, in hopes that it might inspire him in the manner of Isaac Newton.

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Graduation ceremony. Photo credit: Tufts University

Also read: The Babson Boulders of Dogtown, another charitable project Babson was involved in to provide employment to stonecutters in Gloucester during the Great Depression.

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