Carnot and Stapleton

Jean StapletonBefore starting, we have to do a death of note. Jean Stapleton died yesterday at the age of 90. She was very big in musical theater from the late 1950s. She was something there has traditionally been too few of: a female character actor. Most of the time, she played rather different kinds of characters. In You’ve Got Mail, she played kind of a ball buster—a straight talking and strong woman. But we will all remember her as Edith Bunker for nine years on All in the Family.

I was pretty young when the show was on—just seven when it started. But our family never missed it, at least for the first several years. At some point we transferred our love to The Jeffersons, probably because my father associated with George Jefferson in a way that was not healthy. But to me, All in the Family was a simulacrum of the life that was going on in and around the house that I was growing up in.

The heart of the show was Edith Bunker and Stapleton’s layered and surprisingly subtle performances. As a sensitive young person, I doubt I could have dealt with the show if it weren’t for Edith’s character. She is an archetype: the conciliator who keeps everyone grounded in what matters most, as the rest of us fly at each other over what are, at any given moment, academic matters. There is great strength in those who don’t need to be the smartest or the the loudest in the room. She really did make the show, even if Archie and Michael got all the attention.

Here is the opening song, which has some very clever lyrics. You can see what Norman Lear was going after with lines like, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again!”

On this day in 1801, Mormon leader Brigham Young was born. Russian classical composer Mikhail Glinka was born in 1804. I’m all for spiritual leaders, but really, their legacies are never as thrilling as this:

And speaking of music, the great arranger Nelson Riddle was born in 1921. In 1926 on this day, both Andy Griffith and Marilyn Monroe were born. I’ve never cared that much for Griffith, but he was quite good in A Face in the Crowd. Monroe, on the other hand, was a great comedic actor. Here she is in Some Like it Hot. “See what I mean? Not very bright!” She was brilliant:

The great bluegrass musician and songwriter and social activist Hazel Dickens was born in 1935. Here she is doing “Pretty Bird“:

And actor Cleavon Little was born in 1939.

Three actors have birthdays today. Morgan Freeman is 76. Brian Cox is 67. Jonathan Pryce is 66. And chess grandmaster Nigel Short is 48.

Sadi CarnotThe day, however, belongs to the father of thermodynamics Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot who was born in 1796. He is primarily known for two things. The first is the Carnot Cycle of an idealized heat engine. Using this, he was able to show that the maximum efficiency of an engine was only dependent upon the the two temperature reservoirs of the engine. That’s a remarkable conclusion that I don’t think most people realize today, even as they use many different heat engines.

The other thing he did was discover the second law of thermodynamics. When I was an undergraduate, my professor for statistical mechanics, Joe Tenn, used to say that the first law of thermodynamics said that the best you could do was get as much work out of a process as you put in. The second law said you couldn’t even do that. This is the law of entropy, although no one is really clear on exactly what entropy is. It is to some extent a measure of disorder in a system. The second law says that this disorder always increases. In other words: Humpty Dumpty does not get put back together.

Tragically, Carnot died of cholera at 36. His work was hardly noticed during his lifetime. But it was critically important to later scientists such as Rudolf Clausius and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin).

Happy birthday Sadi Carnot!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Carnot and Stapleton

  1. Stapleton’s character resonated with a lot of people. My SO’s dad, whom I met near the end of his life, was a real Archie type, the sedentary lord of the manor who enjoyed wielding power over his household. The SO tells me he was a huge fan of the show, laughed hysterically whenever Archie insulted Edith — and cried his eyes out when Edith died.

    The SO’s dad came from a genuinely screwed-up household (his mom was institutionalized for insanity, and her kids were glad to see it happen.) So he tried to impose order and normalcy on his family, using intimidation when nothing else worked.

    We think of that Archie Bunker generation, and they’re commonly presented as reactionaries against ’60s radicalism, but I imagine they were, a lot of them, reacting against the chaos their childhood was during the Depression and the deprivation of the war years. Poverty doesn’t always make people insane, but it sure doesn’t help.

    I sometimes think of America as a cycle of abuse. It’s hard to think of a happy, loved person stridently supporting policies which bone the poor, or this/that immigrant group, or people in far-away lands or what have you. There’s emotional damage in anyone who gleefully welcomes the suffering of others.

    It’s an axiom that shit rolls downhill, and people who are turded on tend to turd on others, or themselves. (The high and mighty then point to this and say, "see, they behave like animals and deserve to be treated as such.") I wonder if we’ll ever break that cycle in this country. I wonder what it would take to do so.

    All kudos to Stapleton for her personification of Edith. She probably could have been mind-blowing in the role if it were a modern cable series, played as tragedy instead of comedy. The line between the two is quite narrow, isn’t it?

  2. @JMF – I think the brilliance of the show was that one could relate to all the characters. Archie wasn’t a bad guy. He was ignorant and reactionary, but most of all, he was afraid. The 60s and 70s were a very hard time on men. Things really were changing. Of course, those men didn’t have much real to fear. Even now, 40 years later, it is still good to be a white male. Admittedly, it was a hell of a lot better to be one back then. But change is hard, especially when you aren’t expecting it. I think that was really helpful to my generation: knowing that things would inevitably change.

    As for Stableton’s performance, I think she did an amazing job. There was much underneath the silly wife.

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