“What goes up, must come down” is a truism most of us learn at an early age. For Roger Babson, however, this saying was a challenge — one which he spent millions of dollars on in a Quixotic attempt to make it untrue.
Born in 1875, Babson was a very successful businessman and investor throughout his career. His investment strategy was based on a junk science theory that the economy was, somehow, a function of particle physics — but despite this massive flaw, Babson made himself a lot of money. Philanthropically, he is best known for founding Babson College in Massachusetts. But his true desire was to defeat an enemy which he likened to a dragon in later writings. That dragon was gravity, the force which stole his sister’s life in a drowning accident at an early age.
In 1948, Babson founded the Gravity Research Foundation in the town of New Boston, New Hampshire, located about 65 miles from Boston, MA — a distance which, Babson surmised, was far enough away that the town would survive a nuclear strike on the eastern seaboard’s largest cities. The Foundation aimed to do the impossible: develop a system or cloak or… well, anything, really, which could shield people and objects from gravity. Called “gravitational shielding,” the theory is, of course, at odds with physics as we know it. But that did not stop Babson from trying.
The foundation held multiple conferences over its nearly two decades of active existence, at times asking attendees to sit with their feet raised above their heads — a physical manifestation of the organization’s goal of counteracting gravity’s pull. But more notably, and certainly more permanently, the foundation funded and erected markers at college campuses as a marketing ploy of sorts. One such example, from Tufts University, is seen above; the stone’s purpose, per the engraved text, 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.” Basically, Babson had hoped that science would create something which would make it so when a plane would have otherwise crashed, it’d simply not — because gravity would not have pulled it back to the Earth as quickly, if at all.
The Gravity Research Foundation slowly dissipated after Babson died in 1967, but it still exists today — in the form of an annual contest highlighting legitimate research on gravity. (As it turns out, we don’t really know much about gravity — other than we can’t insulate ourselves from its effect.) And many of the stone markers, such as the one from Tufts, still exist as well. In fact, at Tufts, the marker is used, half-jokingly, as part of the graduation ceremony for the school’s graduate cosmology program, as seen here.
Bonus fact: In spite of the foundation’s odd goals, its on going desire to understand gravity is actually well placed. For example, as seen on this map, the Earth is filled with gravitational anomalies. A pair of satellites put in place by NASA (U.S.) and the German Space Agency called GRACE — the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment — in 2002. The experiment is explained here.
From the Archives: Why Pisa’s Tower Leans: The Leaning Tower of Pisa seems to defy gravity. Here’s what’s happening.
Related: “Gravity is a Mystery,” a children’s book which explains that we actually don’t know all that much about gravity. Five stars on eight reviews.