The Most Interested Man in Kansas City

Bill Ashworth in his office at Linda Hall Library’s History of Science Center. (Photo by Mark Berndt)

Science, art, technology, history, space. Bill Ashworth wants to know about everything.

Bill Ashworth lectures frequently in the area. (Photo by Mark Berndt)

If  you’re curious, there are many things that Bill Ashworth wants you to know.

But here’s the main thing: Learning is fun.

That optimistic aphorism is more than a casual one to Ashworth and his devoted admirers, who delight in the local educator’s indefatigable interest in not only his chosen academic field—the history of science—but anything else that might tickle his circuitously inquisitive mind.

Ashworth is a longtime associate professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and consultant on rare books for the privately-funded Linda Hall Library, an independent research library of science, engineering and technology across the street from the UMKC campus. He’s also curated a variety of exhibitions at the Linda Hall Library and is a regular and much-anticipated speaker in UMKC’s Cockefair Chair lecture series devoted to continuing adult education.

Yet his insatiable intellect can’t be contained in even those prestigious capacities.

Dutch celestial globe, 1625 by Petrus Plancius, Science Museum, Blythe House, 1625.

“I’m very curious,” Ashworth says. “I feel strongly about the importance of knowledge and that people should expand their horizons. It’s such a rich world out there both physically and historically. And I just think that we ought to embrace that as much as we can.”

Which is why, since 2009, Ashworth has taken it upon himself to craft fascinating and entertaining “Scientist of the Day” emails for hundreds of non-paying subscribers. Countless other readers encounter them as forwarded emails, reposts on social media platforms or daily at the Linda Hall Library website, whose wealth of digitized images is frequently drawn upon by Ashworth to vividly illustrate his absorbing missives.

“Bill didn’t begin doing these mini-biographies necessarily as an ambassador of the library, but it certainly has evolved into that,” said Lisa Browar, president of the Linda Hall Library. “He has a singular devotion to the history of science and a great ability to communicate his enthusiasm for the subject to a very large and diverse audience. It’s like throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the concentric circles.”

Plaque de la rue Nollet, Paris 17e, in memory of physician Jean-Antoine Nollet (1700-1770).

Ostensibly pegged to anniversaries involving notable people and events in science history, Ashworth’s posts allow him the opportunity to digress and spin off into one ingeniously related topic after another, whether touching on art, music, poetry, film, politics, theology – the list goes on.

Take Ashworth’s notice of the February 5, 1608, birthday of German Jesuit natural philosopher Gaspar Schott, an industrious publisher in his day who, Ashworth points out, was “especially interested in marvelous mechanical devices, such as magic lanterns and perpetual-motion machines.” But Ashworth’s post is particularly taken with Schott’s interest in “the infamous cat piano…intended to perk up a certain German prince who was always depressed.”

Ashworth explains: “It consisted of a keyboard attached to a compartment containing a line-up of cats; when a key was depressed, it poked the associated cat in the tail with a tack, producing a mewling note of sorts. An arpeggio on the keyboard thus would have evoked a true cat-caphony of sound, which supposedly brought a smile to the face of the prince.”

Franipani (Plumeria) flowers in Perth, Western Australia

Before Ashworth is finished with the cat piano, he has noted its disappearance “into the maw of history as quickly as it had emerged,” its sudden resurfacing in a late 19th-century French journal article “by a mysterious Dr. Z” and its peculiar manifestation in the award-winning 2009 Australian short animated film, “The Cat Piano.” Who knew?

Ashworth, that’s who. And it’s through such penetrating research and lively writing that he continues to captivate and amuse loyal readers, including Kansas City painter and sculptor Nina Irwin, who often forwards Ashworth’s emails to her artist and musician friends.

“It’s an enlightening and daily joy for me to read Dr. Ashworth’s anniversary posts,” Irwin says. “There’s always something that’s super interesting or funny. I’m constantly laughing. He’s really got a good sense of humor.

“And the posts connect so many disciplines, like a constellation of stars. He’s constantly creating this galaxy of reason. I just find it incredibly inspiring how he’s knitting together so many things about the human mind that you wouldn’t be able to see if he didn’t pull that all together for us all the time.”

Plate from Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah (1852), by Howard Stansbury.

Ashworth culls his material from his own database comprised of about 6,000 biographical entries that he began building around 20 years ago. He keeps a master list of past anniversary posts to avoid repeating himself.

“It doesn’t take a huge chunk of time,” he says of the process. “A lot of these are people I know like my brothers and sisters. I’ve taught a course on Charles Darwin for 20 years. So I know Darwin and anybody who worked with Darwin. And I’ve taught a lot of different fields, so I can do that with 20th-century physics or Galileo. But 18th-century mechanics is not my field, so it’s a little bit more work.”

How does he decide who and what to write about?

“I have to be interested,” Ashworth says. “That’s how I weed them out. If there’s nothing interesting to say, then there’s no point in writing about them. I probably write about some things I shouldn’t, because I don’t know as much about them. But that’s the writer’s disease, right?”

Ashworth’s “disease” has led him to hold forth on such disparate personalities as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (who held a patent for a device designed to refloat a ship grounded on rocks), singer Freddy Mercury of the rock band Queen (whose hit song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” operatically alluded to Galileo) and Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher (whose penchant for modifying three-dimensional reality captured the imagination of British mathematician Roger Penrose, who subsequently created the never-ending Penrose Steps, which were later riffed on in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 science-fiction film, Inception).

Original Wright brothers-built bicycle, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

The personal commitment demonstrated by Ashworth in maintaining his daily posts blows away George Gale, professor emeritus of philosophy at UMKC, who served on the hiring committee that brought his old friend and colleague to the university in 1975.

“I learn new stuff from Bill’s briefings, and that’s always fun,” Gale says. “But I can’t imagine encumbering myself with that kind of responsibility. Because it’s a responsibility. We’re like the baby birds with our mouths open squeaking for more food. And he’s got to do it.

“There just aren’t very many people like Bill. What he reminds me of is some of the guys that were involved in starting the Royal Society in England, like Robert Boyle, who was just driven to poke his nose in things and then share it all. And Bill’s like that. He’s like one of those guys from the early Renaissance who’s just curious about everything and willing to lead others as they explore their curiosity.”

As a result of his ever-wandering muse, Ashworth has come to see himself as something of an academic rebel.

Ashworth’s office includes this c. 1989 display stand, made by the Carnegie Collection for science stores to hold their collectible dinosaurs. (Photo by Mark Berndt)

“In most scholarly professions, there’s this notion that you limit yourself to a certain field and you don’t mess with other stuff,” Ashworth says. “So if you decide to be an expert in the 17th-century, which I sort of am, then you’re not supposed to go write about the 18th-century.

“But I was always interested in a much broader view. And it doesn’t seem to me impossible that someone can know about Darwin and also know about Newton and also know about Aristotle, and know good things about them. In some ways, it’s a little bit of proving to myself that you really don’t have to be contained, that there really is room for a renaissance man in the 21st century.”

To join the daily anniversaries email list, Ashworth says, “Send a short email to ashworthw@umkc.edu, including your name, where you live, and what you do in life, and you will be happily added to the distribution list.”

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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