Obama Tells Epic Civil War Joke At National Academy Of Sciences

Without the science that helped the North win the civil war, "certainly I would not be here," Obama jokes. From the president's address to to the National Academy of Sciences Monday celebrating the group's 150th anniversary.

The transcript:

Since I did not do well enough in chemistry or physics to impress you much on those topics, let me instead tell a story.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the nation, as all of you know, was in the midst of the Civil War, and the Union had recently suffered a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg. The road ahead seemed long and uncertain. Confederate advances in weapons technology cast a dark shadow on the Union.

The previous spring, in the waters outside of Hampton Roads, the ironclad Confederate battleship Virginia had sunk two wooden Union ships and advanced on a third, and this endangered the Union blockade of Virginia and threatening Union forces along the Potomac River. And then, overnight, the USS Monitor, an ironclad herself, arrived and fought the Virginia to a draw in the world's first battle between iron-sided ships.

There was no victor, but the era of ironclad warfare had begun. And it brought unexpected challenges for President Lincoln and his Navy as they expanded this fleet in early 1863, because aboard their new iron-side battleships, sailors found that the iron siding made the ships' compasses unpredictable, so it skewed navigation, and they were bumping into things and going the wrong way. (laughter) So the basic physics of magnetism undermined the usefulness of the ironclad vessels, even as the Confederates were stocking up on them.

And that's where your predecessors came in. Because in March of 1983 —1863, rather — President Lincoln and Congress established the National Academy of Sciences as an independent and nonprofit institution charged with the mission to provide the government with the scientific advice that it needed. And this was advice that was particularly useful in the thick of battle.

The National Academy soon counted the nation's top scientists as members. They quickly got to work. By the next year, they were inspecting the Union's ironclads and installing an array of bar magnets around the compasses to correct their navigation. So right off the bat, you guys were really useful. (laughter) In fact, it's fair to say we might not be here had you not — (laughter) — certainly I would not be here. (laughter and applause)



A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.