On Today’s Date: August 29 & 30

Soviet 1st Test
First Lightning

Sixty-one years ago, the Cold War began. On this date in 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. As in all great Russian narratives, the main character went by several names—Joe-1, RDS-1, First Lightning, Special Jet Engine, Stalin’s Jet Engine, and Russia Does It Herself—but the end result was the same: a completely surprised American government, military, and populace. The 22-kiloton device had been designed by a team headed by Professor Igor Kurchatov at Laboratory No. 2, sometimes referred to as Los Arzamas (a play on the name of the town where the first American atomic bombs were designed, Los Alamos).  Kurchatov was known as the beard, because he began to grow a beard at the outbreak of World War II and refused to shave it off until the Russians had won. He wore that beard, in various styles, until he died. His ashes are buried in the Kremlin Wall.

British physicist, mathematician, and software developer Stephen Wolfram was born on this date ten years after the first Soviet atomic bomb test. Wolfram developed the system Mathematica and wrote A New Kind of Science, a tome of almost 1200 pages asserting that computational systems or simple programs, rather than traditional mathematics, should be used to understand nature. When we checked Amazon today, it was #8 in the Modeling and Simulation bestseller list and #40 in Science Research.

STS-124 Discovery

On August 30, 1984, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched on its maiden voyage, a six-day mission to deploy three telecommunications satellites. Later, Discovery launched the Hubble Telescope and carried astronaut John Glenn back into space when he was 77 years old. This shuttle also flew the missions immediately following the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Discovery has flown more missions than any other Shuttle. Its final mission is scheduled to launch November 1, 2010, the Shuttle program’s penultimate flight. The National Air and Space Museum has dibs on Discovery after that.

August 30 is also the birthday of astronaut Jack Swigert, who was assigned to the Apollo 13 mission three days before launch, when the crew had been exposed to German measles and Ken Mattingly had no immunity. Houston, we’ve had a problem here—those are Swigert’s words. He died of bone cancer, after being elected to Congress, but before being sworn in.

If you’re feeling negative on Monday, it could be because British physicist J. J. Thompson, Nobel laureate and discoverer of the electron, died on August 30, 1940. He is also credited with the demonstration of hydrogen’s single electron, the discovery of isotopes, and the invention of the mass spectrometer. So today, remember that things are not merely as they appear to the naked eye.


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