International Geophysical Year and the Cold War

As a group, scientists have a generally deserved reputation for being canny with numbers. Perhaps this perceived facility has also earned them a certain flexibility toward—what a lay person might perceive as casualness with—numbers. On occasion, early estimates of quantities or measurements are said to be correct within an order of magnitude, or a single power of ten. (Powers of ten are ably demonstrated in a film of the same name, which we discussed HERE.)

During the Manhattan Project, initial estimates of the amount of fissile material (in this case uranium) necessary for making an atomic bomb were said to be correct plus or minus an order of magnitude. As the story goes, this pronouncement led General Leslie Groves, military leader of the Manhattan Engineer District, to offer up the analogy of planning for a wedding with a hundred guests, except that perhaps as few as ten or as many as a thousand people might turn up.

Our post today stems from a time when a group of the world’s scientists got together and arranged for an 18-month year: the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which spanned July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958. During the IGY, scientists from 67 nations collaborated on performing experiments and collecting data in eleven major scientific areas:  “aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, seismology, and solar activity.”

The IGY was a direct descendant of two previous International Polar Years, the first held in 1882-1883 and the second in 1932-1933. Years later, at a dinner party in honor of Oxford geophysicist Sydney Chapman held on an April 5, 1950 at the home of James Van Allen (later of the Van Allen radiation belts), the assembled handful of scientist-guests, several of whom had participated in the most recent International Polar Year decided that, instead of waiting the customary 50 years between International Polar Years, they would have one to correspond with an upcoming peak in solar activity (which is on an 11-year cycle). The name change from International Polar Year to International Geophysical Year was consciously chosen to reflect science’s  growing ability to focus on problems that encompassed the entire earth.

James Van Allen with Soviet Scientists, 1959 (NASA)

April 5, 1950, (which was Doug’s father’s ninth birthday) must have been quite an eventful day in Dr. Van Allen’s personal life. In addition to hosting a dinner party that would lead to the largest international scientific endeavor to that point in history, he also accepted a Guggenheim fellowship to work at Brookhaven National Laboratory that day, ending nearly a decade of work at Applied Physic Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

The American IGY effort required a large number of participants coordinated by the U. S. National Committee (USNC), which was formed at the behest of the National Academy of Sciences. In a historical overview of the IGY, the NAS has this to say: “American participation in the IGY was charged to a US National Committee (USNC) appointed in March 1953 by the NAS. Joseph Kaplan, Professor of Physics at UCLA, was appointed Chairman of the USNC. Physicist Alan H. Shapley of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was appointed Vice-Chairman, and Hugh Odishaw, also of the NBS, was appointed Executive Secretary (later, Executive Director). The core USNC was made up of sixteen members, but the five Working Groups and thirteen Technical Panels that operated under it eventually drew in nearly 200 additional scientists.”

As ever, we at Lofty Ambitions respect an unanticipated connection, and we have one here with the appearance of  the name Alan H. Shapley. This Shapley was the son of astronomer Harlow Shapley about whom we wrote HERE.

Fundamental science was performed during the IGY in areas such as seismology with the confirmation of plate tectonics as evinced by the discovery of a continuous mid-ocean ridge. We’ve touched upon plate tectonics recently (HERE) and in our series related to the tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (HERE and HERE). Seismic and volcanic activity along parts of the mid-ocean ridge had been well documented prior to the IGY, but what wasn’t previously known—and was revealed as a part of IGY research—was that there was a more-or-less continuous ridge of nearly 50,000 miles in length, reaching into every ocean, encircling much of the earth. It is our planet’s largest extant mountain range.

GRAIL launch, September 2011

Probably the most significant scientific contributions of the IGY was the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts (Van Allen of the IGY-initiating dinner party). Undoubtedly, we’ll soon have more to say about the Van Allen belts, how their discovery came about, and what the Cold War has to do with that. And we’ll have more about mapping, too, for the two GRAIL spacecraft are scheduled to reach the Moon this coming weekend. (To catch up on GRAIL, click HERE and HERE.)

To continue to Part 2 of our focus on IGY, click HERE.

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