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Remembering the Birth of an Era

Bill Meredith

Queen Victoria: "Of what use is your discovery [of the connection between electricity and magnetism]?"

Michael Faraday: "Of what use is a newborn baby?"

I arrived at Mount St. Mary's College in the fall of 1957 with my wife, a 6-month old daughter, a 10-year old Chevy, a brand new Master's degree, and a completely naVve idea of what teaching was all about. Things did not begin well that semester. I had adequate knowledge to teach Introductory Biology; the students were nearly all freshmen in the pre-medical track, and they were highly motivated, so all I had to do was present facts in an organized manner. But I had not anticipated being assigned to teach General Science. Those students ranged from 18-year old freshmen to veterans studying on the GI Bill, several of whom were older than I was. They had no interest in science; they were in the course only because it was required for graduation. Worse yet, the course was a survey of chemistry, physics, geology and meteorology, and while I knew the rudiments of chemistry, my background was progressively weaker in each of the other three areas.

The most fundamental requirement for successful teaching is knowledge of the subject, and I quickly found myself working 12-hour days reading and studying just to keep a few pages ahead of the class. But beyond basic knowledge, teaching also involves motivation; students will not try to learn if they aren't interested. Rote memorization enforced by threat or intimidation is not really learning; it lasts only until the exams are over. So as my first month in the classroom passed, I was growing increasingly frustrated with the whole idea of teaching as a career.

All of that changed on October 4, 1957, when Sputnik was launched by the USSR. My wife rarely paid attention to national news, but she was excited when I came home that evening; it seemed that every station on the radio was covering the story. "Sputnik" is a Russian word that means "satellite" or "co-traveler," and no one in America had ever heard of it. In fact, most Americans had never considered the possibility of man-made satellites. Every 98 minutes for the next few days, radio programs were interrupted when Sputnik passed overhead; I remember standing in the kitchen in our tiny apartment and listening to the "beepů beepů beep" as it went by. And there was no doubt that it was real; you could see it at night zooming across the sky. What most people actually saw was the booster rocketů the satellite itself was only 23 inches in diameterů but you knew it was up there, and the idea of a Russian rocket over our heads was scary. As John Lennon once said, reality leaves a lot to the imagination; and imaginations ran amok. The Cold War was on everyone's mind; many people, including senate leaders like Lyndon Johnson, predicted the Russians would be dropping bombs on us from satellites within the year. President Eisenhower took a calmer view, but he acted swiftly to stimulate the American space program.

As for me, I was stunnedů not by Sputnik itself, but by the reaction of my students. Overnight, science became the hottest topic on campus, and suddenly physics was relevant. Luckily, the forces that kept Sputnik in orbit had been discovered some 300 years earlier by Isaac Newton, and I knew about Newton's laws, so by learning a few new terms like "apogee" and "perigee" I could sound like I knew what was going on. From then on, motivating students was easy, and teaching became fun.

There were a few TV sets on campus, and we were able to see the birth of the Space Age as it happened. We saw the Vanguard rocket roar confidently as it rose to an altitude of about four feet before it changed its mind and collapsed. We saw Werner von Braun exuding Teutonic confidence as he took over the Explorer program and successfully launched the first American satellite, Explorer I, in January, 1958. And we shared a feeling of national pride when James Van Allen, who designed the instruments on Explorer, made the first scientific discovery from space, a belt of magnetized particles surrounding the earth like a donut.

New discoveries came at an increasing rate, but we could keep up with them, at least for a while, and everyone was conversant with them. It was a time unique in history; in the past there had been breakthroughs in every field of knowledge, but never before had the public been so instantaneously aware of them. This was the reason President Kennedy instantly had public support when he proposed to send a man to the moon; everyone knew what was going on and believed it was possible. They had been there at the beginning.

There were a lot of inaccuracies in the public's understanding. An international group of scientists had met in 1952 and designated 1957-8 as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), for the purpose of studying sunspot activity, which would be at a peak then. The U. S. Naval Research Lab began building the Vanguard rocket in 1955; it was scheduled to launch a satellite late in 1958 to measure the sun's heat output accurately. The Army had its own rocket program, designed for military purposes and led by the telegenic von Braun. I had attended a seminar on the IGY in my first year of graduate school, so I was aware of these programs; but they were mainly covered on the back pages of newspapers, so they were ignored by the general public. So the U. S. would have had the space program without Sputnik; it just would have seemed less glamorous, and it would have developed more slowly had it not become a race between superpowers.

So the Space Race was on. To most people, it seemed as if the mighty industrial machine that won World War II came to life again and produced our space program in a matter of months. The Russians had got a head start, but we had rolled up our sleeves and caught up with them, and now we were going to beat them. Money for science education gushed out of Congress like rivers. Ironically, much of the progress seen by the public was the result of engineering, not science. Scientists search for new knowledge about what things consist of and how they work; engineers take that knowledge and use it to solve practical problems. Most voters didn't know the difference, and in the end it didn't matter. In practice, the line between science and engineering is often blurred, and many people work in both disciplines at the same time; so science did benefit from the public euphoria. And the two fields fed off each other. Engineering technology led to new instruments like radiotelemetry devices, telescopes and computers, and when these were mounted on satellites they allowed scientists to investigate everything from ocean currents, weather patterns and deforestation to the origin of the universe.

This month is the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, and thinking back on it reminds me of Mark Twain's remark that sometimes he remembered things that didn't even happen. Those years have sped by, but by the vagaries of the aging process, I remember them more clearly than what I did last week. Not every generation has the privilege of seeing the birth of an era; and no one who lived through that time will forget it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith